Born in Fribourg, Switzerland, in 1925, he first became a decorator for the Globus shop in Basel. His mannequins were made of metal wire and he tried to viscerally engage the public in a direct, non-contemplative manner. At the age of twenty, he fixed a door to his flat’s ceiling, combined with a powerful motor from which objects were suspended. An important dimension in his oeuvre is the reuse of objects, waste and scrap metal. This aspect can also be found in the work of many of the artists admired by Jean Tinguely, such as Marcel Duchamp and Louise Nevelson, to whom a tribute is paid in Le Cyclop.
In 1952, he decided to immigrate to France with his wife Eva Aeppli, moving into a studio on the Rue Ronsin in Paris.
From 1954 onwards, he developed paintings and animated wire-works inspired by Alexander Calder. The 1950s marked the beginning of the production of a large number of machines that would continue to evolve. Their name is constructed from the prefix "meta", which takes on the meaning of an undefinable, random beyond. He notably created his Meta-Harmonies and Meta-Matics. The Meta-Harmonies are assemblages of motorized, sound-producing cogs. The Méta-Matics are public-activated drawing machines. The spectators’ participation and immersion are essential elements of Jean Tinguely’s oeuvre.
As early as 1955, he spoke to Pontus Hultén about his ambition to create a total work of art that would be playful and open to all disciplines. There followed several creations and attempts prefiguring Le Cyclop, such as Dylaby, a dynamic labyrinth punctuated by all kinds of experiments, created in 1965 for a group exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. That same year, he created a self-destructing machine in the Nevada desert, whose obliteration was broadcast live on television. These works are eminently performative and ephemeral, being often difficult to maintain.
The origins of Le Cyclop date back to 1968, with the Gigantoleum project. This work, devised with Bernhard Luginbühl, was intended to be a monumental sculpture bringing together diverse disciplines, such as fairground attractions, a cinema, a restaurant, an aviary... However, the project proved too expensive and never saw the light of day.
Thus began the adventure of Le Cyclop, begun in 1969, without any sponsor or patron. With Niki de Saint Phalle at his side, the drawings and models for this project succeeded one another from 1969 to 1973, while the construction of Le Cyclop began in 1970. It finally opened to the public in 1994. Jean Tinguely mobilised some fifteen artists, both well-known and emerging creators, with whom he created strong links nourished by constant exchanges. His subsequent machines would prove darker, incorporating skulls and bones. He died in 1991.
A complete biography of the artist is available on the website for the Museum Tinguely, Basel.