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21-09-2019

Takis: Contemporary Poet of Heaven and Earth

By Megakles Rogakos, MA MA PhD

On 3 July 2019, the Tate Gallery opened one of its most beautiful, original and interesting exhibitions ever. Its focus is Takis, the short name by which self-taught but world-renowned artist Panagiotis Vassilakis is known.

Takis is an unconventional artist, whose material is energy – at the same time immaterial and invisible. The present exhibition explores Takis as sculptor of magnetism, light and sound. So, it is divided clearly in these three themes. Of course, the exhibition begins with his early engagement with sculpture, as bequeathed to him by antiquity – Archaïc, Cycladic and Minoan art. However, being open to a life experienced to the full, his art changed to reflect the everyday through the encounter with his contemporaries and the filter of his own soul and idiosyncrasy. He fell under the influences of modernism – Brancusi, Duchamp and Giacometti. Notably, in 1962, Duchamp called him “happy ploughman of magnetic fields and signalman on soft railroads” (Kamps 2015). So, Takis evolved to become a contemporary poet of heaven and earth. As such, he received the attention of the 20th century world’s greatest patrons of contemporary art – Iris Clert, Peggy Guggenheim and Alexandre Iolas. At the same time, he is a person amongst us, once married to equally renowned British kinetic artist Liliane Lijn, with whom they have a son, IT guru Thanos Vassilakis.

Takis is a case of a postmodern artist who, along with other artists of his generation in the 1960s, instigated a new expression in art. He gave up traditional means of artistic production in an attempt to combine the creative act with the so-called ‘new art history’, whose theory is exclusively founded on the spirit of one’s time – society, politics, economics and sciences. Consequently, Takis created art anew and communicated ideas afresh. In 1986, he founded at Gerovouno hill, Attica, the Research Centre for the Art and the Sciences - KETE to promote the relation between visual arts and sciences to the general public.

The artistic genius of Takis is what was described in the Renaissance as ‘homo universalis’ – the interdisciplinary polymath who assumes in the same person a multitude of roles; those of architect/engineer, seer/philosopher, priest/magician, poet/musician. His art is the manifestation of the fact, observed since the time of Thales, that electromagnetism belongs to all bodies. He is further inspired by Anaximander’s observation that nothing can be absolutely neutral, and that everything exposed to the earth’s magnetism is charged. To accept that everything is more or less charged, is to recognise that all bodies relate to one another, which echoes Einstein’s Theory of Relativity of 1905. Takis made the electromagnetic field the distinctive feature of his art. He began delving into the cosmic mysteries of electro-magnetic fields from just before 1960. His central preoccupation was electro-magnetism, to construct art that is composed of material suspended by means of electricity exerted from magnets. After mastering electro-magnetism, he conducted audacious experiments with mercury cathode lamps, aiming to make invisible energy visible. One of the most striking features of his art is the appearance, depending on the size and bulk of it, which calls for a particular display environment and an initiatory mood.

Takis is the first artist to explore and work with anti-gravity. He made art with suspension by magnetism, and games on magnetic fields and lines of force. He authored the Magnetic Manifesto of 1960, which sets the earliest rules for body-art, by incorporating a human being in the work, suspending him in space and having him recite a poem. In 1959, he instigated the series so-called Télésculpture / Télépeinture, terms coined by Alain Jouffroy for art that includes the phenomenon of magnetic attraction. In 1961 he launched the Télélumière series, art using the mercurial cathode device, by which to form unusual light effects. In 1969, he began his electromagnetic games that invited audience participation and initiated them to magnetic attraction. He brought the electro-magnetic space at the centre of artistic attention. He took electro-magnetism, an existing but invisible force inherent in nature, and turned it into food for thought and material for art. His preoccupation with the possibilities of electro-magnetism opened a new approach in art; the display of material is made to hover by means of natural forces. This phenomenon expands the understanding of physics and evokes the sensation of metaphysics. Takis is likened to a maestro that choreographs material to produce a cosmological dance. In his interview with Pierre Restany, Takis said “space is to free oneself from the earthly gravity. [As such] it is the dream of the whole humanity.” (Calas 1984: 72). His greatest contribution is an art that “binds together in space, objects, metals, roaming particles of the cosmos” (Ibid 1984: 110). By magnetic suspension, Takis enabled inert material to relate with external factors, such as intermediary bodies or natural elements. This inspired him to say, “The iron came alive” (Ibid 1984: 110).

Takis is a notable pioneer of Body Art. In the fall of 1960 at Galerie Iris Clert, he gave a performance entitled The Impossible: Man in Space, whereby South African beat poet Sinclair Beiles was held obliquely suspended in space between ceiling and floor with the help of powerful magnets from a distance, and recited a poem written by the performer himself, which included the following excerpts: “I am a sculpture […] I would like to see all the nuclear bombs on earth turned into sculptures.” This exhibition established Takis as an avant-gardist offering a solution to the man-in-space problem. He gave an artistic answer to the scientific question of how to turn space as a place for anti-gravity. This performance took place well before the Russians launched in 1961 astronaut Yuri Gagarin in outer space. In essence, Takis privileged himself by making a particular kind of art possible, by entering the magnetic field to defy gravity. By means of appropriating magnetic forces to his ends, he conquered cosmic energy.

 

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