Modern Attractions  

Taking in two current shows at the Tate Modern, our exhibition correspondent Graham Hooper was moved by the forces at work.

What is it that makes magnets so attractive? Panayiotis Vassilakis, better known in the world of sculpture as Takis, not least in his native Greece, knew very well. It was the power to make the invisible seem tangible, to defy gravity using that magical force that we all learn about at school. He was fascinated by it, and not its visual representation but magnetism itself. By coupling electrical fields with light and sound, over a career spanning seventy years, he created mechanical life-forms that buzz, click and flash.

Takis’ constructions bridge any gap that might seem to exist between science and art beautifully, taking in movement, music, even aviation and astronomy. As a young man he’d scour the local area looking for components that he could assemble into toy-like arrangements; parts from cars and traffic signals, industrial remnants, found objects as diverse as aerials, dials and gauges.

Although the technology, for the want of a better word, is simple enough, the effect is mesmerising. Nails, needles and bulbs appear suspended in mid-air, hovering in stasis, quivering at times, and at others tapping or clanging in response to electrical currents or even the viewer as we enter the gallery. Often you can hear the work before you can see it. The gallery space at Tate Modern has been transformed into what looks like Heath Robinson’s workshop. On the floor, on the walls, hanging, spinning, vibrating, the objects take on a life of their own, nano-like robotic displays that flicker and float. Takis was compelled by the idea that objects and the force of gravity and magnetism – naturally occurring, quasi-mystical phenomena – could be used to investigate communication and energy.

On entering the first space (and the rooms in this exhibition are arranged thematically rather than by chronology, though in fact it would probably make little difference) visitors are met with a collection of metal cylinders, each with antennae, bending under their own weight, depending on their lengths that differ. On top of each is another, smaller cylinder, making them look like a field of corn, only rather than golden yellow, and blowing gently in a late Summer breeze, they are activated by a number of magnets that are designed to swing, pendulum like, just above them. ‘Magnetic Fields’ (1969) describes the force at play as well as suggesting those wheatsheaves we can’t help but imagine. It is disappointing but understandable that this work, half a century old this year, cannot be displayed in an operational state. But luckily it easy enough to picture the pull and push of these delicate strands of metallic hair, swishing back and forth in time to magnetic north and south. 

The first rooms in this show set the stage for understanding the mechanics, as it were; a quick reminder of magnetic polarities, of attraction and repulsion. Very quickly Takis developed a vocabulary all of his own. Whilst much of the work here resembles the sculptures of other 20th century artists (Robert Rauschenberg, Jean Tanguely and Alexander Calder to name just three) the feel here is more inventive, and certainly even more eccentric. There is also a simplicity to them. For all their abandoned-and-found origins they can be surprisingly polished. Many of them also echo their ancient Greek counterparts, which Takis would no doubt have been aware of as a background, when modelling his, at times, outwardly rather figurative representations. 

After these introductory displays lay the foundations for our and his understanding, we are shown how Takis began to explore the possibilities of sound generation. In one side room eleven wall-mounted white panels form an arch. Each has a speaker, a piano wire and a suspended metal rod. When active (seemingly as a reaction to entering the space, or other environmental noises) the variations in tension or length allow for a relatively harmonious orchestration of ‘tings’ and ‘tangs’ as each rod bounces of its wire. I stood captivated for quite a while, watching as much as listening to the group, and then looking closer at individual ‘instruments’ to watch the dangling vibrato jump into life. Even the shadows created by the elemental lines and forms were enchanting.

The next set of spaces show us how Takis incorporated light, to add a whole new level of sophistication to his sculptures. Frequenting military surplus stores and flea markets in the mid-1960’s he was able to acquire all manner of electronic componentry. One piece that stood out for me was an aeroplane’s dashboard, with dials, lights and switches, all spinning and flashing chaotically. The result is a poignant reflection on both the potential and threat of technology. Here was an unmanned aircraft, out of control, with its beautiful disco of reds and greens. 

The final spaces bring to the foreground Takis’ experimentation with groups of larger scale constructions. These are ensemble works, with a large gong as a central presence. There is a feeling of something more elemental here, spiritual almost. I read that the artist became interested in how his explorations might make for evocative reflections of a cosmic scale. I did begin to see the spinning spheres as resembling planetary orbits. In his life-time (he died earlier this year, aged 94) he was clearly very mindful of how his tactile creations connected with mathematics and the sciences in fun and thought-provoking ways.

Takis would no doubt have loved the work of Olafur Eliasson, whose work is also on show at Tate Modern. He is Scandinavian and very much concerned with the role of science and nature, and the points at which they cross over with each other and with art. But it is the weather in particular that has been a recurrent focus of his attention, especially for raising awareness of glacial degradation and man-made climate change.

Many visitors to the Tate will be aware of the 2003 Turbine Hall installation (‘The Weather Project’) that saw the space filled with the yellow glow of an artificial setting sun; gallery visitors gathered in the cavernous space; quietly and alone, or excitedly in groups, staring or sleeping. This is often the reaction of those interacting with his work – I was at times overcome in an almost meditative state, at others joyfully smiling. 

The spaces Eliasson has created, for they are more like environments than sculptures in any traditional or conventional sense, are as ambitious as they are striking. Beauty (1993) recreated here, is a room with a rainbow inside! Manufactured by simply spraying fine water mist through light. The room was packed with adults and children, arms outstretched, attempting to grasp the magical illusion. Then there is the 20-metre long ‘Moss Wall’ (1994), which is just as you’d imagine, a wall of moss, except you can’t possibly envisage such a tantalisingly tactile surface, on such a scale, with such subtle grey-green tones. But the work I found most compelling, beyond the merely sensual and atmospheric, were the pieces that made me question my physical relationship with the world. ‘Room for one colour’ (1997) uses yellow mono-frequency lamps to reduce our vision to shades of almost black and white. Is this what colour blindness is like? Here was the world as I know and understand it, but made so radically different, with such sparse means. I was put in mind of the something Plato once said, that “things are not seen because they are visible; rather, things are visible because they are seen.” The visceral walk through a 40-metre corridor of dense fog (‘Your blind passenger’, 2010) had me behaving, moving and thinking differently. My perception of space and movement shifted. I was suddenly more aware – better aware – of those around me, and the perimeters of my body. The feeling wasn’t always comfortable, but it was gently profound.

Eliasson’s output, at its best, is the perfect marriage of science (in its broadest sense), and art. His work is most effective when it is visually stimulating as much as mind-altering. ‘Your uncertain shadow’ (2010) was playful but didn’t impact me the way others did. Some had the air of science experiment demonstrations, and little more. What did strike me as very worthy was the way the recent STEAM agenda (STEM subjects, with A for Arts added!) had been so wonderfully encapsulated in these two shows; Eliasson and Takis. For families, and school students, these are exciting and incredibly eye-opening discoveries. I was inspired enough to want to rush home from seeing Takis’ work and play with magnets, experiment with electric circuits, make my own found object orchestra. Eliasson brought to life natural marvels, all those I had learnt about in Geography and Physics, with gentle beauty. I left the Tate with more respect for light, air and water. At a time when society becomes ever conscious of technological advancements and the earth’s ancient primeval powers it is good to be reminded of our role in shaping, for better or for worse, those forces, that can literally bestow life or death upon us. Who’d have thought that art could do all that?

Takis, until 27 October 2019

Olafur Eliasson – In Real Life, until 5 January 2020