Sunday, May 20, 2012

Tinguely's Heureka Returns to Zurich

Irony, fantasy and fun are words that easily come to mind when viewing the works of  Niki de Saint Phalle, like her Guardian Angel in Zurich's main railway station; but these words also describe the giant, kinetic sculptures of her husband, Jean Tinguely.

A couple of weeks ago I walked along the promenade on Lake Zurich's sunny right bank, admired Henry Moore's Sheep-Piece, but was disappointed to discover that Tinguely's "Heureka" was missing.  It had been standing here at the Zurichhorn since the 1960s, and it's not the sort of sculpture that could easily be stolen.  Some time spent distractedly searching on Google revealed that Heureka had been removed, for the first time since its installation in 1967, and loaned to the city of Amsterdam for its ArtZuid exhibition.  But that exhibition had ended nearly a year ago. What a mystery.  Then, purely by chance, I picked up a newspaper in a train a few days ago and discovered a short article describing how Tinguely's massive sculpture was in the process of being reassembled at its home in Zurich.
And so I set off, once again, along the promenade, passed the ice-cream stands and skateboarders, passed the Le Corbusier house and the Museum Bellerive.  As I walked through the maze of flowers and shrubs, there is was, silhouetted against the sky, gleaming in its freshly painted black splendor.

Heureka was commissioned as an exhibit at the Swiss State Exhibtion in Lausanne in 1964. It was bought by an industrialist and donated to the city of Zurich. Tinguely's kinetic works are often described as parodies of the consumerist, industrial society. The parts all move, but they  achieve nothing.  Like Facebook, the blogosphere and the frenzied  traffic of Twitter, the pieces work together, aimlessly making a lot of noise; there's a lot of huffing and puffing and loud banging. But the mountains beyond take no notice. They simply stand in their white splendor.

Sometimes described as a surrealist, Tinguely was certainly influenced by the Zurich born Dada art movement. At 5:00 pm every afternoon his machine comes alive and bursts into useless, Dadaist activity.

Tinguely constructed Heureka in 1962-1963. The pace of our lives has accelerated quite a bit since then. A lot of movement, a lot of noise, a continual series of Eureka moments that, for the most part, distract us from what we should be doing. As Pascal wrote: "All of man's misfortunes comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room." While poking fun at us in an ironic way, this is what Tinguely's art teaches us.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Henry Moore's Sheep Piece by Lake Zurich

Just a short walk beyond the Museum for the Cultural History of Coffee (I couldn't do without a museum of coffee culture, could you?),  a few steps from the yachts berthed on Lake Zurich, two bronze shapes graze upon a green hillock: Henry Moore's beautiful "Sheep -Piece".

Moore himself recorded:

I have always liked sheep, and there is one big sculpture of mine that I called Sheep Piece  because I placed it in a field and the sheep enjoyed it and the lambs played around it. Sheep are just the right size for the kind of landscape setting that I like for my sculptures, a horse or a cow would reduce the sense of monumentality. Perhaps the sheep also belong to the landscape of my boyhood in Yorkshire.
Henry Moore quoted in Henry Moore’s Sheep Sketchbook, Henry Moore and Kenneth Clark, Thames and Hudson, London 1980.

There are no sheep sheltering under the Zurich piece, though children, instead of lambs, cannot resist its charm.

The sculpture, from 1971/'72, was put on display here in 1976 for a Moore exhibtion at the lakeside that attracted 74,000 visitors.  A private person bought it and gave it to the city.  And here it still stands, large and brooding, soaking up the sunrays, or heaped with snow, or rain running off its sleek surface.  Day and night, everyday, it suffers whatever the elements throw at it, whatever indignity humans inflict upon it, its gentle, curved forms a reminder of the silent animals that we admire but choose to eat.

Monday, May 7, 2012

NOVA in Zurich Main Railway Station

Is it art or is it science?

Hanging from the ceiling of Zurich Main Railway Station, just in front of Mario Merz's The Philosopher's Egg and caught by the gaze of Niki de Saint Phalle's Guardian Angel, we find the NOVA. Designed in 2006 by scientists at Zurich's Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the founding of this world class university (ranked in the Times Higher Education Supplement as the best in continental Europe), NOVA provides a sort of dialogue across the frontiers that lie between art, science, mathematics and society. At least, that's the theory.

