Takis at Tate Modern: Sculptor of Magnetism, Light and Sound (2019)

There are a good many reasons to visit the current Takis exhibition at Tate Modern. Co-curators Guy Brett and Michael Wellen (assisted by Helen O’Malley) have put together a balanced, representative selection of the artist’s pioneering and innovative works. For those who are unfamiliar with Takis, since the early 1950s, he has explored through art, complex interactions between forces of the electromagnetic spectrum, in relation to physical, sculptural form.

On the one hand, Takis seeks to develop our sense of what makes a work of art. Beyond the material level of what we can see, by incorporating hidden, but none the less vital and active forces of nature, into each of the things he creates. This is however not hocus-pocus, because these forces are verifiable and can, according to Takis, have a potentially restorative effect on the viewer. Certain works even manage to distill psychological or human dramas; confrontations being played out between two magnets and an old needle.

The exhibition is well thought out, being subdivided into six galleries that each examine a particular aspect of Takis’ creative activity. There is also a seventh, documenting his ‘Activism and Experimentation’. All the art works have been carefully arranged and effectively presented; so that what I might call the ‘quieter’ pieces- the light works, wall boxes & such- are located together in their own space, away from any possible distraction from the more kinetic and active exhibits. Nevertheless, I found the random sounds produced by some of the latter pieces a good thing. They reverberated throughout the whole gallery in all their incredible richness and variety, immediately capturing ones attention, without being in any way overwhelming.

Takis’ sculptures are varied in size and in many cases, mix two and three dimensions in highly original ways. He’s prolific too and we see over 80 examples on display, many selected from the Takis Foundation. This is the artist’s largest UK exhibition to date, which throws up the question of why he’s not better known in this country; something I find quite hard to understand. In Europe and particularly France, Takis has a higher profile and his work is appreciated by more people. I’ve got some thoughts as to why this might be. Obviously residing in France and part of its cultural life for many years, Takis was an influential figure on a generation who took his work to heart. Another point to consider is perhaps more controversial. Although his art is very serious in intent, there is no denying that it is also full of joy and wonder. Something perhaps less problematic abroad- both to the art going public and critics alike – is to find these things coexisting in a work of art. That just because a work is playful, doesn’t necessarily make it frivolous or less worthy.

Background

Takis, who was born Panayiotis Vassilakis in 1925, grew up in a troubled, turbulent Greece; where in his youth, he witnessed the Axis occupation, followed closely by the Civil War. These were, perhaps naturally, key events responsible for shaping the outlook of both the artist and the man. From an early age, Takis became (and remains) a committed, passionate activist, with an instinctive sense for liberty. Early on, whilst in Greece, he was a leader of UPON (United Panhellenic Organisation of Youth) and was even jailed for six months.

Takis is a self-taught artist (as he is in many other areas, because he had to be). In his early work there can be seen traces of antiquity, Picasso and especially Giacometti; although he soon began to forge his own unique creative path. Having said that, I’d say he took a lesson from Cubist sculpture. Rather than being something immobile and static, to be perceived ‘outside time’; a sculpture should incorporate the element of time as an integral component. A more interactive concept that opened up a range of new possibilities. Including the addition of actual physical movement in an art work. A few people had begun to explore these ideas- Moholy-Nagy springs to mind and Marcel Duchamp. Yet as far as I’m aware (and without getting tied up about ‘who was first’), by the time Takis started working on sculptures that harnessed the power of magnetic forces, light, gravity and sound; nobody else had thought to do so. Sculptures that often used electrical components and could even be described as ‘art machines’.

(It’s worth mentioning however that in literature and popular culture, the nature of such things had been explored. At least in the abstract sense, in Science Fiction).

