A group of Cummins Inc. engineers are donating their technology expertise to help preserve the artistic marvel known as the Chaos I sculpture in The Commons.
The 7-ton, 30-foot-high moving sculpture by the late-Swiss artist Jean Tinguely has fascinated Columbus residents and visitors since its installation in 1974 in the old Commons downtown — the only artwork from the facility reinstalled when the new Commons opened in 2011.
Some see Chaos I as grand example of innovative art. A former director of the Indiana Museum of Art, Carl J. Weinhardt, described Tinguely’s motion sculpture in 1974 as a work of “great importance,” and possibly the most significant piece of sculpture of the second half of the 20th century.
But when engineers gaze at Chaos I, they tend to see the machine, particularly when it’s operating with its gears and pulleys moving a series of balls through the structure, and rotating pieces of metal moving in harmony — well, not as much harmony as when it was first constructed, but moving nonetheless.
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The engineers of Team Chaos, including some who grew up in Columbus visiting the sculpture during their childhoods, have “geeked out” a little bit over the chance to dissect and analyze one of the biggest toys they ever dreamed of playing with when they were younger.
“This makes you think about what you can do to make this thing work,” said Andrew Armuth, a team member who works in metallurgy. “None of us understand art, but as engineers, we love this stuff. We see this more as a design more than art.”
In addition to Armuth, the team includes Ashwin Balasubramanya working in dynamics, Erin Chelf and Tina Corum in design and drafting, Bobbie Mullins in metallurgy, Juan Acosta in structural mechanics and Stephanie Goodall, a support specialist who is known as “the boss.” Also assisting are Cummins employees Lee Brandsasse, Brian Vogel and Scott Ledger.
Each is applying their own technology toolbox to the artwork, which now runs about once a month on “Chaotic Tuesdays” and occasionally is operational for special events at The Commons.
The engineers are working together at Cummins in various capacities, but have been brought together on a volunteer basis to evaluate and assess what needs to be done to preserve Tinguely’s masterpiece for future generations, including the issues the moving sculpture has when it is put into motion.
They plan to compile a detailed analysis of how Chaos is operating when it runs now, what might be needed to make it better operationally and to provide guidance for the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department in how to maintain the sculpture in optimal condition for years to come.
“We’re trying not to change this and keep it a piece of art as originally designed,” said Casey Ritz, who supervises maintenance for the parks department. “We will start out weighing out what we can do as we have no desire to change the look or design of the piece.”
And while the engineers are working under the parameters that they cannot change or replace pieces of the sculpture, they believe their analysis, which may include building a 3-D model of the sculpture, can provide some tips of how to improve the piece’s operation without changing its makeup.
Balasubramanya said the team is in the beginning stages, and has spent some time watching Chaos operate to figure out the different processes involved in the movement of the sculpture.
So far, the team has identified between 10 and 13 different combinations of functions that the sculpture performs, which will be evaluated individually for structure and dynamics.
“We’re just at the tip of the iceberg,” Balasubramanya said.
The sculpture used to run with six balls careening through the welded passageways, but now only five are moving. There is also concern that when the balls travel through the sculpture, a great deal of stress and force is being exerted on the structure itself, Mullins said.
The group is hoping to use a hand scanner to scan individual parts on the sculpture to create the 3-D model, which can then be used for detailed drawings to guide any changes the engineers might suggest to help the sculpture run more smoothly.
The engineers can do a complete structural analysis of the sculpture, showing the areas of highest stress in the sculpture when it moves, Corum said.
They are also evaluating the welds that Tinguely did to connect hundreds of different pieces of scrap metal together years ago — welding that was done by an artist and not a professional welder, the engineers have determined.
“By the quality of the welds, we can tell he was more of an artist than a welder,” Armuth said of Tinguely’s work. “But it’s been standing for 50 years, so it was a good enough job.”
One of the biggest surprises to the team has been learning that Tinguely designed Chaos to swivel on a 70-degree angle as the rest of the sculpture moves, something that even the Columbus natives on the team didn’t know.
“I was born and raised here and I don’t ever remember it twisting on it’s base,” Mullins said. “This whole thing twisted, that’s what the motor was for,” she said pointing to the base where the control motor is still located.
Team members said while the twist and swivel was probably fascinating to watch, it also caused vibration when it would start and stop, which could have led to some of the structural issues being examined on the sculpture today.
A piece of cork sits underneath the base of the sculpture, placed there to stabilize the vibration when the swivel was operating, the engineers said.
The engineers joked that while Chaos might have initially swiveled as part of its operation, it didn’t swivel long. The sculpture simply couldn’t sustain that movement with all of its other moving parts. And it would be impossible to use that feature now, as the sculpture’s current location would not allow for it to swivel without hitting the upper balcony of The Commons or the escalators.
The team is also fascinated with one of the upper portions of the sculpture where a series of chains and pulleys wind around and swing up and down, and were momentarily perplexed at a loud clang that seemed to randomly occur without a pattern.
It almost seems like an artist’s practical joke in that Tinguely built in two clangers that add to the cacophony of the overwhelming loudness of the sculpture when it runs. The engineers took a while to figure out how the artist had incorporated the clappers in the wheeled assembly and how the clappers would activate.
