‘Le Cyclop’ by Jean Tinguely: a Friendly Work

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22.5 meters tall, 350 tons of steel. This is an immense bodiless head in the heart of the forest of Milly, France. The piece sparkles with mirrors, while water escapes on a slide-like tongue protruding from its mouth. Within its ear, a surprising universe awaits the spectator. A labyrinthine path brings visitors to see a number of varied and complementary works; with sound sculptures and a small automatic theater, this place in the brain reveals the inner cogs of a formidable machine. ‘Le Cyclop’ by Jean Tinguely is an exception in contemporary art since it brought together Tinguely’s artist friends from four different artistic movements: Dadaism, neo-realism, kinetic art, and outsider art.

It took more than 20 years for the team to create ‘Le Cyclop’. In 1969, work began in the forest of Milly. Jean Tinguely knew well, if he wanted to complete this project he would need to finance the construction himself – this was the only condition to work in total liberty. In this same vein, Tinguely also decided that no external architects would participate in the construction. Only his artist friends and himself would progressively build this titanic sculpture with tenacity, strength, and determination. Jean Tinguely and his love Niki de Saint Phalle financed it together. Without prior authorization and with their own funds, they worked with recycled materials. In 1987, to ensure its protection and conservation, they decided to donate ‘Le Cyclop’ to the French government. When Jean Tinguely passed away in 1991, Niki de Saint Phalle took charge of it and, in respecting her companion’s ideas, finished the sculpture by financing the last remaining work on it.

May 1994: ‘Le Cyclop’ was inaugurated by French president François Mitterrand. This work incarnated a utopia – a collective adventure, woven through friendship, made by a “crazy team of sculptors”. “By working in the forest, we dreamt of a utopia and limitless action (it’s fanciful I know) and our attitude was that of committing a free and useless act. And we were very happy like that, providing no one stopped us from working (like crazy people – that’s self-evident)” explained Jean Tinguely. ‘Le Cyclop’ is full of tender and scatterbrained nods imagined by Tinguely and his friends. “Friendship,” explains Yann Bouveret, entrusted with taking care of ‘Le Cyclop’ since Tinguely’s death, “was really essential. Everyone worked around Jean forgetting rivalries and money matters. He was like a conductor.” The piece’s most poetic part can be found above the brain. A small theatre installed in the eye invites spectators to sit on bizarrely-shaped chairs riveted down with metallic rods that move up and down. The play: a wild love story between a hammer and a demijohn.

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