Tales from

the Loir

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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 there.

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?

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 August 1, 2001 - The Finger
July 25, 2001 - La Resistance
July 18, 2001 - System D
July 11, 2001 - The Accident
July 4, 2001 - Ange Pitou
June 27, 2001 - Feu de Saint Jean
June 20, 2001 - Geoffroy Martel
June 13, 2001 - Saint of the Day
June 6, 2001 - Escapade dans le Berry
May 30, 2001 - Learning French
May 23, 2001 - Pete and Manny
May 16, 2001 - Les Journees des Aubepines
May 8, 2001 - Armistice Day
May 2, 2001 - May Day
April 25, 2001 - Les Manouches
April 18, 2001 - Trôo
April 11, 2001 - Le P'tit Jules
April 4, 2001 - Men and Their Caves 
Archive of Weekly Columns Jan-Apr 2001
Archive of Weekly Columns from 2000


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