Jean Tinguely’s  Cascade, 1991, Carillon Tower, Charlotte, NC

Nestled within the bustling cityscape of downtown Charlotte is a neo-Gothic high-rise often overlooked by passersby on the sidewalk. But inside the central lobby of the Carillon Tower is a unique and captivating piece of public art, a 40-foot-tall kinetic masterpiece known as Cascade by the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely. His innovative approach to art and machinery, his work often made discarded materials and mechanical parts, gave his work an industrial and salvaged aesthetic that clashed perfectly with this austere atrium. 

Cascade is a vibrant amalgamation of found objects, Charlotte artifacts, lights, colored metal, and collected junk. Suspended from ceiling cables over a shallow pool, this Rube Goldberg-esque gadget is powered by 15 motors that drive pulleys, chains, and cables. Propelled by 15 motors that activate pulleys, chains, and cables, the apparatus hums, twirls, and performs a precisely arranged dance to a harmonious composition of droning buzzes. Tinguely carefully selected the materials to match his interests in the city, including a spinning shiny red Ferrari hood (he was said to keep a Formula One car in his bedroom) and a concrete lion’s head from the demolished Hotel Charlotte, pays homage to the city’s past while continuously plunging into the fountain below the sculpture. 

Cascade is a masterful fusion of smaller components, collectively narrating a larger story that encapsulates Tinguely’s artistic philosophy. As all these found objects and scrapyard materials twist and twirl, they each become their own narrative and performance; jumping from one to the next is almost like flipping channels on television. Or, to use his description, “moving paintings.” Sculptures that propel art and art history into motion, pieces that breathe life into the intersection between art and everyday existence. For Tinguely, the essence of art did not reside in a sterile white space where one merely gazes at a mute painting from a distance. His creations repudiated the stagnant, traditional art world, aiming to highlight the importance of play and experimentation. Tinguely rejected the notion of the singular “artist’s hand” by urging visitors to actively engage in the creative process and generate their own works.

I’ve visited this work many times and am still convinced the city of Charlotte is unaware of the masterpiece they have in their backyard. On the last visit this past November, there was no signage! There is nothing to explain what an influential artist Tinguely was. Of course, I can never think of the artist without laughing at the greatness of his work. Specifically, a “self-destroying” sculpture called Homage to New York which exploded in MoMA’s sculpture garden in 1960. The work was 23 feet long and 27 feet tall and composed of “80 bicycle wheels, parts of old motors, a piano, metal drums, an addressograph machine, a child’s go-cart, and an enameled bathtub.” All sourced from city dumps in New Jersey. During the sculpture’s 30-minute life, it would saw, hammer, inflate, burst, smoke, and melt itself until the work collapsed to the ground. (Just as it was hitting its stride, sparks intensified and evolved into flames, causing a segment of the machine to break away and collide with an NBC camera crew. An apprehensive firefighter stepped in and extinguished the contraption with water, ultimately sealing the sculpture’s fate. Success!).

So, how did Cascade come to a business-centric city whose visual identity was not accustomed to such expressions? The story dates to the late 1980s when a charismatic Swiss entrepreneur, a member of a distinguished family in Switzerland, sought to broaden the scope of his family’s air filtration business. Having set up a U.S. office in Charlotte, Andreas Bechtler had already spent fifteen years in the city. At the time, Tinguely and his wife, Niki de Saint Phalle, were completing a major collaborative project, the Stravinsky Fountain, outside the Centre Pompidou. A small Southern city in the U.S. wasn’t likely next on their wish list for a large commission. This happened solely because of the Bechtler family’s deep connection with the artists. During the 1960s, when Andreas was growing up in Switzerland, his parents and uncle were not simply art collectors but also supporters of art. Supporting artists like Tinguely and Niki were an integral part of their lifestyle. Many years later, it only made sense that Tinguely’s work would be the centerpiece of Bechtler’s new office tower.

This was his last work, as he passed shortly after completing Cascade before the towering sculpture was formally dedicated. Tinguely died in 1991 at the age of sixty-six.

Tinguely’s kinetic masterpiece is a testament to the artist’s ingenuity and the vibrant cultural tapestry of Charlotte. In many ways, it reminds me of the city’s current growth, carefully constructed chaos. And though it’s less than mainstream, Cascade makes perfect sense as part of the city’s identity. As Charlotte continues to evolve, Tinguely’s kinetic sculptures serve as a reminder of the transformative potential of art in unexpected places.