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No Preservatives | “Chaos 1” Returns to Life

Jean Tinguely, "Chaos 1" in 2007. Image from Flickr user S.E. Bennett.

New Year’s Eve 2007 was the last time Jean Tinguely’s monumental sculpture, Chaos 1, was visible to the public. While this artwork remains loved by many residents of Columbus, Indiana, it’s probably mostly unknown to the rest of the world.

The idea for the creation of this sculpture came in 1971 from Cesar Pelli, who was then working for Gruen Associates, to develop a building for the city of Columbus.  His commission was to create both a mall and civic space, something like a Italian piazza — but in this case a glass-enclosed piazza.  At the center of this civic space (later named The Commons), Xenia and J. Irwin Miller and his sister Clementine Tangeman sponsored the creation of an artwork at Pelli’s request. Pelli describes what he had in mind for this artwork in a 1971 letter to Mrs. Miller:

What the Civic Mass needs is a very large “toy.” A fun, friendly, expectable, super clock machine. If possible, it should also be a work of art.

Mr. Jean Tinguely is the only artist I could think of capable of building such a toy and with good chances of it also being a work of art.  A super toy is a very difficult problem where a good number of artists have tried and failed.  Tinguely’s Eureka in Zurich is a successful machine and also a very good sculpture.

Cesar Pelli holding a model of Tinguely's "Eureka." Clipping from The Republic newspaper, November 9, 1971.

The sculpture was created by Tinguely with help from various assistants in the city of Columbus from 1972 to 1974.  He used found and fabricated components from around town, including Kroot’s scrapyard.  While there is a great deal of information about the sculpture in the city of Columbus, there remains no significant publication that describes it in detail, the context in which it was created, and its nearly 40-year history.

The sculpture is mentioned in a few publications and was photographed by Balthazar Korab in the 1970s.   Also in 1974, a documentary by the now-unknown filmmaker John Denney, was made with funds from the Indiana Arts Council.  A copy of this film has surfaced but the filmmaker has not (you out there, John Denney?)

The result of Tinguely’s two-year effort in Columbus is a 30-foot tall sculpture that reportedly weighs 7 tons.  When first built, it had what has been defined as 13 different functions that moved around 50 individual components, including a function that once pivoted the entire sculpture 80 degrees.

From the moment the sculpture was first turned on, it’s been clear that some were concerned for public safety around this highly accessible artwork, but to date, I’ve seen no published reports of anyone actually getting hurt by it.  It’s important to note that this sense of unease is what Tinguely was interested in: he wanted to not only make a dynamic artwork, but also one that had what he called a “Jekyll and Hyde personality.”

When the city decided to reconfigure and rebuild The Commons in 2007, it was decided that two things would remain: the roof of the Pelli’s original building and Chaos 1.  While some may lament the loss of the Pelli building, the extent that the City went to preserve Chaos 1 is truly remarkable.

When the old building was being torn down and the new building built, Chaos 1 remained inside a specially-built, insulated, and climate-controlled green box.

"Chaos 1" inside the green box. Image: Chris Crawl.

Once the new building was substantially finished, the box was removed and the sculpture underwent a thorough inspection, cleaning, and repair by a structural engineer, electrician, contractors, art conservator (yours truly), and a variety of other technicians.  The result of this work is that Chaos 1 now looks like a well-cared for, nearly 40 year old sculpture.  12 of the originally 13 functions work and Chaos 1 is poised retake its position as one of Columbus’s best-loved artworks.

On June 4, Chaos 1 will come back to life in a special ceremony in which one lucky child will get to “Flip the Switch” to restart Chaos 1. Go here for more info on the event.

There is no artwork by Jean Tinguely in the U.S. that even comes to size and character of Chaos 1. To this end, I’m not going to post a photo of how the sculpture currently looks in its new surroundings because I think you should make the pilgrimage to Columbus to see Tinguely’s masterpiece in person.

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