22.5 metres high and 350 tons of steel... Le Cyclop is a monumental sculptural work that dominates the forest of Milly-la-Forêt (Essonne, Île-de-France). Created by Jean Tinguely with the help of his wife Niki de Saint Phalle and their artist friends (Bernhard Luginbühl, Rico Weber, Daniel Spoerri...), the sculpture comprises an immense head without a body, covered in sparkling mirrors, with a single eye, an ear that weighs a ton, and a mouth from which a trickle of water runs down a slide-tongue. Its interior houses a surprising universe that can be discovered over the course of a labyrinthine route punctuated with artworks and curiosities that are both humorous and sombre: sound sculptures, a small automatic theatre, machinery with scrap-metal gears, etc. Dada, Nouveau Réalisme, Kinetic Art, and Art Brut: four movements rub shoulders in this rich work. Also known as La Tête (The Head) or Le Monstre dans la forêt (The Monster in the Forest), Le Cyclop is a unique monument in art history. But it is above all the fruit of a collective adventure, built with friends, a utopia forged over numerous years by a “team of mad sculptors”, centred around the figure of Jean Tinguely.
The latter developed an art based on movement, chance, relative speed, and sound. His sculptures, made from the scraps of industrial society, assemblages of rusty scrap metal, question and unsettle viewers, challenging them with humour and derision. His “anti-machines” are a criticism of Western society: they are useless in that they produce nothing, but nevertheless strive to highlight the flaws of modern technology by ridiculing it. In 1956, Jean Tinguely met Niki de Saint Phalle. As soon as they met, they began producing art together. Throughout their lives, they would be a mutual source of inspiration for each other, both on a human and an artistic level. Complicity, love, rivalry, exchange, and confrontation formed the basis of their collaborations.
In 1968, Jean Tinguely and his friend, sculptor Bernhard Luginbühl, worked together on the Gigantoleum project. They wanted to build a huge sculpture-architecture, a playful interactive space bringing together various artistic fields. The site was to house a circus, fairground attractions, a theatre, cinema, restaurant, and even a huge aviary with thousands of birds! However, the Gigantoleum never saw the light of day. No sponsor wanted to finance this overly expensive and ambitious project. Consequently, Jean Tinguely decided to construct Le Cyclop.
In 1969, work on the project began in the woods around Milly. Jean Tinguely realized that the only way to carry the project through to fruition was to finance the work himself, allowing him to work in complete freedom. No architect participated in its construction and only the artists, with courage, strength, and tenacity, gradually built this titanic sculpture. It took ten years of hard labour to erect Le Cyclop and another fifteen years before everyone’s contributions were put in place.
In 1987, in order to ensure the protection and conservation of the structure, the artists decided to give Le Cyclopto the French State. It entered the collection of the Cnap (National Centre for the Visual Arts). In 1988, the French Ministry of Culture delegated the management of the site to Le Cyclop Association, whose mission is to maintain the site, oversee public visits, and promote the work. In 1991, following the death of Jean Tinguely, Niki de Saint Phalle embarked on a mission to complete the sculpture by financing the last remaining artworks, while respecting the ideas of her late companion as much as possible. In May 1994, Le Cyclop was inaugurated by French President François Mitterrand, and opened to the public. Niki de Saint Phalle decided that Le Cyclop was now finished and that from that time onwards, no other artwork was to be added.
In March 2021, the National Centre for the Visual Arts launched the restoration campaign of Le Cyclop. The site had closed its doors in October 2020 to make way for the vast restoration project that would last a little over one year.
The topographic situation of Le Cyclop and the climatic conditions it faces over the seasons make its conservation particularly complex. The objective was to restore the integrity of Le Cyclop, with the support of the artists or their heirs. The delicate restoration project involved three specialized companies: the architectural firm GFTK, the engineering firm Phung Consulting, and Ecovi, in charge of construction. Throughout the duration of the project, an ensemble of some twenty art restorers, specializing in glass, metal, ceramics, textiles, plaster, and contemporary materials brought their expertise to the site, and in their workshops successfully restored the various components of Le Cyclop.
