Visual Arts » Public

Columbus Loves Its Chaos

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At Sky Blue Window, we believe opinions matter –- some more than others, especially those of experts in a particular field or discipline. Otherwise, they can be just sort of uninformed rants, and while there’s a place for those, too, it isn’t here.

But occasionally we’ll feature personal essays or maybe just first-person features that are narrated by someone with in-depth knowledge of a particular topic. In this piece, for example, Richard McCoy provides his rich insight into a fascinating public work of art and its artist. McCoy was a conservator of objects and variable art for the Indianapolis Museum of Art for a decade. He's currently a consultant for the city of Columbus, Indiana, working on a preservation plan for its treasure trove of historical art and architecture.

In this piece, he introduces us to a well-loved (and enormous) work of public art that lives in Columbus and has remained there for 40 years. We hope you’ll consider his Matter of Opinion on the topic.

Chaos 1 artist, Jean Tinguely, standing in front of the Duomo di Milano, 1970. - LOTHAR WOLLEH
  • Lothar Wolleh
  • Chaos 1 artist, Jean Tinguely, standing in front of the Duomo di Milano, 1970.

The Swiss artist, Jean Tinguely, is much better known in Europe than he is in the United States. In Basel, Switzerland, exists a museum dedicated to his complex, whimsical, and thoughtful machines. I could tell you that his works are collected by prestigious museums around the world, but that doesn't necessarily matter here in Indiana, does it?

The question is, then, why does this artist matter here? The answer is that back in the early 1970s Tinguely was commissioned to make one of the most remarkable and compelling public artworks in this state, and a masterwork that, in my opinion, is easily his best artwork in the United States. This commission, that he later titled, Chaos 1, was created as the centerpiece of a redevelopment project in downtown Columbus, Indiana.

Chaos 1 housed inside the Cesar Pelli-designed Commons in 1974. - COURTESY THE REPUBLIC NEWSPAPER
  • Courtesy the Republic Newspaper
  • Chaos 1 housed inside the Cesar Pelli-designed Commons in 1974.

I say that this is one of the best public sculptures in the state with a certain amount of confidence, but not hubris. I mean, think about it for a minute. What's on your list of best public sculptures in the state of Indiana? 

As adjunct faculty in IUPUI's Museum Studies Program, I lead projects in which students and interns document public art all around the city of Indianapolis and the state and as former conservator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, I looked after its collection for many years. So, what's on my "top 10 list?" Well, that's for another article. But after working in both Indianapolis and now Columbus, I don't think there's any question that this would be on it. 

Chaos 1 was designed to sit in the center of a kind of indoor Italian piazza that was being created by then not-so-famous architect, César Pelli (he later went on to become renowned for making some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world). This project was called The Commons Mall, and it was meant to reverse the suburbanizing trends that many small Midwestern towns were experiencing at this time by bringing people back to the middle of town to shop, eat and play. His mall, placed in the heart of this town, featured Chaos 1 as a central element where visitors would meet and connect; it also featured a large indoor playground and later a small stage for community events.

To make a long story short, the Pelli building was torn down in 2009, but the magic of Tinguely's machine persisted. While a new building was being erected on the same location, Chaos 1 remained protected in a specially constructed box. Back in 2011, when the new Commons was ready to open, I wrote about this on Art21 Blog.

Chaos 1 preserved inside a temporary building while the new Commons building was constructed. - CHRIS CRAWL
  • Chris Crawl
  • Chaos 1 preserved inside a temporary building while the new Commons building was constructed.

One of the things that I find so remarkable about the piece is that it was designed in and for the town of Columbus. It was created in a way that was local and regional -- the way that we hope all public art can be local and regional and showcase who we are. Except it was made by an artist of global significance. This is the way that so many of the great Modern buildings were made in Columbus: designed in and for the context of this remarkable small town.

In Columbus there is no building or artwork by some famous designer who plopped his genius design in that town without first understanding what the town was and what the citizens wanted. In artistic terms we might call this "site responsive" work -- I'm borrowing here from Robert Irwin's definitions.

With so many projects underway in downtown Indianapolis today, it's worth considering this way of doing things. It's worth spending some time to look at Columbus as an example for Indiana. It's worth the drive just to see Chaos 1 spinning and clanging away in the new commons. 

Last fall, while consulting for the City of Columbus to develop a program to preserve the architecture, public art and landscapes, I had a chance to talk about the artwork to one the world's experts on it, Roland Wetzel, the director of Museum Tinguely. Wetzel made a special visit to Columbus during a trip in which he was visiting museums in Chicago. Below is the video we made in an effort to better understand this artwork, the artist, and ways in which to continue caring for this amazing installation.

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