Friday, 13 December 2019

Takis at Tate Modern

'Plato speaks of an artist turning the invisible world into the visible. I hope that someone seeing my sculpture is lifted out of his ordinary state'.


at Tate Modern.

Panayiotis Vassilakis - known by the nickname Takis - became one of the most original artistic voices in Europe in the 1960s. He remains a ground-breaking artist today. This exhibition includes work from across his 70-year career.

Born in 1925 in Athens, the self-taught artist began by studying ancient sculpture before moving in a radically new direction. During WWII, Takis was active in the Resistance in occupied Greece, and faced political persecution during the Greek Civil War that followed. To escape this stifling political climate and pursue his artistic career, he moved from Athens to Paris in 1954. While living in Paris in the mid-1950s, he started exploring the sculptural possibilities of electromagnetism. For Takis, the 'visual qualities' of his work were irrelevant:  'What I was obsessed with was the concept of energy'.

The exhibition is arranged by themes that shaped Takis' creative universe: magnetism and metal, light and darkness, sound and silence.

This was a sensory experience: photographs, and consequently this blog, cannot do it justice.

Iocasta, 1954, (iron)

Oedipus and Antigone, 1953, (iron and wood)

Magnetism and Metal:

In 1959, Takis made a leap from figurative art to a new form of abstraction, based on magnetic energy. He suspended metal objects in space using magnets, giving lightness and movement to what is usually gravity-bound and still. He was fascinated by the waves of invisible energy that he saw as 'as a communication' between materials. Art critic Alain Jouffroy described these works as 'telemagnetic'. 'Tele' meaning 'at a distance', suggests their relationship to technologies such as television and the telephone.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Takis incorporated radar, antennae, aerials, dials and gauges into his sculptures. Although he approached these materials with knowledge about engineering and science, he consistently defined himself as an artist geared towards mythological thought. In his hands, technologies of warfare and environmental destruction became monuments of beauty and contemplation 'My desire as a sculptor was to learn to use this energy, and though it, to attempt to penetrate cosmic mysteries', he explained.

He produced various 'telemagnetic' installations in the early 1960s using plinths, walls and the ceiling of the gallery. The installations challenged the traditional conventions of sculpture. Waves of magnetic energy move through these spaces, holding the individual elements in suspension.

Magnetic Fields, 1969, (metal, magnets, wire)

A large grouping of flower-like sculptures are brought to life by the magnetic pendulums that swing overhead.

Early in his career, Takis began experimenting with how to use energy and movement in sculpture. 'What interested me was to put into iron sculpture a new, continuous and live force'... The result was in no way a graphic representation of a force but the force itself. Marcel Duchamp described Takis as the 'happy ploughman of the magnetic fields'.

Magnetic Wall (Flying Fields), 1963, (cork, cloth, magnets, metal, metal wire, wood)

Electro-Magnetic Music, 1966, (amplifier, electromagnet, magnet, metal wire, needle, paint, spark plugs and wood)

Magnetic Disc, 1960, (aluminium, iron nails, magnet, nylon thread)

Musicals, 1985-2004, (electromagnets, iron, metal string, nylon thread, paint, steel needles, wood)

Like many of the works in this exhibition, this work is on a timer. It runs for approx. 5 minutes followed by a rest of 5 minutes. Electromagnetic forces used in the work give it a life of its own. 
'My intention was to make nature's phenomena emerge from my work... in nature everything is sound: the wind, the sea, the humming of insects'. 

Takis' sculptures produce sounds ranging from single notes to thunderous ensembles. They respond to surrounding air currents, generating delicate noises. Magnets pull metal rods against instrument strings to produce what he called 'space sounds'. 

Magnetic Wall 9 (Red), 1961, (acrylic paint on canvas, copper wire, foam, magnets, paint, plastic, steel, synthetic cloth)

Takis began his Magnetic Walls series in 1961. Magnets are hidden behind the canvas of these single-colour paintings. Hanging metal objects are attracted to these magnets, hovering just above the canvas surface. The result is an expansion of painting, where abstract elements, instead of being painted on the canvas, float in space over it. Takis spoke of his work as creating an 'action in space', rather than the 'illusion of space' that many previous artists had achieved.

