Monday, June 3, 2013

Battlestar Galactica, by G. W. Smith

G. W. Smith is an English Lit major turned systems engineer turned kinetic sculptor, and the holder of two patents in the field of electromechanical display systems. His work has been exhibited twice, and he has two public installations; but since 2005 he has been engaged in computer animation studies of possible works based on his "Cybersign" programmable armature. He is also the author of Aesthetic Wilderness: A Brief Personal History of the Meeting Between Art and the Machine (Birds-of-the-Air Press, 2011). He lives with his wife Dianna in New Orleans.

Battlestar Galactica
by G. W. Smith ©2013

Those of us in revolt against post-Modernism – and, more to the point, in favor of the new "poetic-mythic-scientific" renaissance proclaimed by Joseph Nechvatal – will share at least two goals: first, to identify the artist heroes from our recent past who can be for us what Cézanne was for the early Modernists; and second, to remain vigilant for the wider stirrings of revolution.

And here – on both counts – we must be greatly encouraged by the latest news from Europe. A cadre of dedicated young men and women have taken charge of the Museum Tinguely in Basel, Switzerland – and they have launched to the aid of their compatriots in America no less than the Battlestar Galactica of museum catalogs.

This 552-page volume lands on our desks with a thump, redolent of ink from art house Kehrer Verlag of Heidelberg; on its cover is a photo of what might be mistaken for a nuclear explosion; and from its pages emerges – in startlingly complete fashion – the work and figure of Jean Tinguely.

Jean Tinguely! – the Swiss/French kineticist whose work is to be found throughout modern museumdom, and whose clanking mechanical monuments are treasured in conservative Zurich, Switzerland and even more conservative Columbus, Indiana; the performance artist who dropped leaflets from an airplane over Dusseldorf to advertise his next exhibition, and who set off explosions in MOMA's backyard and the deserts of Nevada; the dashing figure who snatched Niki de Saint Phalle from the cover of Life magazine and helped her realize her dreams of becoming an artist in her own right; the sculptor who worked with an incredible fury – but also with an incredible discipline.

This catalog has been released with historic precision, for it is only with the passage of some time – and against the complicated background of the excesses of post-Modernism – that Tinguely's real stature has become clear; but we must be careful to distinguish between revolution and rebellion.

Rebellious artists we have aplenty – ready to flaunt every social convention, and to set themselves apart from other artists, in exchange for a quick buck. Tinguely, on the other hand, sought always to engage his fellow artists and art theorists; and his body of work represents forty years of dedication to a coherent and ever-evolving program, and one which looked both to the past and the future.

"He is one of us!" the Agglomerationists will proclaim; and yes, much of Tinguely's work was built of cast-off machine parts; and yes, almost all of it has an improvisational quality; but for these makers of balls of stuffed animal toys to compare themselves with the great Tinguely is to repeat the mistake of the countless paint-spatterers who have invoked Jackson Pollock.

Consider, in particular, the electric motor – that same electric motor which even now powers the Internet in hundreds of millions of disc drives, and which is poised, further, to do no less than to save our planet by replacing the internal combustion engine in futher hundreds of millions of automobiles. Tinguely is the one twentieth-century artist – and in marked contrast to Calder, who made an inglorious retreat from it – who consistently and successfully employed this patiently-beating heart of the modern world in his work.

Méta-mécanique (Méta-Herbin) by Jean Tinguely,1954

It is to Tinguely, in short, that we must attribute the first comprehensive success in humanizing the machine – a program that will become only more urgent as the machine sprouts its own arms and legs; and it is thus that he re-established the great thrust of Western art history, whose role has always been to assimilate science and technology on society's behalf.

And it is thus, also, that we justify a museum catalog as the centerpiece of our own call to arms! The very words "avant garde" – the advance guard – imply some forward movement, some direction; and to use these words without a knowledge of what has gone before, and without having subjected oneself to the discipline of a particular medium, is meaningless.

As to the enthusiasm engendered among the public by such an approach, we are reminded again and again by the marvelously complete biographical section of this marvelously complete catalog that exhibitions of Tinguely's work typically drew record crowds to the galleries and museums; and we are further reminded that, in the summer of 1964, there were no less than two Tinguely-like characters on the screens of American movie theaters: one played by a young Paul Newman (in "What a Way to Go!"), and a second played by a young Jack Lemmon (in "Good Neighbor Sam").

The catalog, however, is also forthright in acknowledging the early failure of his native country to recognize his genius: Tinguely, like Brancusi, launched his career in Paris – a circumstance which the Swiss are working furiously to address.

Indeed, the resources which have been dedicated to the Museum Tinguely, and to this catalog, can have only one interpretation: Jean Tinguely – the artist of the machine par excellence – may be emerging as the great artistic figure of the second half of the twentieth century.


"'poetic-mythic-scientific' renaissance": "Our Digital Noology: Catherine Perret in conversation with Joseph Nechvatal," Scan | Journal of Media Arts Culture

"Battlestar Galactica of museum catalogs": Museum Tinguely Basel: The Collection, Heidelberg: Kehrer Verlag, 2013.

"the Agglomerationists": Saltz, Jerry, "Clusterfuck Esthetics", The Village Voice, Nov. 29, 2005

Smith, G. W., Aesthetic Wilderness: A Brief Personal History of the Meeting Between Art and the Machine, 1844-2005, New Orleans: Birds-of-the-Air-Press, 2011, 2012.

Smith, G. W., "From Search Engines to Saxophones: It's the Machine, Stupid!", On-Verge, Jan. 31, 2013

Photo credits

Jean Tinguely
Méta-mécanique (Méta-Herbin) 1954
painted steel and electric motor
174 x 81.7 x 108.7 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1979
©Jean Tinguely

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