In their research, the engineers are also questioning just how long Tinguely might have intended for Chaos to last. One of Tinguely’s sculptures in New York was built to self-destruct, which it did, team members said.
“If he did (intend that for Chaos), it would have happened by now,” Armuth said, adding, “But it doesn’t scream reliability either.”
“This was intended as art when it was created,” Corum said. “It’s already beyond what was imagined.”
Another area the engineers will study is a rust analysis on the materials in the structure, and how that might be affecting the sculpture’s function.
Tinguely basically scavenged the materials from the Kroot salvage yard and others for the sculpture. (If one looks closely they can find farm parts from an old hay baling conveyor that the balls move through when Chaos is moving.) He began building it in the basement of what was formerly the Columbus Pump House, now the Upland Columbus Pump House brewhouse in downtown Columbus.
The surface of the scrap metal in the sculpture is prone to rust when exposed to humidity or other factors, and when it does it becomes pitted, which affects the ability of the sculpture to move, Mullins said. Even regulating the humidity in the area of The Commons where the sculpture is located could have an affect on the rust formation and help it stay operational, she said.
‘It makes you think’
The engineers don’t have a timetable to complete their work. They are using Cummins’ volunteer hours that the company offers to its employees to contribute to a community project to work on the project.
City officials have estimated that if a consultant would have to be hired for the analysis of the sculpture, it might approach the six-figure range. After their work is done and presented to the city parks department, some fundraising might be needed to make minor repairs and maintenance to the sculpture, they said.
For team members who grew up with Chaos I, they hope to see a kiosk added that would explain the significance of the sculpture and perhaps run a video of the sculpture running for visitors who stop in at a time when it is stationary.
“It would be nice to have a touch-screen kiosk with information — for this day and age the plaque on the sculpture is so small, it’s not easy to see,” Corum said.
Although Balasubramanya did not grow up in Columbus with Chaos I, his children have, and love the sculpture and watching it move.
The engineers believe that even as artwork, Chaos I could encourage kids who view it to consider engineering or a STEM career when they watch the gears, pulleys and metal pieces move and intertwine as the balls clang through the sculpture.
“This was all about using what you have,” Armuth said of Tinguely’s work to create Chaos I. “It makes you think about what you can do to make something work. A lot of this (the work to analyze Chaos I) is thinking outside of the box. And that’s how we need to be thinking.”
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Visitors to Chaos I in The Commons might not know there is a hidden reminder of a long-ago practical joke on the sculpture’s creator Jean Tinguely.
A leather boot came to be on the sculpture from a prank by one of the workers on the artist, said Richard McCoy, director of Landmark Columbus, an organization working to preserve Columbus’ architectural legacy.
A construction worker had placed the boot on the very top of the spiral unit of Chaos I, which upset the artist greatly.
"Jean was a character and not happy that the construction worker was messing with him," McCoy said.
Tinguely got mad and took it off the machine, and Chaos I then reportedly broke down. Even though he didn’t like having the boot on the machine, Tinguely returned it to Chaos I in a different location, telling news reporters at that time that the placement of the boot was meant to look a little ridiculous — those were his words, McCoy said.
Next time you are in The Commons, take a look and see if you can find the boot.
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Name: Chaos I
Artist: Swiss artist Jean Tinguely, (1925-1991)
Location: The Commons, 300 Washington St.
Description: A 7-ton kinetic sculpture which reaches 30-feet high, the largest work by Tinguely in the United States.
Where was it built: Tinguely, a colorful character who sported a bushy mustache, lived in the city’s former Pump House for nearly two years beginning in 1973 while creating the sculpture. According to the Columbus Visitors Center, Tinguely was said to be delighted by the quality of the scrap he found in local junkyards, which was the raw material for his art.
How Chaos I came to be in Columbus: The architect of the first Commons in Columbus, Cesar Pelli, first suggested to J. Irwin Miller, Cummins CEO, that a Tinguely sculpture would be a perfect centerpiece for the downtown area. The work was commissioned by J. Irwin and Xenia Irwin Miller and Mrs. Robert Tangeman in late 1971.
Source: Columbus Visitors Center
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Art may be interpreted through the eye of the beholder, and everyone can have a different opinion about what Chaos I is intended to convey to a viewer.
The Columbus Visitors Center describes the sculpture as going through a series of motions to simulate a day in a life, beginning slowly at first, adding movements and then winding down. "At the peak of its chaotic movements, steel balls roll and crash through a caged track, making a ruckus," according to the center.
Richard McCoy, director of Landmark Columbus, said the meaning of Chaos I is complicated, as it can be viewed as a living organism with two personalities — Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
While the sculpture appears somewhat normal before it begins to move, it quickly moves into a more scary, thrilling and exciting mode which represents the Dr. Jekyll mode.
"That’s (Jean) Tinguely’s concept," McCoy said of historical accounts he has read about the piece.
In addition to that, Tinguely created Chaos I in a time of abstract impressionism, which is represented in the geometric forms that move in space as the sculpture moves, McCoy said.
"But it’s so much better than just that," McCoy said of watching Chaos I move.