Meta-mecanique (Meta-Herbin) 1954 is one of a group of related works made by Tinguely in 1954-55 and given the umbrella title of Meta-mechanical sculpture. This name was provided by Pontus Hulten who recalls:
The question as to what Tinguely's machines ought to be called had arisen with his first exhibition. None of the names that had been suggested — automata, mechanical sculptures, mobiles — was really satisfactory; the last was too closely associated with Calder. My suggestion was 'meta-mechanical', by analogy with 'metaphysical', and on one of my daily visits to the Bibliothèque Nationale I was able to check in the Grand Dictionnaire Larousse that 'meta' can be used to mean 'with' and 'after' — which seemed just right. Also the association of ideas with words like 'metaphor' and 'metamorphosis' seemed to me to be very appropriate.1
The broad label of Meta-mechanical sculpture encompasses a smaller series of works, the Meta-Herbins of which the sculpture in the Australian National Gallery collection is a typical example. In all, there are six sculptures sub-titled Meta-Herbin, characterised by a tripod stand, wire braces and cog wheels, painted sheet-metal elements and a small electric motor providing the motive power.2
The title of this group refers to the French artist Auguste Herbin (1882-1960) and, like the series named Meta-Malevich and Meta-Kandinsky, also made at this time, pays homage — if rather mischievously — to an early exponent of abstract art. The reference to Herbin's work is apparent in the brightly painted triangular and circular shapes of the sculpture, which rotate as the sculpture moves, forming different configurations or 'compositions'. 'I was trying to get away from the imperative, the power of these artists …', said Tinguely; 'I began to use movement simply to make a recreation. It was a way of doing a painting so that it would become infinite — it would go on making new compositions with the help of the physical and mechanical movements I gave it. Then I gradually understood that movement was an expressive possibility in itself'.3
The movement of Meta-mecanique (Meta-Herbin), as with most of Tinguely's machines, is a deliberate travesty of mechanical precision; the sire sprockets bend and jump the cogs, the machine moves in unpredictable shudders. It would certainly destroy itself — simply fall apart — if run continuously.
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.237.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra