Takis @ Tate Modern

This exhibition is loads of fun on two levels.

  1. The works themselves are funny, beguiling, surprising and inventive
  2. Takis was a creature of the 1960s and many of the works here, along with photos of art ‘happenings’ and manifestos and action poetry, all create a warm nostalgic glow for that long-vanished era of optimism, peace and love

Takis’s real name is Panayiotis Vassilakis. He was born in Greece in 1925, so he was a teenager during the German occupation and then a young man during the ruinous Greek Civil war of 1946-9.

He came from a poor background and had to teach himself about art and poetry and philosophy. To escape the repressive aftermath of the war he went in 1954 to Paris, centre of European art and his earliest works are sculptures, small ones which are derivative of early Greek cycladic art (so called because found on the Cyclades islands), and taller slender, featureless human figures which are a bit reminiscent of Giacometti.

Bronze Figure and Plaster Figure (1954-1955) by Takis © Takis

But in 1959 Takis had a Eureka moment and transformed his art into something completely new and different which he maintained for the rest of his long career.

He started working with industrial components and forces. Specifically, he became interested in magnetism. He had a revelation that sculptures merely gestured towards energy and dynamism – why not incorporate real, actual electro-magnetic energy into works of art? Why put an industrial magnet at one end of a plank of wood, and secure two nails on wires at the other end, and let the magnetic forces attract attract attract the nails but the wire not quite be long enough for them to touch it? Thus highlighting the space and energy and force.

Why not make these invisible forces which are all around us visible?

Magnetron (1966) by Takis

Thus a work like Magnetron which made me laugh out loud and there’s plenty more where it came from. Taut wires pulled by household or waste metal objects straining towards a magnetised lump or shape or implement of metal.

Takis literally grew up amid the wreckage of the Second World War, exacerbated by the Greek Civil War. In Paris he scoured second hand shops and army surplus stores looking for bits of kit and equipment he could reversion into his dynamic sculptures.

Why not create a field of scores of metal balls or nodes or cogs, each supported by a slender wobbly metal wire from secure metal stands, and over this field of metal flowerheads suspend a couple of strong magnets. All you’d have to do is brush your hand through the metal flowerheads and then the complex forces of attraction and repulsion will keep them swinging and swaying for hours afterwards.

Magnetic Fields by Takis (1969) on show for the first time since the 1970s

Many many artists have painted abstract paintings, big canvases of red or black or white or blue and then made them dynamic by adding on angular shapes, mathematical shapes, cones and triangles and so on. But – why not create the same effect in three dimensions be concealing magnets behind the surface of the canvas so that the black cones (and any other abstract shapes you want – are not flat on the surface but caught in suspended animation as if hurtling towards it!

Magnetic Wall 9 (Red) by Takis © Pompidou centre

Why not dangle wires with metal needles from the ceiling and have them brush against a wire suspended from two electrified poles and have the wire rigged up to an amplifier which amplifies the sound it makes and projects it from a loudspeaker. As the metal plumb or needle sways in the random breeze or zephyrs created in a gallery it will strike or brush along the stationary wire creating an eerie electrical signal.

In fact why stop at one? Why not create a set of them with different wire lengths and thicknesses to create an eerie orchestral or polyphonic effect?

Musicales (1984-2004) by Takis © Foundation Louis Vuitton

And why, after all, stop with magnets and electromagnetism? The greatest use of electricity is to power lights.

According to a wall label Takis got stuck at a train station somewhere on the journey from London back top Paris (an experience anyone who’s ever travelled on a British train is familiar with) long enough to become dazzled and awed by the forest of lights of all different shapes and sizes and colours which festooned the station.

Why not recreate that visual overload in a gallery – although filtered through his trademark fondness for the slender and tall, for poles and stands (remember those Giacometti statues?)

Installation view of Takis at Tate Modern (2019) Photo by Mark Heathcote

So it is that through his long career since about 1959, Takis explored all kinds of logical consequences of this basic insight, the idea of making dynamic sculptures using the electrical and magnetic forces created by industrial bric-a-brac.

Apparently he gave birth to a genre or field or movement known as Kinetic Art and, as you might expect, he became a daaaahling of the avant-garde, feted by Beat Poets and French intellectuals.

I love art made from industrial junk. I love the whole Italian Arte Povera movement and 1970s minimalism for this reason. We live in a society overwhelmed with machinery, defined by machinery and gadgets, it seems crazy not to incorporate it into art, to turn it into art.

There’s also just a boyish love of gadgets and ingenious devices. I liked the piece which looked like a clock face with one arrow headed hand swinging round it at random. There’s a love for the time and effort which has clearly gone to produce the sheer beauty of industrial design. And then there’s an anarchist, science fiction pleasure to be taken in seeing bits of important sober kit taken completely out of context and set to surreal and comic uses.

There are quite a few of the magnetic works but it is surprising how much variety can be wrung out of one idea.