Telepainting, 1959, (acrylic paint on canvas, magnets, nylon thread, steel)

Light and Darkness:

Takis began to use electrical lights in his work in the early 1960s. His inspiration came after waiting for hours at a train station en route to Paris from London. He described the station as a forest of signals: 'monster eyes' flashed on and off in a 'jungle of iron'.

Black Panel Dials, 1968, (dials, lightbulbs, metal, paint, wood).

Takis found many of his materials in military surplus stores selling supplies left over from WWII.
He created a series of wall reliefs from salvaged aeroplane gauges and instrumental panels. These panels showed pilots the invisible forces affecting their flights, such as wind speed. Through Takis' intervention, the rhythms of the panels verge toward visual music. At the time he made them, he was calling for political revolutionaries and scientists to develop what he called 'anti-tech' to disrupt the technologies of ruling governments and mass media.

Telelumiere Relief No. 5, 1963-64, (electrical components, lightbulbs and wood)

Around 1962, Takis began to incorporate mercury-arc rectifiers into his work. These glowing blue valves use magnetism to convert alternating electrical current (AC) into direct current (DC). They were commonly used in electric railways, power substations and radios before the 1970s. For Takis, these valves had a visual importance beyond their original functions. He used them to take viewers aware of the energy fields surrounding them.

Activism and Experimentation:

Social and political activism hold a central place in Takis' life and practice. In 1968, he was of the first visiting fellows at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the USA. There he continued to produce works using electromagnetism. He also developed work harnessing renewable energies in conjunction with scientists and engineers. Takis described these collaborators as 'poets' and 'creators'. His residency resulted in a patented device for transforming water currents into electricity. In an effort to democratise art, he also collabotated with engineers in London to produce affordable, mass-produced editions of his sculptures.

In 1969, while living in New York, he physically removed his work from an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. It had been exhibited against his wishes. This action led to the formation of the Art Workers' Coalition. It included artists, filmmakers, writers, critics and museum staff. The coalition advocated for museum reform including a less exclusionary exhibition policy in relation to women artists and artists of colour.

Triple Signal, 1976, (bronze, found objects, iron)

Triple Signal, 1976, (bronze, found objects, iron)

Takis' Signals resemble radio receivers. For him, they are 'like electronic antenna, like lightning rods... They constituted a modern hieroglyphic language...'

Insect, 1956, (acrylic sheet, bronze, paint, steel)

Triple Signal, 1976, (bronze, found objects, iron)

Takis' Signals sculptures from the 1970s include bomb fragments from the Greek Civil War. They were gathered from the hillside around his Athens studio. The use of these materials transforms the remnants of war into monuments of beauty and contemplation. Formed by an explosion, the bomb fragments also relate to his fascination with all manifestations of energy, from the subtle to the dramatic. 'Sometimes I explode materials in order to increase the flow of energy and observe the effect'.

Musical Sphere, Electromagnetic Sphere and Gong

Gong, 1978

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

There is a fork in the road

Tomorrow, the 12th of December,  is election day in the UK. A very important election, probably the most important one in my lifetime.

I am posting this stunning video from Ken Loach and his team. 'The choices we make reveal who we are: is it 'I' or is it 'We'?'

Meditation by Willi Soukop

Willi Soukop, Meditation, 1969, (terracotta on wooden base)

A woman's head, simple and tender.

This sculpture is part of the Ancestors series, an installation at the Royal Academy of Art.

Born in Vienna, Soukop studied at the Academy of Fine Art there from 1928-34. In 1934 he left Austria and came to Britain, living and working at Dartington Hall, near Totnes. He exhibited his sculpture widely and regularly sent work to the RA Summer exhibitions.

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Goggle Head by Elisabeth Frink

This sculpture is part of the Ancestors series, an installation at the Royal Academy of Art.

The Goggle Heads series by Elisabeth Frink is a group of sculptures she created which stem from a questioning and uncompromising preoccupation with masculine power that was central to Frink's work. On examining this sculpture further one notices the slight smirk in the smile, the heavy features, the hard and imposingly solid shape of the head.

