The Characters of Anaïs Nin’s Collages: Jean Tinguely

Anaïs Nin’s last novel, Collages, is populated with several characters taken from real life. We are beginning a series of posts based on these personages, and we begin with the Swiss “kinetic artist” Jean Tinguely. In Collages, some of Nin’s characters attend Tinguely’s exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Anaïs Nin met Jean Tinguely in 1960, just before his “Homage to New York,” perhaps better known as “The Machine that Destroys Itself” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In her Diary, she says:

Billy Kluver, a young Swedish scientist who worked for Bell Laboratories, and his wife drove me to their home in New Jersey. There I met Jean Tinguely and hear about his motion sculptures. They were constructed of objects from the junk yards of Paris where Tinguely loves to live. Their activities are animated by cast-off electric motors. The ultimate effect is one of chaos, humor, perversity… It is a mockery of the machine. The one which is designed to make bottles, breaks them… Some of the machines look so threatening and dangerous that when he dragged them through the streets of Paris to the gallery he was arrested on suspicion of possessing death-dealing instruments. For Americans, who believe in and admire the efficiency of machines, these machines which fell apart, jumped, exploded, shook with Dadaist humor, produced a startling shock and often gave them a feeling of sacrilege. (Diary 6 284-5).

Tinguely’s philosophy was expressed in a manifesto entitled “For Statics,” which was printed onto 150,000 fliers that were released from an airplane over Düsseldorf, Germany before an exhibition:

Everything moves continuously. Immobility does not exist. Don’t be subject to the influence of out-of-date concepts. Forget hours, seconds, and minutes. Accept instability. Live in time. Be static—with movement. For a static of the present moment. Resist the anxious wish to fix the instantaneous, to kill that which is living. Stop insisting on “value” which cannot but break down. Be free, live. Stop painting time. Stop evoking movement and gesture. You are movement and gesture. Stop building cathedrals and pyramids which are doomed to fall into ruin. Live in the present; live once more in Time and by Time—for a wonderful and absolute reality.

(After reading this manifesto, one has to wonder what Tinguely would have thought about the “machine that destroyed itself” in the Gulf of Mexico, and how America is about to drown in the very oil that sustains it.)

Nin continues in her diary:

Billy Kluver was taking Tinguely to the New Jersey dumps. They brought back balloons, bassinets, baby carriages, bicycle wheels, an old piano. Billy was working day and night at the wiring. They were preparing “The Machine that Destroys Itself” for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (Diary 6 284).

Jean Tinguely and The Machine that Destroys Itself
Jean Tinguely and The Machine that Destroys Itself

Nin closes Collages with a detailed account of the event, an excerpt of which follows:

The whole structure rattled erratically, in counter-rhythms, steaming senselessly, all motions in reverse, each interfering with another, negating it, inverted activity, bending and twisting and tearing at itself, introverted activity ending sometimes in a deadlock so that the fire was allowed to spread more quickly. The ladder trembled, lost a few rungs, fell. The balloon at the very tip of the structure, a huge orange balloon, gasped and burst. The chemicals smoked green, orange and blue. The paper with the names of artists unrolled again, a few more names were added, and then it swallowed them all again, finally catching fire. It seemed at times like an infernal factory in which every operation had gone mad, in which the levers and buttons did the opposite of what they were designed to do, all the mechanisms reversed. The fire devoured one more note of the piano, and only three notes were left playing. Then two. Then one which would not die.

The Fire Chief interfered with the exhibition, out of fear of a catastrophe, and began to extinguish the fire. Tinguely then had to “help” his machine collapse by kicking and tugging at it. The crowd was angered by the interference and heckled the fireman.

Click here to see a video of an interview with Tinguely before the event, and a part of the event itself. It is fascinating to read Nin’s account and then to see what actually occurred—it gives us a glimpse into her writing process. One could watch the destruction and walk away bemused, or one could turn it into poetry.

Click here to read Tinguely’s thoughts on the 1960 exhibition.

Jean Tinguely died in 1991 in Bern, Switzerland.

Collages has been published as an e-book on Kindle. It will join several other Nin titles on Kindle: The Winter of Artifice, Under a Glass Bell, Ladders to Fire, Children of the Albatross, A Spy in the House of Love, and Seduction of the Minotaur, and The Four-Chambered Heart, with others to follow. 

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