The last room is enormous and contains a forest of the so-called Signals works, where he takes three large slender flexible poles and tops them with a wide range of industrial artefacts.

Triple Signal by Takis (1976)

The first Signals works were so distinctive they gave rise to a famous London avant-garde gallery named Signals in their honour, location of many a happening and event. As well as industrial parts some of them incorporate used ordnance from the Greek Civil War, or even fragments of apparatus which he himself blew up in the studio.

An abiding fascination with all manifestations of energy. Maybe that’s why I like industrial art as well. It bespeaks an enormous amount of design and effort which has gone into their manufacture.

The Signals in fact reminded me quite a bit of the mobiles developed by Alexander Calder in the 1930s, especially when you came to look at the shadows they cast on the walls. That was one of the claims to fame of the mobiles, not only the restless movement of the thing itself but its shadows fleeting across surfaces.

This big final room also contains a couple of massive balls

Electromagnetic spheres by Takis (1979)

When these are set in motion by external events (wind, a push) their movement over a live coil generates energy which can be translated into sound. In the 1980s he set up the Takis Foundation to encourage art and education. He took to talking about the music of the spheres, and how his objects restored a spiritual dimension to a world in danger of being overwhelmed by technology.

To be honest, I thought that was just artistic boilerplate. The kind of high-minded hogwash artists often come out with, which is often the result when they sit down and think about what they’re doing, or is often a rationalisation after-the-fact of something, a discovery or style or innovation, which they felt themselves towards much more intuitively. Or accidentally.

It was also an odd thing for him to be saying, as if he was trying to run away from the consequences of his own life’s work. Some of the wall labels explained his desire to get away from technology, the threat of technology, the encompassing power of technology – and I watched visitor after visitor step up and take photos of the work and its label on their super-smart mobile phones before posting them to social media.

It is far too late to try and revive medieval beliefs in the music of the spheres or Romantic ideas about earth and authenticity. Everyone lives in the cloud now, all our memories are digitised and stored half-way round the world, and being sorted and categorised by the artificial intelligence algorithms of countless advertising agencies.

If anything, Takis’s work, taken altogether, is testament to a vanished era of optimism when guys in polo-necked sweaters thought that playing with lights and magnets in small London art galleries could stop the vast tsunami of the future rolling over the human race.

The video


Writer and curator Guy Brett, who was closely involved in the original Signals art gallery, London

Michael Wellen, Curator, International Art, Tate Modern

Helen O’Malley, Assistant Curator, Tate Modern

Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

A Curious Turn @ the Heath Robinson Museum

The Heath Robinson Museum must be one of my favourite places. It never fails to put a smile on my face and prompt happy laughter from all the visitors around me.

Its latest exhibition is actually not a home-grown product, but has been curated by the Craft Council and is finding its London home at the HR Museum as part of a tour round the UK.

A Curious Turn is a collection of 30 intricate and imaginative automata, beautifully made, complicated and entertaining contraptions. Heath Robinson didn’t, apparently, turn any of the thousands of ridiculous contraptions depicted in his cartoons and illustrations into actual three-dimensional models, but his spirit hovers over the whole show, and it includes a couple of wonderful illustrations by his characteristically convoluted inventions.

But this is first and foremost an exhibition of moving machines.

A Busy Day at No.12 West Street (2012) by Fi Henshall

A Busy Day at No.12 West Street (2012) by Fi Henshall

What is an automaton?

The dictionary defines automaton as:

  • a moving mechanical device made in imitation of a human being
  • a machine which performs a range of functions according to a predetermined set of coded instructions

According to the wall labels, the post-Newtonian vision of the world, indeed of the universe, conceived of as an enormous machine following the clear mathematical laws which Newton had discovered, helped to make the 18th century the Golden Age of Automata, characterised by high-end mechanical devices constructed of expensive components, designed to entertain the rich, such as the Writer made by Pierre Jaquet-Droz in 1774.

The Writer by Pierre Jaquet-Droz in (1774)

The Writer by Pierre Jaquet-Droz in (1774)

During the 19th century cheaper, more accessible devices were created to entertain the masses at circuses and fairs. However, at the turn of the 20th century new mechanical marvels came along to entertain the people, not least the cinema. Watching an elaborate machine recreate a small circuit of human actions paled into insignificance compared to the watching the Keystone Cops or Charlie Chaplin’s madcap adventures at a penny a go.

The taste for, and the manufacture of, automata went into a steep decline. The exhibition singles out two exceptions – the moving sculptures Alexander Calder made in the early 1920s (and which I was lucky enough to see for myself at the 2015 Alexander Calder retrospective at Tate Modern) and the elaborate contraptions devised in the 1950s by the inventor Rowland Emett.

Emmett is best known nowadays for creating the elaborate inventions of Caractacus Potts in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) but a number of newsreels from the 1950s and 60s capture him and his world of elaborate contrivances.

