Thursday, 15 October 2009

Jean Tinguely at the Liverpool Tate

On the way to the excellent production of the Caretaker at Liverpool’s Everyman theatre on Saturday I called in to see the Jean Tinguely exhibition at the Liverpool Tate.

Co-curated by Michael Landy, the chap who, rather irritatingly, destroyed all his possessions in a disused C&A shop on Oxford St, the first part of the exhibition shows Tinguely’s sometimes rather delicate and spindly machines and others which playfully rearrange the elements of Russian formalist art destroying by slow rotations the original’s essential right angles. These give way, however, to méta-matic machines which produce, via random motion, paintings or drawings, like giant spirographs.

The focus of the exhibition is, however, a particular one off art event in New York in 1960: his Homage to New York. Tinguely constructed a kind of sculpture from pots and pans, a bathtub, percussion instruments, a weather balloon and a piano apparently chaotically, or perhaps merely intuitively, engineered into a larger structure connected by cables and pulleys. The machine included substructures such as a méta-matic and at least two smaller vehicles which were supposed to emerge from it reminding me of the way the head of the corpse grows spider’s legs and scuttles away in a key scene in John Carpenter’s The Thing. One such, the suicide chariot, was supposed to take itself off and ‘drown’ itself in a nearby pond.

Anyway, the idea was that the machine would be put into motion and a number of processes and events would occur in some sort of sequence. But, and this is the connection to Landy, it would end when the machine destroyed itself with gunpowder and petrol after 27 minutes. (In fact most things seem not to have worked and so the final destruction had to be an anti-climactic assisted suicide after a couple of hours.) Still, little of the machine survives except fragments and the event was merely partially successfully captured on two films, both of which are shown.

What struck me was the difference between art event witnessed in New York in 1960 and the exhibition in Tate Liverpool now.

The former was supposed to be a one off, akin to the claim in Windelband:
[E]very interest and judgment, every ascription of human value is based upon the singular and the unique… Every dynamic and authentic human value judgment is dependent upon the uniqueness of its object. [Windelband 1980: 181-2]
Nothing from the machine itself was supposed to escape the city dump (its origin and telos).

The latter has no temporal aspect: it’s a potentially permanent display and, aside from a couple of fragmentary remains, is multiply reproducible. And yet it is billed, not as education about an art experience (from 1960), but an art experience itself. Odd.

Windelband, W. (1980) 'History and natural science' History and Theory & Psychology 19: 169–185