 'When I moved to France I got interested in the Algerian War, which was then just only over. It still rumbled away, the horror of it. What really triggered the Goggle Heads series were some rather extraordinary photographs of people like General Oufkir. They all hid behind dark glasses, and these became a symbol of evil for me', Frink explained.

Goggle Heads are sophisticated criminal types, their identities hidden behind polished goggles, displaying a bullish arrogance and suaveness. The double edged point of these glasses however, is that these men lack vision and they mask a vulnerability, as Peter Shaffer wrote: 'the constant wearing of dark glasses always speaks of impotence to me: a fear of having scrutiny returned - the secret terror of the torturer'. Goggle Heads are a direct attack on such individuals: brainless, nasty people. Frink has said that these sculptures are 'a statement on my part about the cruelty and stupidity of repressive regimes and of the men who operate them'.  Through the continuous exploring of this theme, few artists have managed to comment so forcefully on the character of these men as Frink has, through these monumental, compelling bronzes.

Friday, 29 November 2019

Anthony Gormley at the RA

Anthony Gormley at the Royal Academy of Arts, London.

Iron Baby, 1999

Placed directly on the ground, this small sculpture, tiny against the grand scale of the courtyard, was such a nice surprise. The life-size form of a newborn baby is a solid iron cast based on the artist's six-day-old daughter. Gormley stated: 'its density suggests energy potential like a small bomb. The material is iron (concentrated earth), the same as the core of our planet. Here, this tiny bit of matter in human form attempts to make us aware of our precarious position in relation to our planetary future. It is the gesture of a body closed in on itself, needy of comfort, shelter, sustenance and peace'.

Once we got into the galleries, we entered hell. We visited on a Tuesday so as to avoid the crowds and yet, I have never seen so many people at an exhibition. Absolute mayhem. Every room was packed with people, there were screaming kids running around, climbing on the sculptures, bumping into people. Absolute hell. I hated every minute of it. We were very selective in what we looked at, and ignored the prints even though they were very fine. My overwhelming feeling was to get out.  Did I regret seeing the exhibition? Absolutely not. I love Gormleys work and am glad that I saw the exhibition despite the conditions.

It's a difficult one, isn't it? It's great that so many people want to visit art galleries - Clement Greenberg called them the Cathedrals of the Twentieth Century - but at the same time, the whole experience becomes unpleasant and overwhelming.

In the first room, the Slabworks, 2019, are to be found.

14 sculptures are distributed across the floor. They are hard-edged steel slabs.

At first they appear to be building-like constructions

but they are revealed as human forms. Despite this extreme abstraction of form, the finely-tuned proportions trigger our recognition.


In the second gallery the experimental origins of Gormley's practice during the late 1970s and 1980s are explored. The main influences here are Art Povera (known for transforming 'poor' materials) and Land Art, which saw artists working out in the landscape and bringing nature into the gallery.

One Apple bisects the space of the gallery.

53 lead cases record the growth of an apple from the first petal to fall from the blossom, through the stages of ripening to mature fruit. Each contains the died remains of the fresh apple which was moulded to make the form for each case.

The apple recalls the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden and Newton's apple that inspired his law of gravity. In common with other sculptures gathered here, One Apple reveals Gormley's preoccupation with ideas of expansion in time and space.

Blanket Drawing V, 1983, (clay and blanket)

Land Sea and Air, 1977-79, (lead, stone, water and air)

Three apparently hidden forms that pose the question: what is inside? Hidden from view we are left to imagine their interiors: a rock, water and empty space. Collectively, they represent the necessary conditions for life: in the artist's words, 'they are seeds for the future'. Gormley went on to apply the technique of wrapping and beating sheets of lead to casts of his own body to create his famous 'body cases'.

Mother's Pride V, 2019, (bread and wax)

looking closer

Full Bowl, 1977-78, (lead)

Clearing VII, 2019:

This 'drawing in space', as the artist calls it, is made from approximately 8 kilometres of square section aluminium tube, coiled and allowed to expand until restricted by the floor, walls and ceiling. The wild orbits of the line evoke the sub-atomic paths of electrons, or the frantic scribbles of a child.

