It may com as news that, in the earliest days of the Cold War’s Space Race, the Greek artist Takis sent a man into “space,” five months before the USSR propelled Yuri Gagarin into orbit. On November 29, 1960, Takis used the force between magnets to make the beat poet Sinclair Beiles overcome gravity, levitating him just long enough for the latter to recite his Magnetic Manifesto, which begins with, “I am the sculpture….” Naturally, Takis’ performance, L’impossible, un homme dans l’espace (The Impossible, A Man in Space) (1960), did not happen in outer space, but in Paris, behind the doors of Galerie Iris Clert – the same gallery that, two years earlier, had presented Yves Klein’s show Le Vide (The Void), which took form as an entirely emptied exhibition space. Unlike Klein’s, Takis’ intervention was not an ode to nothingness, but to the invisible energy of magnetic force.
In 1962, Marcel Duchamp wrote to Takis, whom he had just met in New York. The letter contained only the witty sobriquet: “cheerful plowman of magnetic fields, and indicator of the soft iron railway.” This (double) metaphor provided the title for Champs magnétiques (Magnetic Fields), Takis’ current exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and his largest since his 1993 retrospective at the same city’s Jeu de Paume. Since the 1950s, Takis has worked at the crossroads of science, kinetic art, and Nouveau Réalisme (as founded by Klein and art critic Pierre Restany, in 1960), creating an astonishing body of sculptural work that celebrates “the fourth dimension of magnetic force,” as the artist stated during the show’s press preview. Alfred Pacquement, the exhibition’s curator and former director of Paris’ Centre Georges Pompidou, chose not to display Takis’ works in a chronological order. Instead, the exhibition engages visitors via different luminous and musical atmospheres, including a wide selection of the artist’s historical and recent pieces, which covers a formal and thematic range from colorful abstraction to dark eroticism.
Four imposing Signaux lumineux, vis d’Archimède (1980-2000), each of them reminiscent of a traffic light and consisting of a big antenna made out of industrial waste – specifically, blinking metal bulbs and Archimedes’ screws – point at the high ceiling of the Palais de Tokyo’s main hall, serving Takis’ ambition “to capture the cosmic energy.” Upon entry, visitors are invited to grab compasses and use them as they walk along the large Mur magnétique – 4e dimension (Magnetic Wall – 4th dimension) (2015), an arabesque of metal rods applied to a long, red-painted iron sheet embedded with concealed magnets. Inevitably, the invisible forces at play cause the compasses’ needles to loose their fix on magnetic north and spin out of control. Other participative pieces presented in the exhibition include Antigravités (Anti-gravity) (1969) and Festins magnétiques (Magnetic Banquets) (1971), which invite viewers to throw and to sculpt handfuls of nails and iron filings, respectively, onto magnetized sheets of metal to form abstract configurations.
Several similar experiments punctuate the journey through Takis’ show, including Mur magnétique n° 9 (Rouge) (Magnetic Wall #9 (Red)) (1961-1972), in which four black metallic cones and a white kite levitate above the red surface of a large acrylic painting on canvas, all (again) held in place by hidden magnets. Meanwhile, Takis’ Panneaux musicaux (Musical Panels) (1970-2002) introduces the audience to what the artist calls “the music of the beyond.” The installation, which resembles a gigantic vertical piano keyboard, consists of 12 large white wooden panels hanging on a black semi-circular wall, a violin or guitar string stretched from the top to the bottom of each one. A heavy metal needle is suspended by an invisible thread next to each string. An electromagnet concealed behind each panel causes the needles to move back and forth and consistently strike the strings. The resulting sound is amplified all over the exhibition space, producing a bewitching, grinding, and persistent metallic concert.
Finally, far from Takis’ abstract works, a selection of his highly erotic bronzes concludes the exhibition. These include his acephalic Sebastian (1974) – a depiction of the Christian martyr sitting on a sphere and sporting an erection. Instead of the canonical arrows piercing his body, two sharp black cones threateningly float towards his torso, almost touching it. According to Takis, “magnetic force and love are the same thing: attraction!” The artist’s continuing fascination with the invisible forces of cosmic energy persists, not as a mere casual interest but as an actual obsession. In Champs magnétiques, these forces are certainly capable of arousal.