Over a seventy-year career in Athens, Paris, London and New York, Takis created some of the most powerful and innovative artworks of the twentieth century. The recent unprecedented circumstances may not have allowed the exhibition which traveled from the Tate Modern in London to the MACBA in Barcelona to complete its journey at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, however, the exhibition catalogue material could not have been overlooked as it illuminates an artist whose influence in post-war Europe has proven a catalyst.
Until 5 December 2020, three thematic essays on the artist’s work and practice, as well as his discussion with author and critic Maїten Bouisset, become available online, guiding readers through the key themes of Takis’s oeuvre: magnetism and metal; light and darkness; sound and silence.
Rich photographic material offers one the opportunity to browse digitally the exhibition works, as well as historical photographs spanning through the artist’s career – material that the Museum of Cycladic Art has been exceptionally granted permission to make available online with free access, due to the current circumstances and despite usual copyright rules.
How often do you think about magnetism? Or gravity? Or,for that matter, electricity, even though it keeps so much of contemporary life and its accompanying gadgets running smoothly? Most of us take these forces for granted in our daily lives. Likewise, a successfully functioning machine makes itself nearly invisible, as does its technical complexity: a knowledge held by engineers and specialists but rarely by the common user. Takis produced an art that incorporated industrial materials and machine parts from the world around him. Their original functions were not the primary concern of the artist. Instead he used them to draw out emotive and affective relations, particularly between viewers and the energy fields around them. In the revolutionary period of the 1960s, his voice resonated with many working in a variety of different fields, including (but not limited to) music, poetry, science, philosophy, engineering and, of course, visual art. Experimental writers and artists sat up and took notice of his telemagnetic sculptures, which employed magnetism to make objects float, and admired his sculptures using electric lights. The young leaders of popular culture did too, with figures such as Paul McCartney and John Lennon considering Takis a remarkable underground artist and pursuing his work. Perhaps what appealed to so many of the period was Takis’s inclination to break conventions. Each of his sculptures was a provocation. Through light, sound and movement, they stimulate the senses with the intention to prompt wonder and reflection as well as to agitate.
An Unsettling Glow
The blue light of a Télélumière
crackles from inside a foggy glass tube. Strange and vivid, its flickering glow attracts uswith its beauty. One writer, marvelling at such a work, said,‘it was as though the blue of the sky had been trapped.’
Héléna Calas and Nicolas Calas, Takis: Monographies, Paris 1984, p.88. But if the light in this sculpture inspires awe, it may also generate a sense of unease. This is partly because its colour – an unusual and fascinating bright blue, but like the end of a blowtorch – suggests an intense and dangerous heat. That sense of danger is heightened by the cracking sounds coming from the sculpture, and by the visible and restless movements of this unrecognisable light, not quite flames nor the expected image of electrical currents, but some gaseous and glowing plasma channelled within an oddly shaped glass bulb. Will the glass withstand these forces? In the early 1960s, during experiments for the Télélumière series, Takis and Panos Raimondos (his friend, fellow artist and assistant) would take cover behind the doorof his Paris studio before powering up his latest creation in case of possible explosions.
According to Takis’s studio assistant Yiorgos Nakoudis the artist began experiments in 1961 with changing polarities of a cathode ray tube despite warnings from friends that it would explode. Nakoudis, interview with the author, 25 January 2019. At the time of writing my own research and communication with Tate conservators indicate the artist consistently used rectifiers which took many different shapes and sizes, to create his Télélumières. Through trial and error, Takis became expert at manipulating electronic and mechanical components, using them to build suspense in his art. He elongates a moment of tension, whether we are gazing at a metal object hovering in front of a magnet, awaiting the unpredictable drummingof his musical works or watching the flaming pulses of his Télélumières. He seems to stop time, inviting us to inspectthe elements right before the moment of impact.
Perhaps more than Takis’s other works, the Télélumière series – begun around 1961 and continued for about twenty years – elicits a sense of dark mystery and solemnity. His own artistic choices seem to acknowledge this. Consider his Medusa 1980, in the collection of the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
In addition to Medusa, there are various other examples in which Takis used mercury-arc rectifiers to create haunting effects. For instance, his massive installation Century of Kafka (produced in 1984 for an exhibition at Centre Pompidou in Paris that celebrated, one year late, the centennial of Franz Kafka’s birth) placed cages of mercury-arc rectifiers lit with strobe lights in stacks opposite a row of old machines, bronze casts of body parts and the metallic kinetic sculptures he called ‘vibrating lines’, which produce disorienting thrumming noises.
The work received its title because of the unusual shape of its central glass bulb (a vacuum tube containing mercury, in this case a mercury-arc rectifier), with its six branching glass arms channelling blue light around a central globe. The title choice heightens the suggestion of a loosely figurative scene with the complex machine as the snake-haired monster who could turn observers to stone. Imposing in size, this central sculpture is surrounded by three small acolytes. These are examples of Magnetic Ballets (Ballets magnétiques), (and sometimes just called telesculpture) produced by Takis since the 1960s comprising a ball suspended from the ceiling that swivels around an electromagnetic base.
The composition of Medusa is a more monumental take on the Télélumières Takis had produced in the 1960s. Télélumière No. 4 1963–4,
See Bottom Gallery for instance, pairs an upright sculpture that has a mercury-arc valve as its ‘head’ with a Magnetic Ballet that sits at its ‘feet’. It was originally exhibited at Signals London within a brightly lit space, but since then the artist has insisted on setting Télélumière No. 4 in darkness. In 2007, as part of a display at Tate Modern in London, curators Guy Brett and Tanya Barson chose to install the work in a blackened niche so that visitors would encounter it like a shrine.
Télélumière No. 4 was included in Tate Modern’s Oiticica in London, a display in 2007 to accompany its Hélio Oiticica: The Body of Colour exhibition. In retrospect, it is possible to read most of the Télélumière works as an extension of the figurative work that Takis produced early in his career, but with the addition of light and magnetism. He considered both his standing figures and his metal-forged Idols and Flowers sculptures from the 1950s as embodiments of internal energies.
See Melissa Warak, ‘Energies in the Early Works of Takis’, in Douglas Kahn (ed.), Energies in the Arts, Cambridge, MA 2019. The Télélumière sculptures, however, present a visible energy: they possess caged bodies of electronics, flashing lights and glass heads that display to viewers a fierce burning.
They are totemic forms; much like the sculptures he calls Signals. These, too, he occasionally describes as blinking monsters. In his memoir Estafilades (Slashes) published in 1961, Takis relates how his idea for the Signals series emerged in 1955 while waiting for several hours at a train station en route from London to Paris:
The station was a huge [complex], a forest of signals. Monster-eyes went on and off, rails, tunnels, a jungle of iron. I got out a chalk, and drew it all on the cement. I drew all those phenomena. I tried to show clearly the needs of human imagination and thought by an exact execution: man constructs for his own use tunnels and exits, symbols for his evasion of death. We have chased the sacred symbols into the desert and replaced them with electronic eyes .
Originally published in Takis, Estafilades, Paris 1961, pp.132–3. Cited here is an abbreviated version translated into English by Sebastian Brett in Signals, vol.1, nos.3–4, October–November 1964, p.2.
On various occasions Takis has described these hours in the train station as one of the pivotal moments of revelation in his career. This was a moment that – like his discovery of the potential of harnessing magnetism in his art a few years later in 1959 – led him to forge paths for reinventing sculpture. Eachof his Signals sculptures consists of thin, pliable metal poles with found objects or scraps of metal placed at their tops.The earliest examples had a strong calligraphic appearance: Takis joined twisting wire in billowing curves to the straight rod elements, creating an abstract writing in space. These early Signals looked like stylised radio receivers, and the artist specifically acknowledged that they were ‘like electronic antenna, like lightning rods… They constituted a modern hieroglyphic language which, to be understood, needed to be translated.’
Takis 1961, p.51. All translations by the author unless stated otherwise. There is a photograph from the period that shows Takis looking joyful having placed one of his Signals on a Parisian rooftop, where his sculpture enters the company of neighbouring radio and television aerials.
He titled some of these early sculptures ‘insect-animals’ and ‘rockets’, names that suggest that they straddle two worlds, suspended between the natural and the man-made, or between ground and sky. These titles also convey a heightened sense of motion. Takis designed the flexible metal rods to allow for movement (a gentle swaying caused by air currents or when touched), but perhaps also the rods themselves represent trajectory lines. Like Constantin Brancusi’s iconic Bird in Space series of 1923–40, these vertical elements offer an abstraction of upward movement, as if rocketing into space. ‘Brancusi’, commented Takis in a 1966 interview, ‘to me at any rate, created forms which seem to want to fly. I think that if he was alive today he would make them move.’