La Face aux miroirs (The Face of Mirrors) posed a significant challenge when it came to its restoration. Covered in mirrors by Niki de Saint Phalle in 1987, this work measuring over almost 325 square metres, began to deteriorate in 1996 due to the alteration of the mirrors’ silvering, but also because of the growth of micro-organisms that caused the mirrors to detach. In 2002, the first consolidation tests were carried out, and in 2006, other alterations were carried out, before the establishment of a contract in 2008 to set up a hands-on learning project in collaboration with the Institut national du patrimoine (National Heritage Board). This intervention made it possible to establish the history of the work, a condition report, and a diagnosis, including recommendations for its sustainable restoration. This preliminary document was especially informative but the condition of the sculpture continued to deteriorate and became dangerous for visitors.
A net was put over the structure in January 2012. A report on the sanitary condition of the work was then commissioned and submitted by the Historical Monuments Research Laboratory in 2014, after which the Cnap agreed on an intervention with the beneficiaries of Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle. This intervention was to consist of a major restoration campaign, which would include replacing all of the 55,000 mirrors on the front of the sculpture. The operation was carried out with the utmost respect for the original layout, supervised at the time by Niki de Saint Phalle, including cutting mirrors without right angles, and modulating the size of the fragments to suit the shape of the face. In order for the mirrors to match the initial composition in every way, a latex printing process was devised for each section, then allowing a transfer by stamping on paper to create templates for the cutting of the mirrors. The new mirrors restored the work’s original brilliance, while respecting the original intention of the artist: the aim was to camouflage the head by having it reflect the surrounding environment. In 2013, the restoration of La Face aux Miroirs benefited from the financial support of a number of companies: 3DO Reality Capture, which carried out the 3D survey of La Tête (The Head), and Saint-Gobain, which provided the 628 square metresof solar mirrors required for the project, and the sealant manufactured by Saint-Gobain’s Weber subsidiary to glue the mirrors. Clairefontaine provided the paper for the creation of the templates.
The other major operation involved the restoration of L'Hommage aux déportés (Homage to Deportees) by Eva Aeppli. Evoking the horrors of the Holocaust, the work consists of a 1930s French rail wagon suspended on a platform over 13 metres in height, inside of which are 15 figures in white silk and brown velvet. Very degraded, the wagon of Eva Aeppli’s piece was entirely restored after the treatment of the damaged wooden slats. Thermal insulation and the replacement of the air conditioning inside the wagon have made it possible to maintain the sculptures in a stable climate, thereby ensuring their proper conservation.
The restoration project also affordedthe opportunity to improve the watertightness of the basin of Jean Tinguely’s Hommage à Yves Klein, to restore and clean part of the artworks inside Le Cyclop, from La Colonne by Niki de Saint Phalle to La Méta-Harmonie, as well as La Jauge by Jean-Pierre Raynaud, Le Pénétrable sonore by Jesús Rafaël Soto, l’Hommage à Mai 68 by Larry Rivers, Le Tableau électrique by Rico Weber, and the Piccolo museo by Giovanni Battista Podestà.
Le Cnap retrace la restauration de cette œuvre colossale à travers un film documentaire.
En suivant le processus de restauration du Cyclop de Jean Tinguely, le documentaire produit par le Centre national des arts plastiques (Cnap) retrace l’aventure d’un chantier exceptionnel, à l’image de ce monstre mythologique caché dans les bois de Milly-la-Forêt, et dont la tête peut de nouveau se camoufler en réfléchissant son propre environnement.
Un film documentaire produit par le Centre national des arts plastiques (France, 2022, 10’)
Réalisation : Jean-Nicolas Schoeser (Trystero)
Images : Jean-Nicolas Schoeser (Trystero), Grimaud Bouveret et Patricia Lecomte
Voix : Gaëlle Savary
Direction : Béatrice Salmon, directrice du Centre national des arts plastiques
Responsable éditorial et conception : Sandrine Vallée-Potelle, cheffe du service de la communication, de l’information et des ressources professionnelles
Coordination et rédaction : Alexandre Clouzot et Nina Gangloff, chargés de communication au service de la communication, de l’information et des ressources professionnelles
Avec la participation de Philippe de Viviés, conservateur-restaurateur du patrimoine, co-gérant d’A-CORROS
Crédit musique : Brylie Christopher Oxley – Remnants of Effervescence