Eventually leaving Greece in the early 50s, Takis embarked for Paris and became immersed in the artistic and literary environment he encountered there. Postwar Paris (another recently occupied city) was still a major cultural centre, despite the ravages of war and the rise of New York as a premier destination for the world’s avant-garde. Emerging artists like Yves Klein were working side by side, street by street, with the great masters of Modernism who had remained in the city since the war. Naturally gifted with a charisma to boot, Takis soon established his artistic reputation at the forefront of what became known as ‘Kinetic Art’ (really more of a ‘catch-all’ term or tendency than a movement with shared values). He became acquainted with many of the great names of 20th Century Art. These included two iconic figures of uncompromising brilliance: the aforementioned Marcel Duchamp and the American author William S. Burroughs. Both of whom expressed admiration for his work. Duchamp had of course been exploring various aspects of ‘The Machine’ in his art for many years. From the satirical and allegorical works of his early career that had made him an art icon, to more recent experiments with rotary sculptures that seeded what became known later as ‘Op Art’.

Scientific Curiosity

It is worth remembering that Takis’ emergence as an artist of note came during a period of unprecedented scientific and technical progression. For at least a century, discoveries had been made that for the first time, described many of the formal characteristics of electricity and magnetism. Although there are several others worth mentioning, we should thank Michael Faraday and James Clarke Maxwell. The latter actually proving that electricity and magnetism were essentially manifestations of the same thing: electromagnetism. Earlier Faraday had created the first rotary action powered by electricity (a primitive electric motor). The practical applications of these discoveries and those of many others in this area, revolutionised people’s lives. Electric lighting, telecommunications, radar (of particular interest to Takis), computing and propulsion to mention just a few. Relevant others who surely deserve credit here are Nicola Tesla and Thomas Edison (indeed a few of Takis’ sculptures resemble Tesla’s scientific apparatus. At least superficially at any rate). One can perhaps imagine the impact of all these things on the young Takis in Greece.

In addition to their practical application, the revelation that these hitherto hidden and mysterious forces of nature were in fact as ‘real’ as the light we see or sound we hear; had a profound effect on humanity’s overall conception of itself. Namely, there is a world beyond that which we can naturally perceive.

By the late 1950s, the subject of science and technology had come to occupy a very prominent position in people’s imagination as evidence of ‘progress’ in society. A good example of this would be the emergent ‘Space Race’.

Takis too responded to this in his 1960 ‘action’ called ‘The Impossible- Man in Space’. The poet Sinclair Beiles was suspended in mid air by a series of magnets, whilst at the same time, Takis recited the poem ‘Magnetic Manifesto’ (To put this into perspective, the first human being in space would only be a year later, although by that point, most people knew this was only a matter of time).

In conversation with the Co-Curators, Takis (who is now in his 90s and still spritely) makes an observation to the youthful Wellen “I feel more younger than you!”. After 70 years, he still has an infectious curiosity for the world and one gets the feeling that play and experiment remain an essential source for artistic creation.

The Exhibition

The first gallery includes a work called ‘Magnetic Fields’ (1969). Imagine many small magnets on wires, like flowers on stalks that are equally distributed on a rectangular plinth. Movements of passing spectators and ambient changes in the local environment, produce subtle vibrations and breezes, which agitate the magnets. As each magnet moves, its force repels or attracts the other magnets nearest to it, creating a chain reaction that works its way outwards. As more of the magnets are effected and binded together in movement, intricate patterns are created which gradually disperse. Imagine the wind acting on a field of wheat. Although the components of this sculpture might seem simple on first take, it is the combined effect of these lines of force are the real subject of the piece. Yet we don’t see them visually, because only their effects on the the parts we can see are visible. Acting on each other in harmony in patterns that never repeat. An excellent example of economy of means. In the same space, we also see earlier works like ‘Oedipus and Antigone’ (1953).

That first gallery contains a mixed collection, but in the adjacent space called ‘Magnetism and Metal’; we are treated to a selection of works incorporating live magnetic forces, generated through powered coils and solenoids. Takis was fascinated by the way these invisible waves interacted with materials; seeing this as a form of ‘communication’. The art critic Alain Jouffroy described these works as ‘telemagnetic”, implying communication at a distance. We can see here pieces entitled ‘Telesculpture’ or ‘Telepainting’, which also demonstrate that Takis was not to be limited to one or two dimensions. These powerful and dramatic works incorporate ‘found’ needles and nails, held tense in suspension, positioned at angles that might be said to suggest defence or even conflict. And they never move, as if time itself has been arrested. I found these works to be especially engaging. This last feature is also apparent in the magnetic forms held in perpetual suspension above the two dimensional surface of ‘Magnetic Wall 9 (Red)’ from 1961. Another work was appropriately called ‘Defying Gravity’ which seemed a very apt way to describe these pieces. We may know it is a conjuring trick in our heads, yet our eyes remain thankfully fooled.