Charles Spencer, ‘Profile of Takis’,The Arts Review, vol.18, no.24, 10 December 1966, p.555. Similarly, the metal spirals at the top could be read as a complex and unpredictable movement, like a bee dancing round a flower. Consistently seeking to move beyond mere symbolism, Takis experimented with different ways to impart actual forces of energy into his sculpture. On various occasions he affixed fireworks to his Signals, igniting them in the streets of Paris.
See Bottom Gallery Around 1962 he also began using electric lights as the heads of the Signals. These lamps – originally from automobiles, buses, bicycles and traffic lights – were sourced from military surplus stores, flea markets and speciality shops.
The anecdote of the train station also suggests that Takis’s perceptions were intertwined with a process of interpreting his surroundings as a foreigner. ‘In exile, everything is unusual’, writes the philosopher and communication theorist Vilém Flusser in his essay ‘Exile and Creativity’ (1984). Flusser proposes that the conditions of exile, whether forced or self-imposed, demand creativity in order to cope:
Exile is an ocean of chaotic information… One must transform the information whizzing around into meaningful messages, to make it liveable. One must ‘process’ the data. It is a question of survival: if one fails to transform the data, one is engulfed by the waves of exile. Data transformation is a synonym for creation. The expelled must be creative if he does not want to go to the dogs.
Vilém Flusser, Writings (Electronic Mediations), Minneapolis, MN 2004, p.104
Takis’s own account of his early life in Greece and his self-education as an artist in France is filled with alienation and struggle. He moved from Athens to Paris in 1954 both to pursue his artistic career and to avoid political persecution. In his memoirs he recounts the extreme living conditions and recurring periods of near starvation that he, his friends and family faced during the occupation of Greece in the early 1940s, as well as the terrors of the Greek Civil War that followed.
Formulated like a diary, Estafilades contains various entries that indicate shortages of food, which led to family members’ illness and to Takis joining a gang of friends to steal food for survival. Desperation and hunger led him to join the National Republican Greek League (EDES), attracted by their slogan, ‘We want to eat, we want bread’. This group was a rival to the communist-led National Liberation Front (EAM). His friends eventually encouraged Takis to switch his allegiance to EAM and to serve as a spy within EDES. See Takis 1961, p.25. His writings chronicle great suffering while also hinting that the period was quite literally filled with darkness. Takis speaks of bitterly cold winters, for instance in 1950, when he and his family could not afford electricity or adequately heat their home. Moreover, wartime conditions meant that Takis’s youth was often shrouded in pitch-black darkness. In 1941 – when the artist was about sixteen years old – Athens was subjected to strict night curfews and blackout regulations that involved shutting off street lights, covering windows with dark paper or heavy curtains, and placing visors on car headlights to reduce being targeted by enemy air strikes.
Both the Allied and Axis powers instituted mandatory blackouts to reduce enemy bombing during the war. In London such measures took effect in 1939, and in Athens after the German invasion in 1941. I am thankful to Irene Panagopoulos for pointing out these conditions of daily life in Greece during the 1940s that give further impact to Takis’s work with light. For examples of stories set in Greece’s blackouts see Chrys Chryssanthou, The Secret Message of the Rooster: And Other Amazing Stories during the Nazi Occupation, Bloomington, IN 2007. Active in the resistance movements, Takis writes of skirting curfews and of the dangers of being stopped by military groups at night. He avoided capture by the Gestapo during the occupation, but in the Civil War he was imprisoned for six months for his involvement with the United Panhellenic Organisation of Youth, a wing of the National Liberation Front.
Takis’s departure to Paris was part of a mass exodus of people from all levels of Greek society, who fled their homes and headed to northern Europe during and after the Civil War. For Takis, the transition from the destitution and darkness of Greece to the City of Light must have been dramatic. It wasby no means easy, however. He arrived in Paris with little more than a backpack of belongings and spoke hardly any French.‘I have never been in such solitude’, he wrote. In Paris, every stranger is alone. Loneliness is worse than hell.’
Takis 1961, p.162. Takis recalled encountering similar difficulties during his first visits to London in the early 1950s. See Spencer 1966, p.555. That spirit of loneliness seems embedded in those of his Signals that incorporate lamps blinking intermittently like the ‘monster-eyes’ of the railway station. With only a few, precise changes Takis altered what were intended to be specific visual symbols, eliminating their fixed meanings and instead evoking feelings of anticipation and solitude. There is an immediate pleasure in seeing colourful lights flashing at us, but there is also a potential melancholy about the limits of this communication: a message reachesus that we may wish to, but cannot fully, read.
Sparks of Inspiration
While in Paris, Takis eventually found company and exchanged ideas with fellow experimental artists of his generation, including Yves Klein and Jean Tinguely, and also with well-established figures he admired, such as Alberto Giacometti. However, it was perhaps his exchanges with poets in the late 1950s and early 1960s that were most generative. He met William Burroughs, Sinclair Beiles, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg and Brion Gysin, all of whom were at varying times guests at a run-down boarding house in the city’s Latin Quarter that came to be nicknamed the ‘Beat Hotel’. Over the years, they produced numerous short poems and odes dedicated to Takis. Many of these were later published by Signals London, an experimental artist-run space directed by Paul Keeler and David Medalla, which also produced an imaginative and visually striking monthly newsbulletin. During its three years of activity from 1964 to 1966, Signals London and its eponymous bulletin were major vehicles for the transmission of ideas amonga network of artists in Europe, the United States and Latin America concerned with breaking the boundaries betweenthe arts and sciences. The bulletin brought together arts news, poetry, and philosophical and anthropological articles, as well as presenting briefs about scientific and technological discoveries. The gallery was originally called the Centre for Advanced Creative Study, but was changed to Signals London in homage to Takis’s pioneering sculptural forms. ‘More than just a name, he has given us a direction’, wrote Keeler of the inspiration Takis generated.
Paul Keeler, ‘Colossus in Space’, Signals, vol.1, nos.3–4, October– November 1964, p.3.The borrowed name was simultaneously exact and poetic: it reinforced the sense of art as a means of communication, flexible enough to embrace ancient wisdom and poetry as well as modern science and technology.
Contributions to the Signals bulletin, and specifically those in the October–November 1964 double issue mainly devoted to Takis, give a snapshot of the robust and international networkof associations that developed around the artist in Paris and London during the 1960s. Edited and designed by Medalla,the issue offers a compilation of poetic texts gathered by one poet-artist (Medalla) on another (Takis). These included ‘cut-up’ poems by Burroughs and Gysin that mixed statements on Takis with found texts; a visual poem by Alan Ansen inspired by a magnet;
and Sinclair Beiles’s ‘Magnetic Manifesto’, which had been recited by the poet in 1960 at the Galerie Iris Clert, when Takis suspended him in space using magnetic forces. There is a brief but charming dedication by Marcel Duchamp naming Takis the ‘gay labourer of the magnetic fields’, as well as verses by poets Nazli Nour, Hugo Williams and Brian Farman-Farmaian, and by visual artists Jean-Jacques Lebel, Harold Stevenson and Medalla himself. The issue also includes descriptions of Takis’s sculpture by such art critics as Alain Jouffroy, Charles Estienne, Nicolas Calas and Guy Brett (writing under the pseudonym Giulio Fava) that arguablyverge closer to prose poems and ekphrastic appreciationsthan straightforward art criticism. The bulletin’s combinationof images adds to a sense of admiration and poetic grandeur, for instance the droll juxtaposing of a photograph of Takis’s studio in Athens with one of the Great Wall of China.
Beyond the pages of the Signals newsletter, there is further evidence that poetically minded artists who engaged with Signals London took an interest in Takis. In a particularly striking indication of this reach, the Brazilian artist Mira Schendel dedicated one of her monotypes to Signals London and its leading figures, directly referencing Takis.
Takis held a connection to another avant-garde poetic circle through Britain’s pioneering concrete poet, the Benedictine monk Dom Sylvester Houédard, known as ‘dsh’, who in one of his earliest publications included a kind of visual score – a form that dsh typically called an ‘eyear’ poem – using the letters of Takis’s name.
See Dom Sylvester Houédard, ‘Birhopal Takistract: Eyear Poem for Takis Vassilakis’ (1964), in Kinkon (Op and Kinkon Poems/ And Some Non-Kinkon), Writers Forum Poets, no.14, London 1965, unpaginated.
While Takis became immersed within this broad network of poets and artists in the 1960s, it is important to remember that his intellectual interests – and perhaps the loneliness and isolation he had first felt in Paris and London – also led him to seek contact with a different milieu: scientists and engineers. By 1959 his work on the Signals sculptures had led to an obsession with radar, which he called ‘a great active signal’ and which spurred questions that made him ‘forget all the laws of art.’
