One of Charlotte’s largest, quirkiest and most fascinating pieces of public art doesn’t reside on any street corner. And while hundreds of residents and visitors to the city walk within 50 feet of it daily, it’s likely they haven’t seen it or are they aware of its storied past and very personal connection to Charlotte.
Swiss artist Jean Tinguely’s 40-foot-tall kinetic masterwork, Cascade (above), has held court in the central lobby at Charlotte’s Carillon Tower at 227 W. Trade St. since 1991. The work was commissioned by the Bechtler family. Hester AG, a Bechtler owned company, developed the building.
A colorful assemblage of found objects, Charlotte artifacts, lights, colored metal and collected junk, the Rube Goldberg-esque contraption delights observers as a vertical mobile suspended from ceiling cables over a shallow pool. Powered by 15 motors driving pulleys, chains and cable, the contraption whirs, spins and dances a meticulously choreographed ballet to an unheard symphonic score.
In 2006, local kinetic sculptor Kit Kube observed that several of the sculpture’s motors had failed.
“I approached the building’s owners and noted that 13 of the 15 motors were not working,” Kube told me in a 2011 interview for the Charlotte Observer. “I thought it was a shame that the piece wasn’t delivering its full potential and I wanted to see it repaired.”
Over the next several months Kube worked with the owners, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s Department of Art History, and the Tinguely Foundation in Switzerland, to repair, clean and restore the work. The restoration was completed in late 2009.
“It was painstaking and highly involved work,” said Kube. “Working closely on another artist’s work, particularly someone of Tinguely’s caliber, is incredibly satisfying and was truly a fantastic experience.”
Tinguely was one of the most celebrated kinetic sculptors on the international art scene before his death in 1991. Friends and a fellow Swiss countryman with Andreas Bechtler, Tinguely died shortly after completing Cascade and before the work was officially dedicated.
Tinguely’s wife, Niki de Saint Phalle, is the creator of another emblematic Charlotte public artwork. Her mirrored Firebird stands guard outside the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art becoming one of the most photographed public artworks in the city.
Several found object pieces incorporated into Cascade have special significance. The Concrete lion’s head at the fountain was recovered from the demolished Hotel Charlotte, which formerly occupied the site of the Carillon Tower. A tractor seat is seen as homage to the agricultural roots of the community.
Tinguely’s obsession with race cars (*he was said to have a Formula One car in his bedroom) is seen in the shiny red Ferrari hood that precariously bobs north and south as part of the piece.
“One of the most fascinating things I discovered when working on the piece was that Tinguely engineered failure into its design in order to create entirely new perspective at a future date,” said Kube. “Certain chains with weights rubbing against each other will cause links to break and while the sculpture will not collapse, it will operate in a different way.”
Bonus public art view: On the far wall of the Carillon lobby is a wonderful installation by muralist Sol Lewitt, Wall Drawing # 683.
Photos: Van Miller, T. Ortega Gaines