Clearing VII challenges the boundaries of sculpture: the space occupied by the piece and the viewer are one. No longer a single object, the work become a spatial 'field'. Choosing a route involved a physical negotiation: stepping over, crouching or turning sideways, we became part of this dynamic artwork.

The expression on this woman's face encapsulated the atmosphere that pervaded this exhibition when we visited: frantic, manic.

Subject II, 2019

A single life-size body form, with head bent, contemplates the ground on which it stands.

This sculpture tests the boundary between the body and space; the 'skin' dissolves and the imagined surface shifts as we move around the dense lattice structure.

Matrix III, 2019, (approx 6 tonnes of 6 mm steel reinforcing mesh)

Designed especially for this gallery, 21 suspended room-size cages intersect, surrounding a small concentrated chamber. This void at the core is what Gormley calls 'the space of dreaming', and is the equivalent to the average size of a European new-build bedroom. Looking up at this structure, our ability to perceive distances is challenged: our eyes struggle to decide what is close or far, in front or behind. The certainty and solidity of the three-dimensional world is undermined. Gormley has described Matrix III as the 'ghost of the environment we've all chosen to accept as our primary habitat'.

Lost Horizon, 2008, (24 cast iron bodyforms)

During the 1980s Gormley began to work with cast iron, which offered durability for works outdoors. The process starts in the same way as the lead 'body cases': the artist remains still while he is encased in wet plaster. The iron casts in this installation are generated serially from six moulds of similar poses, each one registering 'a lived moment of time'. For Gormley, when we close our eyes, but are conscious and aware, we occupy 'another kind of space, without co-ordinates'.

Lost Horizon I, as the title implies, denies us the distant horizontal line that we use to orientate ourselves. Many of Gormley's outdoor works consist of 'fields' of figures, placed across large areas in deserts, up mountains and on beaches. In Another Place for example, the bodies draw our attention to the horizon, and establish a link between the expanse of the landscape, and our capacity to 'go places' in our minds.

Here, inside the gallery, gravity appears to be defied and space folds in on itself: bodies project from all sides, at odds with one another. Although the works are perpendicular to the spectacular architecture of the room, the effect as we move between them is disorienting.  Of course, the level horizon bellies the roundness of the earth. As we live on a ball and not a flat plane, the works around us could be understood to represent the natural orientation of humans around the globe.

Body and Fruit, 1991-93

Body, 1991-93 and Fruit, 1991-93, (cast iron and air)

These two sculptures originate from the artist's body held tightly in a foetal position.

Concrete Works, 1990-93:

At first glance, these works appear as nothing more than concrete blocks. In fact, each conceals a void in the form of a body. The feet, hands and head pass through the edges, allowing glimpses into the passages formed by the neck, arms, legs and torso. The interior surfaces of the voids retain the inverse impression of the skin. In revealing the familiar body as a strange absence, the works point to mortality.

Cave, 2019, (approx. 27 tonnes of weathering steel)

A sculpture on an architectural scale. At the doorway we had the choice of either entering a constricted passageway, or to navigate around the outside.

We joined the queue to enter the passageway

We were given advice on how to enter as we were warned it would be very dark and very constricted

half-way through we came to a clearing

and then darkness enveloped us again.

For Gormley, it is when we close eyes that we most readily experience our body as a place: 'that experience of interiorised darkness is not so different to the darkness of the night sky; the darkness of the body and deep space are a continuum'. Inside Cave, the angular, winding cavern slows our passage through, and we must literally feel our way, relying on our senses to guide us through the darkness as soft shafts of light reflect off facets of the sculpture.

We were then able to walk around the structure.

From above, the jostling cuboid structures are revealed as a vast, hollow human form, crouched on its side.

Here the body is transformed into a collapsed architecture that deliberately contrasts with the regular geometry and refined decoration of the gallery space. 

Host, 2019

We stood by the door looking at an expanse of clay and seawater.

Is this an image of destruction - a devastating flood? Or of potential creation? Host embodies the raw conditions in which life might emerge, a kind of primordial soup of matter, space and time.

Pile I, 2007 (clay) and Pile II, 2018, (clay)