Signals, vol.1, nos.3–4, October– November 1964, p.2.Takis engaged with the field of engineering, watching the habits of engineers with such intense observation that in his memoir he called it anthropology, saying: ‘I studied radar men. When I went to the coffee shop after work, I spoke only of radar, and tried to convince my friends that I was transformed into radar.’
Takis 1961, p.168.
His search led him to try new materials and new tools, and ultimately led to his discovery that magnetism could change the properties and physical needs of sculpture. ‘A magnet is not an idea – it is something so real that I was led to dream of a Perpetual Motion machine with magnets’, recalled Takis in 1983. ‘Very soon I realised that this was not really my intention. What interested me was, rather, the way in which magnetism creates a connection between two metallic objects through the magnetic waves which are a communication.’
Takis, ‘Statement’ (1983), in Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz (eds.), Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, 2nd edn, Berkeley, CA 2012, p.475. His engineering experiments continued to gather momentum after these findings. Photographs of his studio apartment in London in the mid-1960s show that at the centre of Takis’s artistic life was his workbench. Neatly arranged with electrical instruments and drills, it was little more than an arm’s length from his tiny bed tucked in the studio’s corner.
Conspicuously absent are the traditional tools of the sculptor, or the painter’s easel and brushes.
Constellations of Materials and Ideas
As mentioned, Takis did not seek his materials in art supply stores, but gathered them mostly from the military surplus and radio shops he frequented in the 1960s and 1970s.
My thanks to Guy Brett and artist Liliane Lijn, who each accompanied Takis on various searches, for recalling those times. Lijn found parts for her own sculptures on these trips. Artist Shea Gordon Festoff, who worked as assistant for Takis in New York in the late 1960s similarly shared stories of accompanying the artist along Canal St. ‘One of the greatest things was to go buy supplies’, she said. Interview with the author, 10 November 2018. Here he collected the many different components that he incorporated into his sculptures, scouring the now-vanished electronics shops that once clustered along London’s Tottenham Court Road, inspiring science hobbyists, amateur-radio operators, electronics enthusiasts and do-it-yourself builders.
See, for instance, ‘Radio Shops in Tottenham Court Road’, UK Vintage Radio Repair and Restoration Discussion Forum, 2017, www.vintage-radio.net/ forum/showthread.php?t=139501(accessed 8 November 2018).He found similar materials along Canal Street in New York City, in the flea markets of Paris and during trips to Athens. The end of the Second World War had brought a constant stream of surplus American and British military supplies to market in stores and by mail order, products that appealed to the ‘radar men’ that Takis referred to in his memoirs. Many were returning soldiers and former military engineers seeking to readjust to civilian life and with time for leisure activities.
For information about the growth of amateur scientists and hobbyists, see Sean F. Johnson, ‘Vaunting the Independent Amateur: Scientific American and the representation of Lay Scientists’, Annals of Science, vol.75, no.2, 2018, pp.97–119, doi.org/10.1080/00033790.2018.1460691 (accessed 8 November 2018). Second-hand military clothing also filtered into the London youth culture of the late 1960s, thanks to military-clothing boutiques such as I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet, and shops such as Laurence Corner, which, until its closure in 2007, was the last survivor of the great army and navy surplus stores of the 1960s. In addition to clothing and military bags, the surplus stores of the early post-war period sold electronic equipment at cut-price rates, including radar and radio equipment. These kinds of components can be found everywhere in Takis’s sculpture. The magnets of his telemagnetic works still have labels that indicate their American wartime manufacturers. The central rods and spring bases of various of Takis’s Signals are in fact the flexible radio antennas of American military jeeps.
See Bottom Gallery Footage from a BBC short film broadcast in 1969, Takis Unlimited, shows the artist rummaging through a surplus store, then examining an instrument panel designed for an aeroplane cockpit and flicking a switch intended to release bombs. At the time, Takis was constructing wall-reliefs made from salvaged aeroplane gauges, which he rewired to pulse and flash. While he often placed these dials within monochromatic panels, he kept the instrument panel whole in a few cases, such as Black Panel Dials, 1968,
See Bottom Gallery in which viewers can see a complex set of rear-lit arrows and words identifying the various fuel tank valves and engine controls. Often these dials were designed to give pilots a picture of the invisible forces affecting their flights, such as wind speed and fuel consumption. These technologies appear to have remained quite consistent: for instance, one included in the relief Yellow Electron 1966
See Bottom Gallery is of the type still used today to help pilots balance their landings.
Likewise, Takis’s Télélumières were assembled with finds from military surplus and electronics shops. Although the glowing blue heads look like unusual light bulbs, they are not. Most are mercury-arc rectifiers, also known as mercury-arc valves, which were common devices for switching from alternating current to direct current before the mass production of transistors from the 1970s onward.
According to Carla Flack, Tate’s Sculpture and Installation Conservator, ‘The dial [of Yellow Electron] is an ILS or instrument landing system which is used in the aviation industry… the same system is still used today.’ Email correspondence with the author, 12 October 2018. Using mercury, heat and magnets, these vacuum tubes control the flow of electrons in an electric circuit. Their exquisite shape and coloured light were by-products of their true function and, during their twentieth-century heyday, they were commonly hidden from view as a necessary component of electric railways and tramways, power substations and telegraph systems. Smaller versions were used in the inner workings of certain cinema projectors and wireless radios. One cover illustration from a 1938 issue of the magazine Wonders of World Engineering shows a technician working on a large mercury-arc rectifier installed at Euston House, the headquarters of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway in London.
Wonders of World Engineering, no.47, 18 January 1938.
Similar rectifiers were also used to power the lifts transporting Londoners to the deep-level air-raid shelters built at certain underground stations in the Second World War.
One such mercury-arc rectifier was still in operation at the Belsize Park underground station in the early 2000s. For information and images of its use in the air-raid shelter’s engine room, see Nick Catford, ‘Belsize Park Deep Level Air-Raid Shelter’, Subterranea Britannica, 2000, www.subbrit. org.uk/sb-sites/sites/b/belsize_park_deep_shelter/index.shtml (accessed 8 November 2018).
Perhaps it is worth noting that, despite his knowledge of engineering and science, Takis consistently defined himself as an artist, and one who was geared towards mythological thought. ‘I merely want to use the materials and scientific ideas of the present – new materials’, he stated in 1966. ‘I accept what is available. In our daily lives we have access to telephones, radio, television, electricity, great speed and new communication – all of which give the artist areas of exploration.’
Spencer 1966, p.555.In that sense, his working method was like that of the bricoleur, a French term for a tinkering jack-of-all-trades that was famously used by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss as a metaphor to highlight the differences between mythic and scientific systems of thought. In his book The Savage Mind (1962), Lévi-Strauss describes myth as an intellectual bricolage, a system where new myths are assembled from different parts of pre-existing narratives. He describes the strategy of the bricoleur as follows:
His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand’, that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions.
Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, translator anonymous, London 1966, p.17. Originally published as La Pensée Sauvage, Paris 1962.
Unlike scientists or engineers, who apply their technical skill towards a very specific task, the bricoleur is more free-ranging and improvisational. According to Lévi-Strauss, such a person ‘derives his poetry from the fact that he does not confine himself to accomplishment and execution: he “speaks” not only with things… but also through the medium of things: giving an account of his personality and life by the choices he makes between the limited possibilities.’
The anthropologist saw both a poetry and a particular world-view in the process of bricolage. Similarly, the poets who associated with Takis in the 1950s and 1960s were the first to appreciate these elements in his work. In his poem ‘Magnetic Manifesto’ (1960), Sinclair Beiles says Takis is ‘making another sculpture from the actual mechanism of a hydrogen bomb. I would like to see all the nuclear bombs on earth turned into sculptures.’ This verse succinctly indicates the historical and emotional weight of many of the materials that Takis sourced for his work. His bricolage is a political act: transforming technologies of warfare and environmental destruction into monuments of beauty and contemplation. It is a process of reinvention and re-signification that Takis has continued throughout his career. It is evident in those of his Signals sculptures from the 1970s that incorporate bomb fragments from the Greek Civil War gathered from the hillside around his Athens studio. It can also be seen in his choice, in such works as Gong 1978, to convert the rusted wall of a tanker into a giant percussion instrument. Takis was involved in a number of direct political actions, especially in the late 1960s. His decision in 1969 to forcefully remove his work from an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, became a rallying point for artists’ rights. At around the same time, he collaborated with the London-based inventor and art patron Jeremy Fryto mass-produce an unlimited edition of his Signals sculptures with lights, hoping to make his work widely available and break away from the conventions of the art market. In those years he also called for political revolutionaries and scientists to develop what he called ‘anti-tech’ to disrupt the technologies of ruling governments and the mass media.
