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.
Panayiotis Vassilakis – known by the nickname Takis – became one the most original artistic voices in Europe in the 1960s. He remains a ground-breaking artist today. This exhibition includes work from across his seventy-year career.
Born in 1925 in Athens, the self-taught artist began by studying ancient sculpture before moving in a radically new direction. 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.’
This exhibition is not chronological. Instead it is arranged by themes that shape Takis’s creative universe: magnetism and metal, light and darkness, sound and silence. It also highlights his critical involvement with creative and scientific communities across Europe and the United States. This first room features a selection of figures and flowers – forms that Takis explored as a young sculptor in Athens and to which he has returned throughout his career
MAGNETISM AND METAL
A simple floating nail could be sufficient to liberate a spectator from his ordinary daily task and worries for a few minutes, or even change totally his attitude towards life.
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 ‘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 through it, to attempt to penetrate cosmic mysteries,’ he explained.
POETRY, TRANSMISSION AND SPACE
I cannot think of my work as entirely my work. In a sense, I’m only a transmitter, I simply bathe in energy. The artist must preserve this intense receptiveness. The real artist you cannot touch.
Takis publicly introduced magnetism into art in 1960 when he staged the performance The Impossible: A Man in Space. He suspended the poet Sinclair Beiles in mid-air through a system of magnets. While floating in space, Beiles recited his poem ‘Magnetic Manifesto’. At the time, the Soviet Union and the United States were competing to send the first person into orbit. This ‘space race’ was an extension of an ongoing arms race between the two global superpowers. Takis’s event was both a poetic act and a critique of warfare.
Takis had experienced the devastation of war first-hand. During the Second World War he 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 Takis moved from Athens to Paris in 1954. He travelled regularly to London in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The artist-run gallery Signals London was named as a tribute to Takis’s sculpture, and inspired by his approach to art.
SOUND AND SILENCE
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’s sculptures produce sounds ranging from single notes to thunderous ensembles. His Signals sculptures were his first experiments with sound. They were formed with thin metal poles and coiling piano wires. They respond to surrounding air currents, generating delicate noises.
By the mid-1960s Takis had begun to use electromagnets to deliberately create sound. These works included Gongs and Musicals, in which magnets pull metal rods against instrument strings to produce what he called ‘space sounds’. These artworks have a life of their own and their sounds cannot be fully controlled. Takis allowed the physical properties of the materials to determine the musical score: ‘When I have made the instrument, I become detached from it. I become merely a listener.
LIGHT AND DARKNESS
We have chased the sacred symbols into the desert and replaced them with electronic eyes.
Takis began to use electrical lights in his work in the early 1960s. His inspiration came after waiting hours at a train station en route to Paris from London. Takis described the station as a forest of signals: ‘monster-eyes’ flashed on and off in a ‘jungle of iron’.
The artist remembers growing up in Athens when the city’s main square had only one traffic light. The environment in Paris and London was strikingly different. While the dazzling station lights offered inspiration, they also made Takis uneasy: ‘It was technology everywhere. I lost a little of the earth of Greece.’
Throughout the 1960s Takis frequented military surplus stores, discount electronics shops and flea markets. There he sourced parts from aeroplanes, cars, industrial machines and traffic signals. Using these objects helped him to process his new environment, while continuing to explore themes of communication and energy. The resulting work reflects both the potential and the threat offered by technology.
ACTIVISM AND EXPERIMENTATION
We try to achieve spiritual collaboration between artist and scientist. Otherwise, the technology is just a gadget.
Social and political activism hold a central place in Takis’s life and practice. In 1968, he was one of the first visiting fellows at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States. 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 collaborated with engineers in London to produce affordable, mass-produced editions of his sculptures.
In 1969, while living in New York, Takis 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.
MUSIC OF THE SPHERES
This is an entirely spiritual search, an attempt at liberation from the material and materialistic world.
In Athens in the mid-1980s, Takis began building his Research Center for the Art and the Sciences, known today as the Takis Foundation. Opened in 1993, it houses the artist’s studio, archive and library, as well as an exhibition space. The centre hosts artists and scientists, and is visited regularly by school groups and researchers. At the heart of the Takis Foundation is an open-air theatre space featuring a collection of Takis’s works organised around a central Gong. A group of those sculptures are presented here.
For Takis sound has a spiritual component relating to the idea of cosmic harmony. The sounds produced by his work also relate to ancient philosophies about the universe, particularly the idea of the ‘music of the spheres’. Early astronomers and mathematicians used this concept as a theoretical framework for understanding how stars and planets interact with one another in space. Philosophers, composers and poets used the phrase more literally in imagining the sounds of the heavens themselves.
Takis’s engagement with energy and natural forces continues to be shaped by observations from science, art, poetry, history, politics, mythology and religion. In turn, his work has long inspired creative responses from his viewers. Through the sounds and sculpture in this room, the artist aims to prompt contemplation about ourselves, our world and the universe.