As to the idea of ‘conflict’ or ‘defence’, perhaps that’s just my point of view. Formally, some of these pieces reminded me of certain works by Barbara Hepworth or Henry Moore. But I accept that is a subjective interpretation.

‘Signals’ & Found Objects

The old nails and needles of the previous sculptures are indicative of another significant feature of Takis’ art practice. That is his use of ‘found’ objects as a source material. The interpretation of fragments has of course been the bread and butter of Archaeology and something long associated with his homeland. Yet in Greek art, past and present, the concept of the ‘fragment’ can also act as a source of artistic inspiration. From the aesthetic appreciation of Sapphic poetry, right through to the sculpture of Jannis Kaunellis.

A few more points about ‘Found’ objects. For many artists, the use of found objects can be, to paraphrase Kurt Schwitters, a matter of social conscience or expediency. After all, if you are poor and want to make art, why not use what’s around you rather than invest in expensive art materials? One of the implications of Cubist Collage was that anything can be used in the production of art, because the world is full of interesting things that just happen not to be made in art material factories. Some artists attach great significance to the their finds; forging new meanings by combining distinct objects together, in order to create a third which is unique (objects with no apparent or previous connection). The Surrealist ‘found’ object.

Takis himself incorporated actual fragments from exploded bombs, collected from the Civil War battlefields in Greece, into some of his ‘Signal’ pieces. Given that people’s experiences of war and its myriad horrors, indignities and injustices never fades, his personal memories of the conflict are no doubt raw, so it’s really not necessary to elaborate as to why the artist might have used such things. Suffice to suggest that they could be both a memorial and an accusation.

The ‘Signals’ constitute a significant proportion of the artist’s output and were inspired while waiting at a railway station, when Takis found himself surrounded by ‘monster eyes’ going on and off in a ‘Jungle of Iron’. This was in 1957.

Takis’ ‘Signals’ are antenna like and we see a variety of ‘found’ objects attached to their thin, flexible poles, which themselves are held fast to a heavy base. When placed outside, these are designed to bend, to sway in the breeze. My feeling inside the gallery was that they appeared to loom over one with an almost anthropomorphic presence. Most of these pieces are simply titled; literal descriptions with the prefix ‘Signal’. But in a few cases, with titles such as ‘Signal- Insect Animal of Space’ (1956), you get closer to what might have been the artist’s original thinking.

Regardless of their origins, the ‘Signals’ do posses a poetic and mysterious quality, which I found particularly powerful when they were grouped together. Many of the ‘Signals’ are topped with ‘found’ lights and a few even blink. These I thought were the most enigmatic of all.

Lights and ‘Energy’

There is a darkened space within the exhibition labelled ‘Light and Darkness’. Here are shown Takis’ experiments incorporating various kinds of light into wall hanging box sculptures. These works make no attempt to conceal their internal wiring and electronics. The lights themselves emit a dim coloured glow that put me in mind of the valves from old radio and television sets. Takis called these ‘Télélumière Reliefs’ and they date from the early 60s. With a beauty pitched somewhere between art and the aesthetics of scientific equipment; I got the impression they were the result of Takis following his internal artistic logic, in trying to convey ‘energies’ to the spectator; perhaps in the manner of a heater in a room. I must admit to finding Takis’ concept of ‘energy’ a little hard to quantify (perhaps that’s not the point?). Central to his role as an artist is the transmission of ‘active energies’, conveyed directly to the spectator using artistic means. His complex and all embracing philosophy combines knowledge derived from a wide range of ideas and experience. These include the arts and sciences obviously, but also spirituality. Takis’ concept of ‘energy’ has underpinned all of his activities; not just those in creative areas.