Takis, ‘Technology Against Technology = Anti-tech’, Radical Software, vol.1, no.2, The Electromagnetic Spectrum, Autumn 1970, p.8. Yet, more than any of his direct political actions, it was his approach to artistic creation that inspired the artists, poets and writers around him. ‘I admire Takis’s kind of audacity’, commented David Medalla in 1979 to Rasheed Araeen for Black Phoenix, one of the earliest contemporary art journals dedicated to addressing post-colonialism and showcasing cultures from Africa, Asia and Latin America, regions that were then referred to as Third World. Medalla continued, ‘it’s like someone from the Third World grasping science and technology to express something original and prehistoric.’ His comment suggests that Takis’s bold approaches to art mattered both artistically and socially; he brought new artistic expressions to life and at the same time subverted expectations potentially based on identity, class or place of origin.
Like the constructivist artists of the early twentieth century, Takis sought not to produce a representational image, butto invent discrete new forms and, by extension, new forms of thinking and being. For instance, his telemagnetic installation produced for Alexandre Iolas’s gallery in New York in 1960 (reassembled in various later iterations)
carries the spirit of Russian non-objective art, particularly Vladimir Tatlin’s pioneering Corner Counter-Relief 1914, which tested the limits of painting and sculpture.
Takis’s installation displays a fine balance of material and the purposeful construction of voids between suspended elements. Sculpting with natural forces, electricity and magnetism in particular, Takis spoke of creating an ‘action in space’, rather than the ‘illusion of space’ that many previous sculptors had sought.
Takis 1983, p.475. These efforts appealed to poets such as dsh who saw spirituality intertwined with the search for the concrete. Consider dsh’s statement in 1967 about his own ‘cosmic ballet’:
I wld like best to have a purely concrete ballet where you don’t look thru the dance to ideas & statements& emotions & relations &c that are conveyed thru the dance – but dance where the dance – meaning itself – not a mirror of other & nondance things – but tru addition to things in the cosmos.
Dom Sylvester Houédard, ‘Note on the Cosmic Typewriter: A Somantric Diversion for the exploding galaxy’ (1967), in Nicola Simpson (ed.), Notes from the Cosmic Typewriter: The Life and Work of Dom Sylvestre Houédard, London 2012, p.110
These comments illuminate something of the power of Takis’s sculptures, particularly his Magnetic Ballets, and the Télélumières that often feature them. They aim to go beyond art and add to the repertoire of original elements and movements in the world. His efforts are as playful as they are serious. Takis cultivates and shares a childlike wonder, stating that ‘real movement, not illusion, invites spectator participation. It’s no longer a trick but a physical fact in which you are involved. When children come to my exhibition and play with the sculpture laughing, not thinking of art, involved in the objects, I like that.’
Spencer 1966, p.555.
In 1962 Allen Ginsberg penned a poetic note from India about Takis’s work. He recalled how their discussion of the cosmos helped him see the magnetic forces holding it together: ‘We imagined, if you pulled out any one star the whole thrumming mechanism would slip a cosmic inch’.
Allen Ginsberg, Untitled [dated ‘Bombay Apr 22 62’], in Takis. Magnetic Sculpture, Howard Wise Gallery, New York 1967, unpaginated. So, too, Takis’s sculptures make visible a constellation of elements and their interdependent connections. The light of Takis’s art can spark joy while also allowing space for the darkness and gravity from which they emerge. Perhaps Takis is well appreciated by poets because there is a parallel between his work and the ways in which poets use language and the spaces between words to reach towards the unutterable. The forces of nature may be constant, but Takis makes an intervention in time. His are poems without a book.
Before there was music, there was sound. And within sound, its corollary of silence. We hear sound precisely because it punctuates what we perceive as silence, which is not so much an absence of sound, as inaudible sound. In his 1954 essay-composition ‘45ʹ for a Speaker’, New York School experimental composer John Cage wrote of the dialectic between sound, silence and the human function of hearing:
So that listening one takes as a springboard the first sound that comes along; the first something springs us into nothing and out of that nothing arises the next something; etc. like an alternating current. Not one sound fears the silence that extinguishes it.
John Cage, ‘45ʹ for a Speaker’, in Silence, Middletown, CT 1961, p.173.
The human notion of silence, however, does not reflect its materiality accurately, which compelled Cage to summarise: ‘There is no such thing as silence. Something is always happening that makes a sound.’
Ibid., p.191. Takis, who moved to Paris just as Cage wrote ‘45ʹ for a Speaker’, also deals with a negotiation of sound, music, noise and silence as a primary concern in his sculpture. As kinetic art, many of his objects create sound that is incidental to their principal purpose of mechanised movement. Yet the sound itself is so particular and prominent that one might easily refer to Takis as a sound artist who prefigured the technological sound-art medium of this century. And like Cage, a known student of Zen, Takis feels that sound possesses a spiritual component.
Takis arrived in Paris at a key moment in musical experimentation. Composers such as Pierre Schaeffer, Pierre Henry and Henri Pousseur created their musique concrète – music made of cut-and-spliced tape recordings – not in concert halls but in radio laboratories such as those of the Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française.
See Pierre Schaeffer, À la recherche d’une musique concrète, Paris 1952. Like Takis, the Greek composer and architect Iannis Xenakis had relocated to Paris, where he worked as an assistant to the French architect Le Corbusier. Xenakis’s musical works such as Metastaseis (1953–4) represent experiments with sonic architectures and mathematics.
See Nouritza Matossian, Xenakis, London 1986, and John Harley, Xenakis: His Life in Music, London 2004. Many of these composers’ interests coalesced in the 1970s with the creation of IRCAM, the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, under the leadership of composer Pierre Boulez, which remains a centre for avant-garde research into sound technologies to this day.
See Laurent Bayle and Pierre Boulez, Recherche et création: vers de nouveaux territoires, Paris 1992, and Georgia Born, Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez and the Institutionalization of the Musical Avant-Garde, Berkeley 1995.
Given this milieu, Takis’s musical sculpture came out of a deep engagement with principles of sound, science and nature. His works from the late 1950s onwards show a preoccupation with the synaesthetic capacities of sculpture – its ability to trigger additional and unexpected senses over and above those directly affected. Takis also participated in exchanges of visual and sonic ideas through his many musical collaborations over the decades, performing with such musical luminaries as Charlemagne Palestine, Joëlle Léandre and the multimedia artist Nam June Paik. In terms of his sculpture, Takis’s Signals and Musicals (Musicales) series combine his interests in physics, analogue technology, metaphysical philosophy and sound waves, using various metals, magnets, strings, lights and speakers to do so. Referencing his desire to gather unseen forces in the cosmos through the simplest means, Takis wrote: ‘My intention is not to make something complicated; for me, just a piece of magnet and a nail floating there can make me meditate.’
Peter Selz, Harry Kramer and Takis Vassilakis, ‘Extract from Kinetic Symposium, University of California, Berkeley, March 1966’, in Takis: Magnetic Sculpture and the White Signals, London 1966, unpaginated.
Tuning the Cosmos
For Takis, the idea of sonic meditation can refer to Zen practices, where one might hear a gong or a bell at the beginning and end of a meditation session. But it also involves a mystical concept of the music of the spheres, and this hits a little closer to home for the Greek artist as it relates to his perceived kinship with ancient Greek inventors, including the mathematician and mystic Pythagoras, who proposed a model of the universe as equivalent to musical harmony.
For a cultural history of ancient Greek science, see Marshall Clagett, Greek Science in Antiquity, New York 1955.The complex history of this ‘music of the spheres’ dovetails with the histories of music, mathematics, astronomy and metaphysical philosophy. Moreover, the notion of a music of the spheres offers two separate lines of inquiry. Astronomers and mathematicians used the term figuratively in creating a theoretical framework for understanding the ways that stars and planets interact with one another in space. Philosophers, composers and poets, however, used the term more literally in imagining the sounds of the heavens themselves.
The Pythagoreans, according to Aristotle in his Metaphysics, believed ‘the whole of heaven to be a musical scale and a number’.
Quoted in Jamie James, The Music of the Spheres: Music, Science, and the Natural Order of the Universe, New York 1993, p.30. Pythagoras invented the first known western string instrument, the monochord, in an attempt to understand and regularise how sounds worked. This simple instrument consisted of a single string stretched across a sounding box, and users could push a movable bridge across the string. By ordering sound with the monochord, Pythagoras created the first western musical scales.
Pythagoras: Greek Philosopher, Initiate Teacher, Founder of a Brotherhood at Crotona, by a Group of Students, 2nd edn, Chicago 1925, pp.89–91.
