August 8, 2001
- Le Cyclop
I went this last week to visit Tinguely's
gigantic Le Cyclop in Milly-La-Forêt. It is both a work
of art in itself and an anti-Cartesian space that holds with
certain dryad carelessness the works of his friends and fellow
collaborators. I was invited to come visit by a new friend, Michel
who retired from the Centre Pompidou. He continues to care for
the security system for Le Cyclops for both love of it and his
personal attachment to Jean Tinguely and Niki de St. Phalle.
It was a closed day for Le Cyclop so it will be a particularly
personal encounter with a very public work. Along the way Michel
told us stories of Tinguely and working on Le Cyclop. Because
he had no money and no outside funding and no building permit
he brought scraps from Switzerland to build with. He was almost
always stopped at the border because of the strange piles in
his old truck. One time the guards forced him to unload several
tons of scrap so that they could look for drugs. Finding nothing
illegal the border petrol told him to load up and move on. Tinguely
just smiled and drove off leaving the poor surprised bullies
with a load of rusty steel on the tarmac.
The first thing you notice as you drive
into the town of Milly-La-Forêt is the poor weathered quality
of the signs leading to the site. Michel told us that since the
area around le Cyclop was closed to hunters so that a security
system had to be put up to protected it from rifle-toting vandalism.
In this section of France, La Chasse is a religious institution
and posters protesting the new EU hunting rules were plastered
everywhere. Even the tourist dollars Le Cyclop brings the area
mattered little to hostile locals. Signs are left to fade in
the sun. So the whole site is surrounded by efficient but ugly
green bob-wired fence. The fence is particularly incongruent
because you must drive quite a distance into the forest to get
The trees of the Milly forest, tall dark
green and tightly packed, surround the head except for a small
strangely bright clearing immediately around the form. The head's
mirrored tongue lolls and sparkles with reflected light and you
hear the sound of the water splashing into the mirrored pool.
As you step into the small clearing around the piece the immensity
of hits like a surprise left punch. The clogs and wheels of its
brain explode out of the side of the head and tower above you,
making sharp dark silhouette against the blue sky. As you walk
around its bulk about each quarter turn the head shape-shifts.
A huge round iron door enticingly ajar leads up iron stairs.
Then a quarter turn and a César compression leans aimlessly
against an exploding tower. The tower's shattered pieces frozen
in an endless moment of detonation. Strange marriages of tricycles
and latrines collect leaves at the base. A quarter turn more
and you are under a 30's era rail line suspended high above.
It holds a single boxcar that looks ready to plunge into mid-air.
A last quarter turn and you see a huge iron ear. Yan, the site
coordinator, kindly switches on the power and ear wobbles in
and out narrowly missing the trees literally growing out from
inside the head.
The sound of water is instantly lost to the rusty music of aging
motors, hammer blows and the clatter of whirling balls that wiz
in and out of the head on curvaceous tracks. The balls are a
leitmotif in many of Tinguely's kinetic works but here they are
three times the size of bowling balls. There is nothing to do
now but race up the round door to find what's going on inside.
Up one story and you are on level with the tongue. Un another
staircase and arrive on a chaotic balcony. Here and there are
artworks fight for attention with spinning clogs and grinding
gears. The sound is loud and silly yet focused around a red hammer
beating uselessly against an iron plate. The hammer's slow rhythm
forms a focal point to the white noise coming from all directions.
Yan motions us up another staircase. Balls tumble in their tracks
above our head and plunge below. The staircase leads up to a
dark theatre in which the seats move up and down while a soundless
pantomime of a hammer blow endless repeats on the darkened stage.
Another fight of stairs to look in at the small 60's crash pad
tucked under the skull. Then a final climb to the top five flights
up. The machines still clunk and clatter noisily below but here
the breeze and the treetops mute the sound. The vast shallow
reflecting pool cover crowns most the top is homage to Yves Klein.
The water is a final unbroken mirror to cap a head of mirrors.
Down a half flight of another set of stairs
and you are on level with Le Wagon S.N.C .F. by Eva Aeppli. The
tragic faces of its doomed passengers stair out of the window.
The boxcar has a Star of David on one side. How could such a
train go anywhere but the abyss? This is the first of independent
artworks that stands out from the crowd. Le Cyclop functions
as a mini-museum but unfortunately the uneven quality of the
works it contains doesn't quite compute with the fame of its
artists. Particularly sad is the poor connection between individual
sculptures to such an interesting site. Most of the artwork seems
to be series of missed opportunities by minds that just can't
wrap around the concept of "site-specific." The shining
exception to the rule is Jesus Rafael Soto's Pénétrable.
It fits so seamlessly into the space that a first glance it is
invisible as a separate unit from Tinguely's kinetic surroundings.
Slowly it emerges from the rusty mist. The regular, clean geometry
is independent but harmonious with the environment. Stepping
through one of Soto's Pénétrables is like stepping
inside a bell. Soto's oeuvre has much the same effect in a traditional
museum but here the experience is amplified.
While Niki de St Phalle has smaller scale work scattered throughout
most of structure, it really isn't possible to speak her design
as separate from Le Cyclop. Although the conception is all Tinguely,
her contribution is so clearly intrinsical to the composition
it is ridiculous to consider her separately from the rest of
Le Cyclop. If whole, succeed as a whole it because of the seduction
of St. Phalle's mirrored surfaces. The sheath of mosaic mirrors
integrates the head's bulk into the surround trees and sky. The
endless shattered echoes of both nature and the piece itself
give a curious fractal unity to what would otherwise be merely
cluttered shapes. The mirror leads the viewer up close to touch
even as the reflection simultaneously returns your attention
to the whole. The awkward drooping eye owes its intensity and
charm to a skin of mirrors.
In the end what do I say of it? Good,
bad or indifferent? Heroic success or Heroic failure? For heroic
is the word to describe it in both scale and intensity. Even
the Cyclops as subject comes straight from Homer's heroic age.
Alas to have only one eye, then could it be judged. If I could
but pluck out one or the other of my eyes, I could easily decide.
With one eye I would deem it to be a magnificent triumph. With
the other eye I would reckon it a sad failure after tremendous
effort. Why judge? Is it that the work itself begs for judgment?
Perhaps. This is a monster that loves and cries out to be loved.
And around that love urge all its majesty and weakness crystallizes.
The unconditional love for materials, of experimentation, of
his fellow collaborators that can stares out from the single
flickering amber eye begging for you, the viewer, to love back.
It is a one-eyed love, a myopic vision, (only a creature with
two eyes has the depth perception of stereographic sight.). It
is a love that can not cut and edit so that all part serve the
whole for indeed a Cyclops doesn't see 3-dimensional space. It
is a loving monster who wants everyone to laugh and slide laughing
down its watery tongue. But two-eyed monsters beset it. You,
myself, the unhappy hunter who try to deface it, the serious
practical friends who set up security systems and gagging chains
across its misshaped mouth. Flawed yes. Yet what makes a hero
if not the fatal flaw?