In the 1960s Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely became obsessed with self-destructing works of art. In one called Study for an End of the World he blew up one of his ramshackle installations in protest at consumer culture. His Homage to New York, a giant eight-metre-tall contraption of moving wheels and motors set up in New York's Museum of Modern Art, famously (and supposedly inadvertently) ran out of control and erupted in flames. Firefighters had to attack it with axes and extinguish the blaze.
Fortunately, Tinguely, who died in 1991, moved on from self-destructing artworks, and as a result many of his later creations happily survive. The biggest collection is housed in Museum Tinguely in Basel, a starkly geometrical building on the Rhine River designed by Mario Botta. The Swiss architect is known for unusual, voluminous spaces, just what is needed for Tinguely's giant mechanised sculptures, assembled from scrap metal, that turn, wobble, clang and tinkle.
Basel has several excellent art museums such as Foundation Beyeler for contemporary art and the Kunstmuseum for Swiss and German art, including an especially wonderful collection of Holbeins. Museum Tinguely is by far the most entertaining, however. If you think art is boring, or have kids, or just want to find out more about one of the 20th century's most eccentric artists – and Switzerland's most celebrated, after Alberto Giacometti – then don't miss a visit.
You'll find 70 of the experimental artist's works. There are sculptures from all the phases of Tinguely's career on show – plus drawings, posters and documents – which will give you a good overview of his artistic life and the variety of his installations. Their common link is that all are made from mostly recycled materials such as metal and plastic, and even household implements, feathers and bones. All are whimsical and comical, but they comment on the instability and constant change of life, and on industrial society's overproduction and consumer obsessions.
Although Tinguely gave up literally exploding his works, he often creates disassembled objects that look as if they've been frozen halfway through an explosion. These are among the most arresting of his artworks. Pit-Stop is a spectacular example assembled from the parts of a Formula One racing car, whose disembodied door panels and wheels are engaged in a ballet of whirling, outward-flung pieces.
All of Tinguely's works are kinetic and amusing, sometimes robot-like, often more like something a mad scientist would devise rather than a serious artist. They shake and rattle. Wheels turn and springs are unsprung. Levers swivel, balls roll. Some produce sounds. The museum's gigantic centrepiece Meta-Harmonies is a Mad Max contraption of wheels and levers embedded with musical instruments and an upright piano. It produces a sort of haunting music whose clangs and clamours can be heard throughout the museum.
Even better, this art is largely interactive. You can bang big red buttons and set the sculptures in motion, something that children will particularly enjoy. The works can be set in motion only once every 10 minutes to prevent kids going button-mad, but they're allowed to clamber over some of the biggest installations. And they'll love the drawing machine, into which you can slot felt-tip pens and which, when set in motion, produce drawings.
Some of Tinguely's works are delicate and small-sized, with gently twirling wheels or sails of metal. Some are huge steampunk creations made from heavy tractor parts that smoke and groan. But there's always something surprising happening that makes you linger and watch. Beware the innocuous-looking vintage refrigerator, which will make you leap in shock when you open the door.
Brian Johnston was a guest of Basel Tourism and Viking River Cruises.
Cathay Pacific flies from Sydney and Melbourne via Hong Kong to Zurich, an hour by train from Basel. See cathaypacific.com.au
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Museum Tinguely is open daily except Mondays and costs CHF 18 ($26) for adults; free for accompanied children under 16. There is also a moving Tinguely fountain in Theaterplatz in the centre of Basel. See tinguely.ch