Historian Jamie James has noted that Pythagorean philosophy made distinctions between three types of music: musica instrumentalis, or regular music created by instruments; musica humana, or the ‘continuous but unheard music made by each human organism, especially the harmonious (or inharmonious) resonance between the soul and the body’; and musica mundana, the sound created by the cosmos: the music of the spheres.10
Ibid., p.31.Around 510 CE, the philosopher Boethius proposeda classification system in his treatise De Musica that added a fourth grouping: musica divina, or the music of the gods. Such ideas had a resurgence during the Renaissance, and in 1617 the physicist Robert Fludd argued for a Ptolemaic model of an earth-centric universe that is itself a Pythagorean monochord played by God.
Just two years later, Johannes Kepler’s book Harmonices Mundi advanced the notion of planetary speeds in a Copernican universe as analogous to harmonic proportions in music. In modern times advanced astrophysics has recorded sounds in deep space that are mostly – if not completely – inaudible to human ears. The two probes launched in 1977 by NASA’s Voyager Interstellar Mission programme used plasma sensors to record these sounds, which NASA subsequently licensed for educational purposes. Here, again, silence co-mingles with sound. To return to Cage, ‘something is always happening that makes a sound’.
Takis understood that the music of the spheres related to the magnetic fields that inspired so many of his kinetic works. He wrote of his research:
I suspected that space had sound – and that it was transmitted by the electrons. I heard music from space and I was sure the moon had magnetism… Then in 1964, they discovered cosmic sound (the moon did have magnetism). But a scientist is in a difficult position. He may know there is sound coming from space but he cannot publish until he has proved it.
Takis, ‘Extracts of Texts by Takis’, in Jonathan Robertson (ed.), Takis, Athens 1974, p.22.
Radar uses radio waves to determine position relative to a reference point; in aeronautics, this is usually a metal object in a given space.
Ibid., pp.22–4.Having seen it utilised at an airport in 1959, Takis became fascinated with the idea of invisible communication, especially with regard to his goal of making the harmony of the spheres audible.
Héléna Calas and Nicolas Calas, Takis: Monographies, Paris 1984, p.110. Takis later wrote of this experience:
I was always enchanted by aerodromes and their great radars, which turned slowly searching for metallic objects hovering in space. It is as if they were gigantic instruments recording cosmic events… If only with an instrument like radar I could capture the music of the beyond… If this object could capture and transmit sounds as it turned, my imagination would be victorious.
Takis 1974, p.22.
Takis’s music is not always easy on the ears, as his sonic sculptures often rely on the tensions created between the listener and the object. If music is organised sound, then noise is disorganised sound, and Takis’s experiments with the latter have often received criticism from those who find them nearly intolerable. In 1969 one gallery visitor complained of the sound produced by a group of Takis’s Musicals: ‘This music – if it is music – it is driving me insane.’
Takis Unlimited, Mahmoud Khosrowshahi, UK 1969. Screened by BBC Two on 1 February 1969. Paik, who collaborated with Takis in 1979 for a performance work titled Duett Paik/Takis at the Kölnischer Kunstverein, was similarly concerned with distinctions between sound and music. In 1963, amid press accusations that his sonic performance art did not actually produce music, Paik responded with a statement from his Postmusic Manifesto: ‘Why is it music? Because it is not “not music”. How can I define “What is not music” when no one in the world can define “What is music”?’
John G. Hanhardt (ed.), The Worlds of Nam June Paik, Guggenheim Museum, New York 2003, p.55.
Takis attempted to answer Paik’s question in the same decade by providing a magnetic visual analogue to music through his sculptures and in particular through performances that tied in to Takis’s interest in ancient Greek culture. The goals of the latter were varied: to create live performances of his sculpture; to use his sculptures as stage props in theatre; and to tap into a higher consciousness of sound. Ultimately – and bearing in mind that he was also a poet – Takis aimed to collaborate with others in an interdisciplinary framework to create audiovisual events that tested the boundaries of the performative capacities of his sculpture. For example, in 1986 he worked with French double-bassist Joëlle Léandre and dancer Martha Zioga for the performance Erotic Line that accompanied his exhibition Takis: Espace Musical at the Musée Rath in Geneva. Takis employed two forms of energy – magnetised wires and the nude female body in motion – Signal1955 to create the lines in question. Léandre, who had met Takisthrough poetry circles in France, created fully improvised musicas a duet with the two vibrating wires, while also responding to Zioga’s movements. According to Léandre, the combination felt somewhat dangerous, so she used her instrument to heighten this feeling. Though the improvisational nature of the collaboration may seem haphazard, this concert embraced intellectual rigour. It stemmed from multiple conversations between Takis and Léandre, who agreed that this type of multidisciplinary performance was an example of what the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze referred to as the rhizomatic nature of the arts intertwined: music, sculpture, dance.
Joëlle Léandre, interview with the author, 5 October 2018.
Takis as Composer: Signal to Noise
Takis’s experiments with sound and silence had begun in 1955 with his Signals sculptures, constructed from found objects and piano wires painted black.
Acting as antennas to the cosmos, these works are intended as receivers of cosmic information, and are often compared to the wiry compositions of his friend Alberto Giacometti, for instance Hour of the Traces 1933.
Such works by Takis as Signal 1955 similarly engage with positive and negative spaces that they simultaneously embody and envelop.
For a more complete study of the Signals series, see Melissa Warak, ‘Energy in the Early Works of Takis’, in Energies in the Arts, eds. Douglas Kahn and Peter Blamey, Cambridge, MA 2019.Given their relationship with sound, these early Signals – which, unlike later examples, contain no electric components – have an inherent problem: they are largely silent. Their messages remain for the most part unheard by human ears, except when they are set into motion, allowing their upright wires to touch one another. Takis’s friend and mentor, Alexander Calder, had a similar perceptual problem with his well-known mobiles, and particularly with his ‘gong’ sculptures, with their unpainted metal discs and mallets. Mobiles such as Triple Gong 1951 are moved quite slowly by air currents, thus when the mallet strikes the gong, the sound hardly registers with the viewer/listener.
This was not usually the case in Calder’s studio, however, where the artist manually moved the sculptures at higher speeds.
For footage of Calder’s mobiles in motion, see Works of Calder, Herbert Matter, USA 1950. Similarly, Takis’s early Signals may move a little on their own, but are, in most instances, both silent and static. In contrast, his Musicals incorporated magnets from their inception in 1965, setting them in motion and creating music.
Takis’s work in audible sound-producing sculpture began with a collaboration. Takis and the American composer Earle Brown created the 1963 installation Sound of Void (Son du vide)
for an exhibition the following year at New York’s Cordier and Ekstrom Gallery entitled For Eyes & Ears. This show brought together sound art from Europe and the United States, including work by Calder, Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, to highlight the sonic natures of both early twentieth-century modernism and contemporary works. Over his career, Brown expressed a great deal of interest in visual artists, including Max Ernst and the American abstract expressionists, and was married to the avant-garde dancer Carolyn Brown for many years.
Earle Brown and John Yaffé, ‘An Interview with Composer Earle Brown’, Contemporary Music Review, vol. 26, nos. 3–4, Summer 2007, pp.295–9.By the time Brown met Takis, the composer had already established his reputation as a pioneer of open-form composition, which allowed for controlled improvisation on the part of conductors and musicians.
Amy C. Beal, ‘An Interview with Earle Brown’, Contemporary Music Review, vol.26, nos.3–4, Summer 2007, pp.345–8.
The open-form method is particularly evident in one of Brown’s most experimental works, December 1952 from his Folio series.
The score for December 1952 uses no traditional notation for pitch or time and consists of a series of black horizontal and vertical rectangles placed irregularly on the blank page. It may be interpreted as a directive for performers to play whatever they would like in an orderly and geometric fashion. This score connects to Calder’s mobiles – a major visual source for Brown’s graphic music – in that both use hard-edged forms in a manner that seems to defy a singular orientation. However, the score is also appreciated as a visual object in its own right, and links aesthetically to Piet Mondrian’s early Pier and Ocean works, such as Composition in Line 1917.
Immediately prior to creating Sound of Void, Takis had been tinkering with voltage proportions and mercury-arc rectifiers to produce coloured balls of light in works that he called Télélumières. Sound of Void is a hybrid between these Télélumières and his Musicals in that it uses a mercury-arc rectifier, but also produces sound. Sound of Void is not free-standing, but instead relies on its backboard to serve as a frame. It has an unlit mercury-arc rectifier at the top left, which is attached to an electromagnet, the coiled object at lower right. Behind the backboard, Takis attached a contact microphone, which senses audio vibrations, and a sound filter. The sound is then amplified through a loudspeaker on the upper-right portion of the backboard. When switched on, the electro-magnet emits a low current that heats the cathode filaments, but does not ignite them. The heating of the filaments creates a hum within the case. The hum is first run through the sound filter, which takes out the highest and lowest frequencies, making it more audible, and is then amplified by the contact microphone. Finally, this amplified sound travels back to the viewer through the speaker. Takis built the mechanism, while Brown contributed by ‘tuning’ and amplifying the hum, a task that would have come to him easily given his work as a recording engineer for Capitol Records in New York from 1955 to 1960.
