In these end times, it is worth remembering we have been here before. We have had more than 70 years to get used to the idea of nuclear weapons. In 1962 the psychic shock was fairly raw.
As in rock music, fast food and situation comedies, the USA led the rest of the world, the deserts in its Southern states serving as a blank canvas for numerous spectacular tests.
In the interests of public entertainment, if not safety, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce saw fit to publish a calendar of detonations and a list of the best viewing sites.
And in that sense they beat this artist to the punch. Tinguely’s first staging of the end of the world was brought about in the early sixties; his earlier Study, No.1, took place in 1960.
How do you follow a mushroom cloud with a piece of fine art? Tinguely’s answer was to step up his interest in kinetic and self-destructive mechanical junk sculpture.
Together with his partner (French artist Niki de Saint Phalle must get some credit) he scoured a remote junk yard for components. It seems anything was fair game: toys, a toilet bowl, a trolley.
In metal hardhat and goggles, Tinguely was arguably as keen to control his own image as that of his soon-to-be explosive artwork. Now both artist and creation were ready for broadcast on NBC.
Were it not for the televisual audience there would have been few witnesses. There were shelters for camera crew and press; the sculpture was too dangerous for the public.
It was also dangerous for TV execs. The sight of a configuration of functionless objects, which spring into pointless life for an 18 minute performance must have had serious commercial fallout.
And then the fuses were lit. The sketchy YouTube footage is linked above. Better footage can be seen in Tinguely’s largest ever retrospective right now. And yet we fail to get a sense of it.
The camera lingers on a burning armchair. But safe in their all-American homes, we may never know how many viewers felt the heat of this detail, as noted in the catalogue.
It was just a study, mind you. As the end of the world continues to unfold in a way that looks quite different to that of 1962, we are reminded of Tinguely’s words.
“You can’t expect the world to end the way you want it to,” said the anarchic sculptor. We can only speculate about the piece of avant garde software code that could form Study No.3.
Jean Tinguely, Machine Spectacle, can be seen at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam until March 5 2017. My visit was at the invite of the museum and the airline KLM, whose informative new art history page can be found here.