The 1970s revival

It was only in the 1970s that automata began to undergo a revival. Instead of expensive toys for the rich, or gewgaws for Victorian gawpers, the revival was associated with folk and craft elements from traditional sources.

The exhibition attributes a lot of this revival to the work of Sue Jackson, the founder of Cabaret Mechanical Theatre. Apparently, she encouraged makers in Falmouth, Cornwall, to build automata to sell at her local craft shop, Cabaret and, as you read on and progress through the exhibition, you come to realise that almost all the artists and model-makers included in the show are or were associated with Sue and the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre. It’s not an international show. It’s very much about this one lady and the group of model-makers she gathered around her.

Sue Jackson and Paul Spooner outside Cabaret, Falmouth, 1983

Sue Jackson and Paul Spooner outside Cabaret, Falmouth, 1983. Image courtesy of Cabaret Mechanical Theatre

This new generation of automata moved away from the 18th and 19th century pleasure of machinery for its own sake, and placed it much more within the context of contemporary art and sculpture, of folk motifs, incorporating craft techniques with wood and fabric.

A little later, from the 1980s onwards, there is the growing influence of the Steampunk movement in comics and novels.

So not only are almost all the works on display associated with the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, but almost all the automata on show are MODERN – there are no examples from the 18th or 19th century. Almost all of the 30 or so examples on display date from the 1980s onwards and, I didn’t count but I’d guesstimate that about half of these date from the 2010s.

This is not an overview of the History of Automata: it is an exhibition of very modern-day moving machines, which display a very modern range of subject matter and often dry, ironic temperament.

Dia de los Muertos (2016) by Wanda Sowry

Dia de los Muertos (2016) by Wanda Sowry

Influenced by the creaky contraptions of Emett and Heath Robinson, modern-day artists like Keith Newstead, Tim Hunkin and Jan Zalud explored how you can use the form or genre of mechanically moving human or animal puppets to make sculptures which satirise, explore or glorify the weird and wonderful world around us.

Certainly there’s a lot to bewitch and amaze the visitor. Bring children. Almost all of the displays have BUTTONS to push which make the contraptions perform in exotic and imaginative ways. Possibly the most compelling of all the devices is this wonderfully ornate flying machine by Keith Newstead. Press the button and all manner of cogs and cams whir and click to make the driver pedal, the wings flap and the wheels go round.

Transports of Delight (2010) by Keith Newstead

Transports of Delight (2010) by Keith Newstead

But there’s also a wide range of looks and styles. Since the turn of the 21st century the style has moved away from a folk-craft style. The influence of Steam Punk is just one among many diverse trends, some artists returning to the elaborately metallic roots of the automaton but combining this with an expansion into a much broader range of styles and techniques.

Many of the works coming into the ambience of contemporary fine art, becoming interesting sculptures in their own right as well as clever or entertaining ‘toys’.

Take this piece by John Grayson, which initially looks like something from the Victorian era because of the use of porcelain and the dresses, hair and beard style of the figures. But it was in fact made in 2016 and, if you read the texts in the newspapers which are flowing down in front of the main figure, you realise that they are about Brexit and the Leveson Enquiry and all kinds of contemporary issues which fill the headlines.

This very knowing use of ceramics combined with an up-to-the-minute text or pretext reminded me very much of Grayson Perry.

The Discombobulated Brexiteer (2016) by John Grayson

The Discombobulated Brexiteer (2016) by John Grayson

A different spin is given to the form by artist Melanie Tomlinson who uses a great deal of illustration to decorate her sculptures. In her work the complex machinery so obvious in works by someone like Keith Newstead is completely concealed beneath a metal carapace which is itself printed with beautifully intricate drawings of folklore and fairy tales, images which gently come to to life when the sculptures move.

And then I saw a deer by Melanie Tomlinson (2006)

And then I saw a deer by Melanie Tomlinson (2006)

Among the smallest works of art I’ve ever seen is the tiny series of circus acrobats by Laurence and Angela St Leger, which are only a centimetre or so high, and hand made in exquisite detail.

Two Acrobats (2016) by Laurence and Angela St Leger

Two Acrobats (2016) by Laurence and Angela St Leger


The making of automata, or mechanical moving models, is an area on the border between art and craft which you rarely hear about.

You sometimes see odd examples of old automata in local museums, but it’s extremely rare to get the opportunity to see the work of contemporary artists who are developing and expanding this old format into ever-more inventive, more earnest or more comical channels – artists like Keith Newstead, Melanie Tomlinson, Paul Spooner, Sam Smith or Tim Lewis. Which makes this a rare and fascinating exhibition.

It’s also funny. It’ll make you laugh. It’ll make you marvel at the intricacy of the workings and the cleverness of the conceits. You’ll get to the end and wish, like me, that there were more buttons to push and more automata to watch whirring and moving.

A Curious Turn is another thought-provoking, inspiring and above all happy-making triumph for the Heath Robinson Museum.

Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Heath Robinson Museum

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