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Tadeusz Kantor, Virtual Reality and Tinguely’s Machines in Basel

The Tinguely Museum in Basel is dedicating a special exhibition to the Polish avant-garde theatre man Tadeusz Kantor from October this year to 5 January 2020. The exhibition also includes a virtual reality performance Croterie by Auriea Harvey and Michael Samyn based on Kantor’s play of the same name.

Tadeusz Kantor lived from 1915 to 1990 and was an influential figure in the alternative and innovative Polish theatre scene. His works were radical, interdisciplinary and experimental. He often abolished the separation between stage and auditorium. In 1960, he learned the Swiss Coppelius Jean Tinguely, whose kinetic works of art still attract worldwide attention today.

In their joint works, Kantor and Tinguely mixed personal experiences with the social culture of memory. Their common interest in processual art and hybrid media encouraged them to break down the boundaries between art and reality.

In this respect, it seems appropriate at first glance to experimentally expand the concept of reality with a VR performance. In the Produtkion Où sont les neiges d’antan (Where is the Snow of Yesterday), Tadeusz Kantor himself stood on stage during the performance, giving instructions, intervening in actions and breaking up the illusion of the game. The idea is that the museum visitor should take on this role interactively himself.

The Belgian artist couple Harvey and Samyn spent a month in 2017 in their Polish studio near Krakow as part of a scholarship paid by the Tadeusz Kantor Foundation. Harvey and Samyn think that a VR version is an ideal match for Kantor’s theatrical idea. They didn’t try to reconstruct the production, but rather freely used it to create something new.

In the exhibition in Basel, a 6×6 m large area was marked as a space, on a large projection screen in the background, the other museum visitors can see something of what the actor experiences and does in the virtual world, because here, too, there is only a 1:1 encounter, that is to say, only one visitor is able to immerse himself in Kantor’s virtual stage world using VR glasses.


After putting on the glasses and taking over the controllers, you are on a stage and look into an empty auditorium. If you turn around, you are standing in front of a door that can be opened. Behind it there are various objects, people etc. that you have to place on the stage. In the video you can see how this works in practice. You become the director of the scene.

However, this has its pitfalls. On the one hand, the technical implementation is flawed. The characters behave uncontrolled, the possibilities to touch and move them are very limited. Kinetic forces sometimes don’t seem comprehensible. But these technical flaws would be forgivable – after all, the project dates back to 2017, which is half an eternity in times of VRAR development – it’s more due to the fact that arranging the objects doesn’t tell a story, doesn’t make sense. What’s missing here is a story, a narrative moment that even the concluding parade, which the objects around you perform at the end, can’t console.

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The power of the analogue

Two other examples of the exhibition show just how far virtual solutions still have to go in order to be able to draw on the power of analog artistic installations.

On August 24, 1986, in the night from Friday to Saturday at two o’clock in the morning, lightning strikes the farm of André Daffon, who is in the immediate vicinity of Jean Tinguely’s studio near Fribourg. The farmhouse, built in 1801, burns out completely. There remain charred beams, scorched iron parts and tools and agricultural machinery that were deformed beyond recognition. Tnguely, who, after a severe heart operation in the winter of 1985, floats between life and death and is then a convalescent for a long time, inspired this event to create a central late work, the Mengele Dance of Death. He obsessively collects the remaining pieces and constructs an 18-piece ensemble of figures. The centrepiece is a kinetic sculpture from a maize press made by Mengele, the family from which the doctor Josef Mengele also comes, who carried out cruel experiments on the prisoners in Auschwitz.

In a darkened hall, one can not only view these machines, but also experience them in action. Even if the visitor is passive here, the simultaneity of the mechanical movements and the martial sound are impressive.

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Another example is the Plateau agriculturel, installed by Tinguely in Basel in 1977. Ten painted machine sculptures, originally placed in a fountain basin, do not hide their character as agricultural machines and their movements give rise to their very own communication. In both examples, the viewer becomes a discoverer who finds out how it works and finds his own story.

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This exhibition in Basel is nevertheless recommended. The world of theatre and performance can be impressively studied in the works of Kandor and Tinguely. The fact that everyone’s mouth cannot keep up with the virtual reality of digital applications can also be understood as a curative corrective to the current hype.

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