Beal and Brown, ‘An Interview with Earle Brown’, p.342.
Jean-Yves Bosseur writes that Sound of Void helped refine Takis’s concept of using objects as receivers rather than as sound sources. Even more importantly, in relation to Brown’s work with open-form composition, ‘Sound of Void’s physical and mechanical properties alone make up the “score”, which plays continuously once the process is set in motion.’
Sound and the Visual Arts: Intersections between Music and Plastic Arts Today, Jean-Yves Bosseur and Alexandre Broniarski (eds.), Paris 1993, p.83. Employing this construct of amplification and object receivers, Takis used this transitional sculpture as a starting point to begin experimenting with sound-producing sculptures in his efforts to ‘capture the music of the beyond’.
Takis:Monographies 1984, p.210.
Sound of Void differs from the Signals series in that it harnesses audible sound before releasing it. Additionally, Takis chose not to conceal the work’s mechanical apparatus, and it is visibly handmade, with at least four drilled holes unpatched in the upper-right quadrant of the backboard. These unpatched holes and exposed wires indicate an emphasis on function; it seems logical that Takis experimented with the placement of the speaker for optimal auditory results, a process that assumes the presence of a listener. One might think of this human-machine relationship as a feedback loop, especially if one considers that the bio-electromagnetic signals in the human body probably affect the magnetic fields of the sculpture, and therefore of the noise being filtered. The artist cannot predict the ultimate outcome of the sound, making this a phenomenological experiment in line with Duchamp’s element of ‘canned chance’, in which chance operations have limited results due to the fixed parameters set forth by the artist. The results are therefore indeterminate, to use a term favoured by Cage.
For use of the term ‘canned chance’, see Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson (eds.), The Essential Writings of Marcel Duchamp, London 1975, p.33. For Cage’s term ‘indeterminacy’, see his essay of the same name in John Cage, Silence, Middletown, CT 1961, pp.260–73. As with Fludd’s ‘divine monochord’, which is set into motion by God, Sound of Void ’s open system is programmed by its invisible creators, Takis and Brown. The machine becomes the musician.
The title Sound of Void almost functions as a Zen koan or puzzle. The void is a central tenet of Zen under the premise that meditation on a void, or literal nothingness, can clear the mind and lead to expanded consciousness. Takis started to read Greek translations of Buddhist literature during his teenage years, and in Paris studied under the Zen master Robert God in, who served as his spiritual advisor from 1955 to 1968.
Wayne Andersen, ‘Untitled’, in Wayne Andersen and Takis Vassilakis, Takis: Evidence of the Unseen, Cambridge, MA 1968, pp.19, 21. Takis, therefore, channelled his fascination with the unheard music of the cosmos through a study of Zen Buddhism: meditation was certainly a part of his practice and remains so to this day.
Little has been written on Takis and his interest in Zen, but he practices ‘solar yoga’ every morning. I thank Toby Kamps for relaying this detail following a 2013 visit to Takis in Athens.
In Sound of Void, the void exists within the vacuum tube, leading one to ask, ‘What is the sound of this given void?’ Takis takes out the guesswork by amplifying the sound inside that empty space. In a sense, he lets the viewer in on the music of the spheres.
The title Sound of Void may also have been a reaction to Musique du Vide (Music of the Void), which Yves Klein released in 1959 and which received critical praise. This was a recording of Klein’s Symphonie Monoton-Silence 1949 (Monotone Silence Symphony), which features twenty minutes of a single tone followed by twenty minutes of silence, constituting a Zen-like meditation. See Remo Scha, ‘Silence’, Radical Art, radicalart.info/nothing/music/ silence/index.html, (accessed 21 November 2018).Like small heavenly bodies, the filaments crackle and sway in relation to one another, creating a microcosmic version of celestial harmonies. And so we have it: the sublime universe enclosed in a tiny vacuum tube.
Loud Sounds and Soft Utterances
During the 1960s, Takis also began to engineer what could be described as three further categories of pieces – ‘Musical Sculptures’, ‘Telemagnetic Musical Sculptures’ and ‘Musical Light Sculptures’ – all of which fall under the umbrella term of Musicals. The simplest Musicals – the Musical Sculptures – consist of magnets and needles suspended by piano wires and attached to a cork or wooden backboard, for instance the Electro-Magnetic Musical of 1966.
In these works an electromagnet fixed to a backboard runs with a continuous current, attracting the magnets and needles. When in motion, the hanging wires and needles strike a piano wire or guitar string, which may hang either horizontally or at a diagonal. A tiny microphone attached to the piano wire sends the sound signals through first a noise filter and then a loudspeaker. The entire mechanism is an enclosed system, very similar in operation to a single coil pickup on an electric guitar. Takis’s Musical Sculptures from the 1980s onwards appear very much the same, but with one key difference: the electromagnet is concealed behind the backboard.
In contrast, Telemagnetic Musical Sculptures employ the same backing structures, horizontal piano or guitar wires and electromagnetic devices, but do not use needles to make a struck sound. Instead, Takis suspends objects with different masses, often cork fishing floats and folded metal cones. He inserts needles into these suspended objects, which hang just past the horizontal wire, magnetising them. The electromagnet attracts the objects to the wire, creating percussive music.
Describing his discovery of this process in his autobiography, Takis writes: ‘The almost invisible metal fibres… began to move and remained suspended in the air, vibrating slightly. At the same time I heard sounds, notes of music unknown until now. But I think it was only my imagination, because since then I have never heard anything.’
Takis, Estafilades Paris 1961, p.148. Translation by the author.Finally, his Musical Light Sculptures – much like his ‘White Signals’ of the 1960s, which use lights and have a ‘space-age’ streamlined aesthetic – function as Musical Sculptures with the difference that the production of music triggers the firing of a light bulb, often with a loud accompanying click, enhancing the sensorial experience.
Takis describes his role as the composer of the Musicals by stating:
My ‘musicals’ are not composed. Even if I plan out a lot of factors in advance while constructing a piece, I always leave room for chance. My role in the acoustic end product lies essentially in the choice of string, its length, and the degree of magnetic force used to strike the string. Once you set the instrument in motion, the instrument itself becomes its own agent, and acts of its own accord. This is therefore a ‘virtual’ musical composition.
Quoted in Bosseur and Broniarski 1993, p.85.
This interest in spontaneity and virtual musical composition seems to arise from an understanding of the tenets of Earle Brown’s open-form composition. Brown’s notion that there is not a fixed relationship between composer, score and performer has an analogue in the way that Takis conceives of his relationship to his musical sculptures. They act as performers of the scores that he engineers not on paper but with strings, magnets and needles. Takis subverts the traditional relationship of composer to musician to instrument to listener by making the musician and instrument the same machine.
The role of the musician in this relationship came into sharper focus with Takis’s creation of a series of gongs from the 1970s onwards. Traditionally associated with Asian cultures, gongs connote a spiritual dimension as they are often used as an aid in meditation. Takis’s early gongs used suspended electro-magnets as mallets to create loud clanging sounds. While the magnets act as the invisible agents of the Musicals, the unseen sound waves that traverse the metal surfaces of the gongs cause vibrations. The vibrations then interact with one another across the metal surface of the gong, producing the heard tones. As with the Musicals, the magnet acts as musician. Later examples of Takis’s gongs require viewer activation in the traditional sense using a plastic-tipped mallet but, depending on the viewer’s position, the scale of the gong, the depth of its curve and the air temperature and movement, the vibrations may sound quite different as they travel. Larger examples such as Takis’s Gong
See Bottom Gallery of 1978 make a softer deeper tone, but demand more physical effort from the visitor. These manned Gongs produce an easily recognised sound that is generally soothing, unlike those supplied by the earlier electromagnetised Gongs or the Musicals. In allowing for the viewer to become the musician, Takis’s gongs ask for time: time to both see and hear. They represent an infinite present moment, inviting the musician/viewer to stay as long as they like.
In 1818 German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote that ‘all art aspires to the condition of music’, qualifying this pronouncement with the explanation that the ‘effect of music is so very much more powerful and penetrating than is that of the other arts, for these others speak only of the shadow, but music of the essence.’