Activism and Experimentation

Many of Takis’ artistic activities transcend the artificial boundaries of the gallery and so in this exhibition, are presented in a separate gallery. One particularly interesting work documented here is ‘Magnetic Ballet’ from 1963. Among other things, we see evidence of Takis’ engagement with other artists, together with excerpts of the 1968 film ‘Takis Unlimited’. This is particularly useful in establishing just how physically connected he is to the substance of his work; the materials being formed by the artist’s own hands in front of the camera. You can also see footage of the artist on YouTube which shows that Takis still has a very ‘hands on’ approach to making art, even in his 90s.

Sounds

Throughout the exhibition one can hear a range of extraordinary sounds. Several of the sculptures on display have a sonic component; evidence of another of the artist’s preoccupations. Some are required to be activated by hand (ask a member of the gallery staff to do it for you), whilst others react to their immediate environmental conditions. In both cases, the sounds created are complex and deeply resonant; endlessly shifting, variable in pitch and timbre, like some form of perpetual ambient music.

My favourite work on display was ‘Musicals 1985-2004’, which was set up in a separate gallery called ‘Sound and Silence’. Here there are a sequence of identical wall mounted sheets that all have a metal string attached to them, vertically in tension. On each, what can only be described as a heavy ‘pin’ acts as a ‘bow’, gently agitating the string, creating a deep and rich variable drone. Set up together, they appear to work in concert. What appears to activate them all seems to be the same delicate forces of wind and vibration as on ‘Magnetic Fields’ (1969) in the first gallery. I found this a most captivating and beautiful work, which put me in mind of the artist and musician Max Eastley.

In the final room are a mixture of works that include ‘Gong’, made from the hull of an oil tanker in 1978. When activated, it’s long drawn out sound gradually recedes, adding an element of ritual to the marking of time. Another sound work is called ‘Musical Sphere’ from 1985. This one has a suspended ball that gently moves over two wires linked to an electric amplifier, creating a distinctive sound that waxes and wanes with each passage of the sphere. The effect of this is quite magical; manifesting as sound the dynamic changes caused by this metallic ball in motion and making one think of the mechanisms driving the Cosmos. Truly ‘Music of the Spheres’. The sheer weight of these two sculptures and the incredible way the artist has suspended them from the roof of the gallery, shows the fundamental role gravity plays in so many of Takis’ works of art. The extremely heavy spheres move with absolute ease, absolute certainty along their preordained paths. The same is true for ‘Gong’, as the metal rod that strikes the circular ‘bell’ moves in perfect precision and then back once more to its settled position.

In Conclusion

I had been looking forward to this exhibition for some time and wasn’t disappointed. My hope is that it will help bring Takis’ art to a wider audience in the UK. For me, it is definitely my favourite show of the year so far. Thought provoking and entertaining, so that most people will get something out of their visit.

The artist’s clever and playful meditations on our relationship to the electromagnetic universe will make you think, whilst the kids will obviously love the kinetic aspects of the works. A little advice for your visit is not to rush through. Give yourself enough time to allow for each sculpture to gradually reveal itself- even if this means ‘going against the people tide’. This isn’t ‘quick-fire’ stuff, no matter how dramatic or theatrical it might first appear.

In a world of rapidly increasing technological complexity, where the human hand seems to have been outrun by the human brain, it is in some ways reassuring to look at Takis’ art. So many years after it was produced, it still manages to move and entrance the viewer, even if the technical components belong to a time long since past. A time in which it was possible to see how things worked just by looking at them.

Takis, with his self taught and expansive wisdom, sought out new directions in sculpture and found them beyond the usually visible, in order to help us visualise our fundamental connection to the hidden forces of nature. Or as I heard a disembodied voice in the show say ‘he didn’t want to (just) make a garden, but rather construct an entire irrigation system’.

‘Takis: Sculptor of Magnetism, Light and Sound’ is at Tate Modern until October 27th 2019.

(C) Gideon Hall 2019