NOVA consists of 25,000 luminescent spheres, each equipped with 12 light emitting diodes, capable of generating 16,000,000 colours. I don't know how many combinations can be generated, but I'm pretty sure its an awfully big number - probably bigger than can fit on any regular calculator. NOVA can refresh itself at a rate of 25  pictures per second.  I have no idea what that really means, but it certainly wowed me when I first heard it.

And here is the neat thing: you, the spectator, can participate in this work (hence the society part).  At the group meeting point in the station stands a large, very tall glass box with a touch screen embedded into the glass.  You can draw your finger across the screen, then stand back and watch the effet on NOVA.  These days you can even  hold your mobile phone (if you have one - I don't) to the screen and scan your text message onto the NOVA.  Funnily enough, I've tried this, using a friend's phone, when looking for a student who was late at the group meeting point.  The student's name appeared on  NOVA, but the student himself never turned up. Maybe it's a good way of making students disappear!

NOVA reacts to sound, especially music. When it turned five, in 2011, a 50 piece brass band played in the station and generated eletrical fireworks. Alas, NOVA is destined only to reach the age of 6. It is supposed to be dismantled sometime in 2012.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Zurich City

Since 2006 Zurich is consistently rated among the top two cities of the world for its quality of life. The survey is carried our by Mercer consultants of London. The rankings are based on 39 criteria divided over 10 categories, including things like: availability of musical and theatrical perfromances, quality of water and air, access to nature and recreational facilities, level of crime and freedom of expression. Many governments and corporations use Mercer's Quality of Living Survey in order to determine the level of renumration to be paid to those destined for hardship posts. Being sent to Zurich certainly does not qualify as a hardship posting.

In 2011 Zurich was again rated number 2, with two other Swiss cities in the top ten.  Switzerland may not be at the top  when it comes to things like football, but when it comes to making their city's livable, no other country performs so well. This film clip might be a piece of propaganda, but it does give an impression of what makes this city so livable.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Mario Merz's The Philosopher's Egg

At 55,000 square meters, Zurich Railway Station is one of the largest covered spaces in central Europe. Not just a busy terminus, it is a place that is rich in works of modern art.  In a previous post I briefly discussed Niki de Saint Phalles' Guardian Angel.

Mario Merz: The Philospher's Egg

High above the commuters, we have Mario Merz's The Philosopher's Egg. The work is inspired by the Fibonacci progression, that famous mathematical sequence, discovered in the 13th century by Leonardo of Pisa (Leonardo Fibonacci). Fibonacci's infinite progression (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, etc) which is built by adding a number to the following number (1+1=2; 1+2=3; 2+3=5; 3+5=8: etc) apparently reveals the hidden mathematical design that underlies most natural growth, especially spirals. It defines the growth of snail shells, plants and leafs, pine cones, pineapples and the skins of reptiles; it describes the number of petals in a flower, the geometry of seed heads, the arrangement of leaves along a stem, the lumps on a cauliflower, the way a pineapple fits together.  As the mathematician Ian Stewart writes in his new book  The Mathematics of Life (New York, Basic Books, 2011) "Marigolds typically have 13 petals. Asters have 21. Many daisies have 34 petals; if not, they usually have 55 or 89." (p. 39)

Leonardo of Pisa first discovered the Fibonacci sequence when he was studying animals in 1202 - specifically the reproductive rates of rabbits. (Mind you, although it is generally claimed that he discovered the progression, it was known to Indians scientists at least a thousand years earlier.) Merz has chosen to focus on animals in his work of art, composed of spirals of neon tubes punctuated with birds and a large reindeer.

In an obituary for the artist that appeared in the New York Times, Roberta Smith wrote that Mario Merz's work was "permeated with ideas of growth and fecundity and spreading across floors, walls and ceilings -- had an exuberance that could be alternately carnivalesque or spare, pastoral and populist."

It is said (by some) that Merz's construction enhances natural and spiritual energy. I'm not sure. I would describe this work as being spare and populist, without being popular. I must admit, the first time I saw it was one July and, for the life of me, I thought the good Swiss hadn't bothered to remove their Christmas decorations. Perhaps it was the reindeer.

Mario Merz: The Philospher's Egg

I've been looking at The Philosopher's Egg, on and off, for eleven years. I would like to say it is growing on me. Perhaps it is, but only very, very slowly. The increase of my appreciation certainly does not parallel the Fibonacci progression.