Quoted in Philip Alperson, ‘Schopenhauer and Musical Revelation’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol.40, no.2, Winter 1981, pp.155–66. Schopenhauer takes this position as part of a long-standing debate, or paragone, as to the merits of the various arts, which first became prevalent during the Renaissance. In his major dictionary of music published in 1768, the Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau claimed under the entry for ‘imitation’ that music is an imitation of nature, but not a direct representation. He further stated:
Painting, which does not offer its picture to the imagination, but to the sense, and that one sense alone, paints only objects peculiar to the sight. Music would appear to have the same bounds in regard to the hearing; however, it paints all, even the objects which are not visible; by a transformation almost inconceivable, it seems to place the eye in the ear.
Siglind Bruhn, Musical Ekphrasis: Composers Responding to Poetry and Painting, Hillsdale, NY 2000, p.13.
A central tenet for the study of ‘visual music’ – imagery that aspires to provide an abstract rendition of sound – is that of imitation or mimesis in terms of what it is possible for visual art to take from musical sources. In other words, in what ways does visual art that uses music as a source attempt to imitate or translate ideas across the two media? This question has led to many debates over what the specific arts are supposed to do and how successfully they can actually do it. For instance, Schopenhauer felt that the power of music came from its authenticity, which springs from the fact that it is neither able to nor aspires to actually and fully imitate something else, but also from its intangibility, which appeals to the imagination rather than to the eyes.
Theoretical positions on the blending of the arts, divergent as they are, speak to the need to construct models of music and art as both communicators and receptors – as both object and subject. The space between these two modes may be best described by the German term augenblick, which translates as the ‘blinking of an eye’, but connotes slightly more than that: the reception as well as the perception of visual information. Putting this idiom into sonic terms, sound-art historian Seth Kim-Cohen describes a concept of the ohrenblick, the ‘blinking of an ear’, which references the space between hearing information and understanding or ordering it.
See the introduction in Seth Kim-Cohen, In the Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-Cochlear Sonic Art, New York 2009, pp.xv–xxiv.Takis’s sonic sculpture distorts the ohrenblick by creating a space where hearing the information is a physical attribute and ordering it is a pursuit of heightened consciousness.
The Musicals produce sound. Due to their objecthood and pared-down appearance, they transition seamlessly from 1960s exhibitions of kinetic art to today’s exhibitions of sound art. As handmade objects, the Musicals have an additional connection to today’s sound art – sculptural installations by contemporary artists including Christian Marclay, Max Neuhaus, Pierre Bastien and Christine Sun Kim all have a similar experimental quality. One may think of Takis’s Musicals as objects that defy strict categorisation as either visual art or musical instrument. They do not imitate instruments; they are instruments in themselves, objects or things meant to create sound. They are not representations of sound, but rather ‘specific objects’ – to use a term coined by Donald Judd – that have a clear visual regularity as well as sonic purposes. Thanks to their inherent performativity, the Musicals also function best with an audience, and one keen to listen to art at that. An installation of multiple Musicals becomes an orchestra without human musicians. They require time to see and hear them. But they are not just ontological experiments with the faculties of sight and hearing; they are meant to use these faculties to tap into a higher dimension of consciousness, connecting the ancient music of the Pythagoreans with the eternal music of the spheres.
Author and critic Maïten Bouisset met with Takis in Paris to interview him for the publication accompanying his exhibition at Xippas Gallery, Paris, in 1990. This is the first translation to be published in English.
MB We’ve just settled in at your place in Paris to have this conversation and, even though you travel a lot, I don’t get the feeling that you’re about to leave the city. You arrived here in 1954 and haven’t felt the need to move back to Greece. Despite the change of regime in 1974, Paris remains your home. What made you become an expatriate?
Takis There are several ways to become an expatriate. You can flee for political reasons. But you can also flee for intellectual ones. From a political standpoint I was a rat in a cage, but I don’t want to dwell on this now. What we didn’t fully realise then was that, in the 1950s, Greece was a cultural no man’s land. The intellectual elite, with a few exceptions, had been completely annihilated, physically eliminated, although I still met exceptional people, such as [the poet Nikos] Gatsos or [the actor Athanasios] Veloudios, who embodied the true heritage of ancient thought. I felt the need to escape from these successive massacres. I’m a Mediterranean man, I need speech, I need to exchange thoughts and ideas, to enter into a dialectical game. This is where the essential engine of creation resides. I knew I could find this in Paris. There was a small café on rue d’Odessa where I met [the artists Yves] Klein, [Daniel] Spoerri and [Jean] Tinguely. When we were not working, we would talk for hours. We watched each other, we were terribly jealous of one another. It was both stimulating and fascinating. In the 1950s Europe was just emerging from the war and everything needed to be reconstructed. Everything was changing and it was therefore necessary to question everything.
MB Before you arrived in Paris you had already tried sculpture. In your autobiography Estafilades [Slashes], you write that stones are alive, you talk about their exploits in mythology, about their real and active life. You mention their cosmic momentum. This is quite a singular relation to the material for a sculptor.
Takis As a sculptor I never thought in terms of aesthetics, or of a relation to form or even of visual qualities. What I was obsessed with was the concept of energy. Natural phenomena really impressed me. I always knew that a material had its own autonomy. Marble deteriorates from the inside. The molecules that constitute it get tired and worn, whereas a block of granite recharges itself on contact with the earth. If you take a block of marble and a block of granite from the same period, you’ll notice that the first has lost its vigour while the second has not changed. The Egyptians understood this perfectly; they used granite simply because it’s immortal. We shouldn’t consider a material for what it is, but rather as a source of energy. My desire as a sculptor was to learn to use this energy and, through it, to attempt to penetrate cosmic mysteries.
MB On the cover of your autobiography we see four characters made of plaster walking on a wooden plank (see p.18). Because you’re Greek, we immediately think of the kouroi, those male youths whose figures dominated the history of ancient sculpture. But we also think of [Alberto] Giacometti. Did he have an influence on you when you first started working in Paris?
Takis There was an element of mystery in Giacometti that, by nature, interested me. Amid the prevailing academism, he managed to maintain the timeless ‘archaic’ spirit of sculpture, which piqued my interest. I wanted to shake everything up, but I was still very much in awe of him. One day, however, during one of my exhibitions, he told me that he didn’t agree with my use of electricity for some of my works. He disliked the fact that if you switched off the power, the work would cease to function. But it’s strange you should talk about Giacometti: even now, every time I go to Egypt and stop by the Cairo Museum [the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, Cairo], which is quite often, I always think of him when looking at the mummies. He was as fascinated by Egypt as I am. [Constantin] Brancusi also left a mark on our generation with his concept of the sculptural base. We should also mention [Alexander] Calder’s mobiles. Our generation didn’t invent everything.
MB Given this questioning of everything, including the traditional means of artistic creation, did you have the feeling that you were participating in the elaboration of modernity?
TAKIS What’s certain is that we all had a desire for a radical change. Abstraction had reached a dead end, somewhere between virtuosity and formalism, or even academicism. Art did not correspond to the reality of the world anymore. The world was transforming completely, first politically with the war in Algeria and the Suez Crisis, but also economically and technologically. It had entered into a new rhythm. We were fully aware of this. We had ideas about everything and it was fantastic. We did incredible things. Back then, I blew up bronze sculptures with dynamite. I built fireworks that we would throw into the Paris sky. We didn’t have titles for these actions. We didn’t really have time to formalise anything. Everything was going so fast. The Americans were the ones who first called these types of experiments and behaviours ‘happenings’. That’s when they really became a thing.
MB By definition, sculptors always try to bend matter according to their desires. However, in your case, one always has the feeling that it’s the other way around. More than that, every time the word ‘sculpture’ is used to talk about your works, you always answer by highlighting the notion of energy.
TAKIS I follow the clues provided by the matter and don’t try to dominate it. When I use a stone, a piece of iron, a particular object or a piece of machinery, it’s always so I can come closer to invisible things and explore the unknown. It has nothing to do with aesthetic considerations. It’s only about revealing, in one way or another, the sensory vibrations or the interlacing potentials for energy that exist in the universe. I think that’s the role of an artist, whether painter, sculptor or musician. They must inject enough vital energy in their work for the viewer to perceive it and collect part of it. Magnetic fields are of this order. I don’t think this energy should be considered as something abstract. It’s like going inside the Great Pyramid or a tomb in the Valley of the Kings. These tombs, whether the pharaoh’s or the royal scribe’s, were intended to act in this way, recharging the mummy or the spirit of the dead with vital energy.
MB You’ve often told the story of when you were waiting for a train at a station and were fascinated by this forest of signals, these monster-eyes switching on and off. That’s where you found your preferred material, iron, and one of your favourite subjects, signals, which, along with electromagnetism, are iconic elements of your work.
