Greek artist Takis implements magnets to attract art, science
In 1960, in the Iris Clert Gallery in Paris, Panagiotis “Takis” Vassilakis suspended the poet Sinclair Beiles in a chair using magnets. Spectators held their breaths as they watched the poet declare in mid-air, “I am a sculpture. I would like to see all nuclear bombs on Earth turned into sculptures.” Beiles crashed to the ground before finishing his presentation of Takis’ “Magnetic Manifesto.” Although the experiment, “The Impossible: Man Within Space,” was a failure, Takis established himself as the master of magnets and has been incorporating the technology in his art ever since.
The Menil Collection in Houston has 25 sculptures, paintings and kinetic works — all pulled from the museum’s holdings — on display in “Takis: The Fourth Dimension,” through July 16. The works represent highlights over the span of the Greek artist’s sixty-plus year career.
Toby Kamps, curator of modern and contemporary art, accompanied by art historian Melissa Warek and conservator Erin Stephenson, opened the exhibition with a public lecture, “Takis: Ploughman of Magnetic Fields,” Jan. 23. Kamps said Takis sought “the fourth dimension as an invisible higher reality to step out of the constraints of time to gain new perspectives.”
All of Takis’ works question one’s relationship to space and the invisible forces that surround us. In the early ’50s, Takis became increasingly fascinated with sculpture and produced works which relied on simple geometric forms, as seen in his bronze sculptures. Many of his works harken back to themes from Greek sculpture such as “Seated Goddess” (1954). The bronze sculpture deviates from classical works because of the welded knob on the side of her pedestal, giving the illusion of a mechanism to power the figure.
The French philosopher Félix Guattari describes Takis art as, “Works that embrace modernity but are rooted in the past.” The Icarus legend from Greek mythology no doubt served as inspiration in his “The Impossible: Man Within Space” performance. Takis embodies Apollo, and sees himself not just as artist, but as an inventor. Although initially interested in his Greek culture, his desire for knowledge soon extended to Egyptian civilization and the lost city of Atlantis. He is interested in what makes some things timeless, or how timelessness can be generated.
Takis’ fascination with invisible forces, like space and time, extend to the radar technology developed in the 1940s, leading to the realization of his “Signal” sculptures. These sculptures act as antennae — “instruments of potential energy” — to reign in “the natural harmonies of the universe.” He has produced, and continues to produce, hundreds of these sculptures, composed of steel rods and found objects.
In 1954, the artist moved to Paris where he quickly lapped up the cultural scene and regularly fraternized with poets and other artists. He was a contemporary of, and friendly with, significant figures of the modern art movement, such as Yves Klein and Alexander Calder. Takis also consorted with the famous beat poet Allen Ginsburg who, in 1962, wrote the following piece after a visit with the artist:
“The only vision I ever had of magnetism was during a conversation with Takis in Paris in his studio, looking at his little metal cones hummingly waveringly pulled by like wires straight at their little magnet feathers; and he, Takis, explained to me that the stars were all pulled together with myriad thin invisible wires of magnetism radiating from every star to every other star — so we imagined, if you pulled out any one star the whole thrumming mechanism would slip a cosmic inch like a quavering mobile and all twang together into place at once on lines of unseen magnetic tracks, thunk.”
From 1958, Takis’ interest turned toward making his static “Signals” kinetic through magnetic fields. His incorporation of magnets in works led to a residency in the physics department of MIT 10 years later. Takis believes that magnets are the best medium for harnessing Earth’s energy. During his residency, his research focused on the effects of magnetic fields on organisms. He also developed another experiment to turn waves of water into energy, which was demonstrated by a bicycle wheel, a nod to Marcel Duchamp’s famous readymade.
The Menil Collection’s most amusing kinetic work is “Ballet Magnetique I.” In the center of the room, the sculpture presents two iron objects rotating around a base with a motor. Before exhibiting the piece, however, extensive conservation work had to be performed. Conservationist Erin Stephenson explained that the electric components which powered the work were worn out and outdated, while the iron elements were too fragile to display. The work that is on display is installed with facsimiles of the original found objects and updated electrical parts.
Conservation work was also performed on “Magnetic Painting No. 7.” This striking yellow tableau hangs on the left side of the exhibition and features iron elements suspended in front of a magnet on the back of a canvas. In storage, the magnet had shifted and caused an uneven stretching of the canvas, as well as accumulated metallic debris. Small punctures and patches of chipped paint also needed to be repaired. The conservation team painstakingly used controlled application of humidity and heat to adjust the magnet, while still permitting the canvas to conform to the protrusion without excess stretching, and reapplied paint. However, they still had to consider which angle to hang the support bar in front of the canvas on which the iron objects hang. In this work, the concept of space is very important — the iron pieces must be nearly touching the canvas while in mid-suspension.
Besides having to perform conservation work, the Menil Collection also had to work with Takis’ requirements — all exhibitions must feature Takis’ musical compositions, created by a series of magnets moving on a metal thread. UT-El Paso art historian Melissa Warek conducted extensive research into his melodic pieces. Works were chosen to express the “sounds of the universe,” making “music through magnetic waves.”
The music is unlike the music transmitted on a radio. Instead of melodies, the work emits an almost mechanical, sliding sound produced by the metal materials interacting with each other. Magnetic forces act upon the metal components to produce what Takis’ calls “naked music.”
The Menil Collection is a particularly fitting institution in which to host Takis. The Menil family supported Takis during his years in Paris and provided him with funding for his studio in an Athenian suburb, as well as making donations to his foundation for research in art and science. The family’s support at the beginning of his career was crucial for the creation of his art, freeing him from the stresses of the competitive art market. “Takis: The Fourth Dimension” also fits in well with the permanent collection of Surrealist art. Like Takis, the Surrealists sought to tap into the invisible — the unconscious.
Today, the artist continues his mission in rendering invisible forces visible at his studio in Greece. He insists that he possesses telekinesis but not in the mind-reading sense. Takis says he is able to sense the bio-electric magnetism, the ionic and magnetic energy, of others. Despite access to digital technology, his interests are still deeply rooted in magnetism. His work with these invisible forces coincides with another unseen interest — spirituality. Takis’ fascination with Zen and the void, developed from his career as an artist, and he receives visitors from all over the world who visit him for telekinetic healing.
Visitors to the exhibition will witness the invisible forces that Takis renders visible. Not only will they be transported to the artist’s fourth dimension, but also will be called to tune in to the world around them, paying closer attention to the invisible forces which shape our collective experience.
The Menil Collection is located at 1515 Sul Ross in Houston. Hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. Admission is free.
For information, visit www.menil.org.
By Caitlin Duerler