A Tinguely* Feeling: reflections on global art in a small town

I grew up in Columbus, Indiana; a mecca of globally designed, architectural phenomena. Although, I think I have only recently began to appreciate the meaning of having such masterpieces available in Columbus. I currently live in Europe, where many of these famous architects began their work. If not from Europe, their art has a large global presence.

The Commons, centered in downtown Columbus, boasts a remarkable structure by Jean Tinguely, Swiss sculptor. There is no doubt, that when I was young, I was unaware that ‘Chaos 1’ was Tinguely’s largest work in the United States. I probably could not even tell you who created the sculpture and I definitely never thought I would see a picture of it in a museum in Basel, Switzerland. I knew Chaos as the ‘big, funny time machine.’ On the hour, large pieces turned and twisted, metal balls rolled down a maze and loud noises dissipated. The Commons has always housed a community playground which I was very familiar with in my early years. While playing, I distinctly remember eyeing the clock to ensure I could go watch Chaos move on the hour. It was mesmerizing to stare at a sculpture that looked like it was pieced together with little thought. Only once it began to move and rotate, was it obvious how much engineering went into the construction. Of course, as a kid, all I could think of was how cool it looked and sounded. ‘Cool’ was also the best adjective I had back then (maybe now too :). To me, Chaos was a central piece to Columbus. I’m sure there was a time when I thought it was normal to have such art in small towns.  Now, I recognize that it is more than cool, it is an embodiment of a town’s drive to stand out. As the work was commissioned by J. Irwin and Xenia Irwin Miller and Clementine Tangeman in late 1971. The Miller’s pursued this architectural vision and mindset that art should be accessible to all.

Chaos 1 as it sits today…and me giving, what I’m sure was, a riveting explanation


As I mentioned, last year I saw a picture of The Commons and Chaos in the Tinguely Museum in Basel. While living in Berlin, I was lucky enough to become friends with, Myriam, an outgoing Swiss woman. When she returned back to Basel I had the opportunity to visit her and explore a new city. She mentioned that we should go to the Tinguely Museum. I remember thinking, ‘gosh… that name sounds familiar.’ It dawned on me once entering the museum that he was the Chaos creator. I told Myriam that we had a Tinguely piece in my hometown. I know she thought I meant a small, insignificant piece. Strolling through the museum, viewers interacted with the works as they moved in a disorganized manner. Each piece was strikingly unique and evoked emotions of fun and creativity. A gallery wall showcased photos from Tinguely’s major works and life history. I shockingly spotted a photo of The Commons with Chaos 1. I turned to Myriam, and said, nearly shouting, “Hey look!! That’s my hometown, that’s the building I had prom in.” I immediately laughed that prom was the first thing that came to mind. I think Myriam was a bit surprised and confused that one of Tinguely’s largest pieces was in this random Indiana town. Nevertheless, I was overcome with a feeling of pride. Like, hey, I come from a town with a really cool sculpture. Then there was a feeling of guilt and shame about how I didn’t know more about the architectural pieces in my hometown. I needed to know more than that they looked cool.

A piece from the Tinguely museum, Basel

Fast forward to a few months ago and Myriam had the opportunity to visit Columbus. As an adult, it’s not often that friends from abroad are able to see your hometown. I think visiting a place where someone grew up allows us to connect on a new level. Myriam was experiencing Indiana in a very personal way. Everything I showed her was important to me in some way during my childhood and young adult life. She now understood references that I made about places and sights. A visit to Chaos was obviously high on the list. I wanted to show her that it really was in Columbus! The moment Myriam saw Chaos, I had a strange feeling. Let’s call it a Tinguely* feeling.  A feeling that made me realize the world is small. Yes, that phrase is a bit overused, but it’s the truth. The admirable that seemingly insignificant towns (to a stranger), like Columbus, possessed visionaries in the 60s that brought global art to a local level. Part of me wishes I could have foreseen that moment as a kid, but it’s also special knowing I couldn’t have predicted it that travel and experience would lead me to a greater appreciation of Columbus.

People travel from all over the world to see the architecture and art in Columbus. I was lucky enough to grow up with it surrounding me.  While I was thankful to live in such a beautiful town, I didn’t realize it’s global significance until fairly recently. Let me clarify by saying, of course I realized the importance of this architecture, but not until the Chaos experience, with my Swiss friend, did I get this feeling of gratitude for the constant exposure of such art throughout my years. I look forward to connecting more dots around the world, connections that ultimately bring a greater sense of intercultural understanding.

* Tinquely is not technically pronounced like ‘Tingly.’ He’s French so it’s actually pronounced completely different, but for the sake of the pun I’ll leave it.

Myriam and I being little tourists in Schweiz

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