TAKIS It’s not a story. It was the moment when I understood that this technology-packed environment was a sign that corresponded entirely to the changing world. I started drawing like crazy. In Athens there was only one traffic light, on Omonoia Square. You can imagine the shock when I arrived here! The first Signals I created were antennas rising towards the sky to try and pick up cosmic energy. I was creating them more for the quasi-magical properties that I assigned them and for the symbolic qualities they evoked, than to resolve plastic problems. I incorporated many different things: metal, stones, electronics, everything I could find. It was about introducing a new continuous and living strength within the sculpture. Later, they were electrified and given real lights like the ones I saw at the train station. Capturing light and playing on the reciprocity between light and colour always seemed to me to bring an added energetic charge to viewers, making them interact more with the piece.
MB Among the major gifts left to your generation by Marcel Duchamp were a newfound permissiveness towards the role of the artist, and the incorporation of objects and phenomena into sculpture other than those traditionally used. He wrote a short but very poetic text about you in which he calls you a ‘labourer of magnetic fields’, and if I recall correctly, you later dedicated a work to him, a peculiar chessboard with a black magnet in the shape of a horseshoe that would attract two pawns into its magnetic field.
TAKIS When I arrived in Paris, there were two groups of artists: ones who had been influenced by the Bauhaus; and ones such as Tinguely and me who looked to Duchamp. I sent him my book [Estafilades], and he told [the poet and critic] Nicolas Calas that he had received a book by a Greek artist that seemed interesting but also dangerous. He then invited me to visit when I was staying in New York. He was very impressive, and although I saw him again after that, I will never forget what happened on that first encounter. He asked his wife to fetch some magnets. I think there were nine magnetised rings, which he stacked one on top of the other. Then he took a cylinder, which was also magnetised, and placed it on top of them. The nature of the composition was completely erotic, but what struck me was the fact that for a very short period of time, maybe a few seconds, the cylinder hovered. He then said: ‘Here is your portrait, Takis.’ Then someone made the table move and the side of the cylinder came into contact with the rings, and it was over.
MB What you’ve just told me makes me think of a work that you named Homage to Venus, The Egg and The Big Bang (Hommage à Venus, L’oeuf, Le Big Bang) 1990, in which an egg hangs in the air thanks solely to the exploitation of electromagnetic forces. It’s exactly like Duchamp’s portrait of you. There is a magical component in this that is hard to escape. This use, from the 1960s onwards, of the reciprocal attraction force created by the magnetic field is also an exploration of desire. Eros is always very much present in your work.
TAKIS I’ve told this story in the past of how one day I understood that the use of magnetic phenomena would allow me to keep a piece of iron hanging in the air without gravity. It allowed me to move beyond iron sculpture that exists in the fields of weight and gravity, and give the discipline a new energy. I was vivifying it, in a way. And of course, there is in this scenario a desire to attract the other. The magnet and the attraction of love are one and the same thing. When you kiss someone, or when you hold your kids close to you, it’s the same type of phenomenon at work. You are one with the other. You become a sphere; you are enveloped and you envelop the other with your energy. A magnet is not just an idea; it’s something very concrete and alive: this bond, this attraction established between two forms or two objects, constitutes a fantastic force of communication. What I was interested in, when we talked about the state of sculpture after I’d arrived in Paris, was introducing into iron objects a new and continuous force. The use of magnetism offered and opened up fantastic fields for exploration. At first, these objects were relatively modest in size and remained within the field of sculpture. Then, the research I undertook allowed me to exploit magnetism within an environment so that our entire bodies could feel involved within an even larger field of energetic attraction.
MB As we’re talking about environments, it makes me think of the one you created for the Centre Pompidou, where the strong visual impact of the work was magnified by the violence of its acoustic impact. Very early on, you associated sound with electro-magnetism, an idea that reminds us of John Cage. But the difference in your work is that the physical components are the ones determining the music score.
TAKIS Music has always played a very important role in my life. The idea of capturing the music of the spheres was linked to my personal history, and my intention was to make nature’s phenomena emerge from my work. Yet in nature everything is sound: the wind, the sea, the humming of insects. In my first Musicals there were almost no instruments, only a steel needle gently hitting a string. This was done by chance: the sound was never programmed and in Beaubourg [Centre Pompidou], where three types of sounds were produced through magnetic systems, only chance determined the overall sound. John Cage composes like a musician, even in his incidental sounds. In contrast, I don’t even know the musical alphabet. It’s true that we know each other, that I’m interested in his research and that we both have a close attraction to everything to do with mythology – we do exchange ideas. He’s interested in the type of dry, high-pitched sounds that I happen to produce but he doesn’t appreciate more melodious sounds. He believes they don’t fit my approach. And I have enough admiration for him to follow his advice!
MB I don’t believe you’re the kind of artist who would be content to live closed in on himself and his creation. You’ve always been motivated by what was happening in the universe. How does the intellectual in you perceive the end of our century, which coincides with the failure of the communist ideology and the rise of fundamentalism? What’s your field of action today?
TAKIS When you get the feeling that you’ve extended the field of your experiments as far as seems possible, then it’s necessary to take a break. I don’t want to exhaust the system I’ve forged; I don’t want to re-do again and again, word for word, what I’ve done in the past. That would mean repeating myself and amount to death. The artist or the intellectual cannot stand outside life. They are not above the changes shaking the world. They cannot stand completely separate from them. We all experience the same anxiety. How can I not realise the irony in celebrating the bicentenary of the French Revolution the same year that saw the end of the communist system? It’s our entire universe that’s collapsing. We’re in a state of suspense and deep reflection is required. For my part, I’d like to go back to Plato and his ideas. I like to think about what he said: ‘The artist is the one who takes into account the invisible and makes it visible.’ We should re-engage with a past that we’ve overlooked, before monotheism started regulating everything. To me, there is a need for a genuine reflection on the relations we have with our cultural roots: our Greek ones, but also our ones in Egypt, where I often travel. I’m working a lot on this at the moment. I’ve written an essay on Plato’s Republic, and I’ve thought about the ancient myth of Oedipus by looking at the mother figure, Jocasta, but also at the Egyptian goddess Isis. I’m going to write a book – books actually. It’s time we go back to all these secrets that we’ve lost.
The texts are part of the exhibition catalogue TAKIS (edited by Guy Brett and Michael Wellen), reproduced with permission from the publishers until 5.12.2020.
First published: 2019 by order of the Tate Trustees by Tate Publishing, a division of Tate Enterprises Ltd, Millbank, London SW1P 4RG
The publication was made possible with the support of Irene Panagopoulos
on the occasion of the exhibition
Tate Modern, London
3 July – 27 October 2019
21 November 2019 – 19 April 2020
Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens
20 May – 25 October 2020 (was not realised)
Translation to Greek: Dimitris Saltabassis
© Tate Enterprises Ltd 2020
All artworks by Takis © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020
Every effort has been made to trace the copyright holders of the images reproduced. The publisher apologises for any omissions that may have inadvertently been made.
We would like to express our sincerest thanks to the lenders of the works, to the TATE and MACBA for the creative collaboration throughout the project, to the Takis Foundation – Research Center for the Art and the Sciences for its contribution, as well as to all Museum staff and external collaborators who devotedly worked for the exhibition, despite the unprecedented circumstances that ultimately led to its cancellation in the last destination, in Athens.
Last but not least, we wish to deeply thank the Members of the Contemporary Art Support Committee who generously contribute every year to the Museum’s contemporary exhibition program:
Errikos & Maria Arones, Vasilis & Sophia Bacolitsas, Eugenie Coumantaros, John Coumantaros, Christina Coumantaros – Chandris, John & Dimitra Coustas, Areti Dalakouras, Dimitris Daskalopoulos, Harry & Lana David, Nadia Eliopoulos, Athina – Maria Fix, Andriana Gioti, Aphrodite Gonou, Polys & Rosemarie Haji-Ioannou, Dakis Joannou, Kostas & Christiana Kessaris, Rachelli & Leon Koffler, Sophie Koutalidi, Sandra Marinopoulou, Alexandra Martinou, Atalanti Martinou, Hariklia Moundreas, Patrick & Cynthia Odier, Irene Panagopoulos, Dimitris Passas, Titina Pateras, Aristeidis & Xenia Pittas, Despoina Ragia – Pateras, Rosana & Jacques Seguin, Tatiana Spinari – Polali, Takis & Nadia Theocharakis, Melina Travlos, Celia Tsakou – Kritharioti , Nikos & Nineta Vafias, Glyka Vassilakis, Denise & Alexandre Vilgrain
and our members who choose to remain anonymous.