A mechanical, groaning grating noise greeted me above the din of chatter at the opening of the solo exhibition of Swiss artist, Jean Tinguely (1925-1991), at Nahmad Projects on London’s Cork Street. It was dark outside when I arrived, and yet my eyes took a moment to adjust to the normally bright space of the gallery, evoking that odd sensation that is probably felt most frequently when one leaves the cinema and is inevitably surprised by an unexpected outdoor climate. The gallery lighting seemed almost hazy, and the scraping, whirling and clanking noises that punctuated those of the crowd offered the sensation of a workshop or a factory. Rather than jumping right in, I observed for a moment.

Jean Tinguely at Nahmed Projects, installation view. Courtesy Namhed Projects.

Amongst the sizeable crowd, the gallery is peppered with curious conglomerate structures – are they sculptures? – that wink with bright colours in the dimmed light. It took me a moment to realise that the sporadically tinted walls – pink, orange, green and blue – is light emitted from the structures themselves. A security guard watched over an ominous spiked hook pointing up at almost eye level from a giant, mechanical mobile that seemed to float robotically in the space despite the heavily rusted chain that secures it to the ceiling. Formed of fragmented and rusted metal cogs and hooks, cast iron, wrenches, screws, parts of discarded lamps and eroding ornaments, at the foot of each standing sculpture is a round, red button that commands a nuclear presence. I watched people throughout the room glance around to seek approval as they deliberated whether or not this was an interactive aspect. Stepping on the button – which felt illicit and put one somewhat on guard – brings the sculptures to life. In one work, feathers revolve as though in a gentle tornado, in several sculptures coloured lights flicker and flash, and the source of the grating noise that was both perplexing and atmospheric became apparent in a metallic pendulum that scrapes and grates against it’s structure. Atop one almost comically subtle structure, a golf ball rotates slowly on its axis – at first invisible, causing a feeling of disappointment and then, once spotted, wonderfully revealing in its simplicity.

With creation dates ranging from 1960-1981, the humorous aspect of the sculptures, in combination with the ready-made aspect – hotch-potched together from familiar objects and rusty scraps – draw comparisons with Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades, and it is clear to see the anti-aesthetic influence of the ‘noisy alarm’ of Dada in the work of Swiss-born Tinguely. Officially known as metamechanics, Tinguely’s sculptures appear light-hearted and fun, yet the dangerously spiked tail of the mobile and the metallic grinding – even self-eroding – structure serve as an ironic and satirical metaphor for commercial machines, overproduction and consumerism. Refusing to be institutionalized in his oeuvre, Tinguely’s works reflect his involvement with Nouveau Réalisme, the ZERO group and kinetic art. Having collaborated with iconic artists Yves Klein and Robert Rauschenberg, Tinguely has a museum dedicated to his oeuvre in Basel, Switzerland and his works form part of the permanent collection of world-class galleries and museums internationally.

By Holland Drury

Jean Tinguely at Nahmad Projects, Cork Street. 3 March – 28 April 2017.