In a recent sculpture, whose title sounds as much like a manifesto as some kind of neo-Platonic magic trick, A Demonstration Of Many Things As One As A Demonstration Of One Thing As Many (2009), the projected busts of three women appear one by one on three small, diversely angled panels. As each woman appears, she begins singing, “I was swept off her feet, I was swept off her feet, she was swept off her feet,” such that the three voices gently collide and form a canon, systematically rising and falling against one another in eerily harmonious non-unison. If one were to try and visualize the canon, it might resemble a braid, an involuted loop, or even the circular sculpture upon which it is projected: an interconnected aluminum and brass armature decked out with three cardboard screens, which are offset at thirty-degree angles from one another, the whole of which is set atop a steel three-legged table.
Despite the singing sculpture’s mutable capacity to seem at once like an improbable constructivist transmitter, some kind of obscure, pseudo-scientific gadget from a 19th-century cabinet of curiosities, or finally, what it claims to be — A Demonstration of Many Views as One, etc. — the logic of the piece is sound (pun intended,) not only internally, but vis-à-vis the rest of Argianas’s practice, of which it is very much a natural, sonic evolution. After all, one of the things that the Greek, London-based artist Athanasios Argianas has been doing over the past few years is translating approximations of sonic phenomena into physical form. That one of his sculptures should become a song, or more precisely, come to host a song, makes perfect sense. Less a reversal of this sonic preoccupation than a coming full circle, the logic of this progression speaks to the logic of the loop, a leitmotif that informs the artist’s practice with a lasting zeal. For his is very much an oeuvre in the classical sense: it is the marriage of a distinct sensibility with a series of enduring leitmotifs, which he progressively elaborates upon in a specific, if arcane, frame of reference. Those leitmotifs range from canons composed of recurring phrases to the loop to the Möbius strip to translations of diverse phenomena into different registers as well as questions of time, duration and representations thereof. A conservatory-trained musician, Argianas has been known to reference electronic instruments from the early 20th century, such as the theremin and the ondes martenot, experimental music and compositional methods from the ’60s, concrete poetry, the Constructivism of Naum Gabo, and even Duchamp’s Machine Optique (1920) and its circular deployment of language. Picture all of this discreetly bathed in the singular afterglow of the Victorian era, when the occult blurred into science, and you begin to get a sense of this oeuvre’s spirit.
Obeying the artist’s La Monte Young-esque injunction to “walk sideways,” from Argianas’s concrete poem (perverted here as “Walk sideways/sing from the middle to the start end,”) perhaps the best way to enter his work is sideways, from the middle, as opposed to the beginning, which is ironic given that many of his sculptures are circular in nature, and therefore as theoretically bereft of sides as a Möbius strip is of a beginning or end. Take the artist’s “Song Machines” for example: an ongoing series the artist has been working on since 2005. Reminiscent of tops or dreidels, these linguistically inflected sculptures generally consist of slatted armatures crafted out of wood or metal upon which certain phrases, such as “We will rise if we fall” or a variation on the above: “Sing / Walk sideways / Walk / Sing From The Middle to the Start / End,” have been incised. Beyond their obvious visual debt to the dynamic machine-like aesthetic of Constructivism, if they are machines, they are so in the most primitive sense of the word. From the Greek makhana (device, means) related to mekhos (means, expedient, contrivance,) they seem to contain and operate by a logic that is both a means and an end in itself, as if it were a device whose use was to rupture linear notions of time and, like machines of yore, be appreciated as an object in its own right. While most of his “Song Machines” are meant to be circumnavigated, some are liable to hypnotically spin with an antique, cinematic thrill. Featured in the artist’s recent exhibition at Max Wigram, the latest example from this series actually consisted of a projection and the negative casts of wall protrusions. A ‘sculpture’ in negative, the artist recorded the shadow of a flat, spinning rhombus, likewise engraved with phrases in his studio, which he then projected on the wall a little above head height, along with a few negative marks like, for example, small concavities where plaster had built up on his studio wall. Coming off as the imagery produced by some kind of ur-cinematic device, the active agent of this work, which was essentially present in absentia, seemed to be memory — of image, place and language — a human machine or mechanism whose essential mystery remains untold.
Questions of memory are also dwelt upon in another on-going series of sculptures entitled “Proposals For Reading Consonants as Noise,” begun in 2007. The primary elements of these sculptures consist of volumetric evocations of noise — one of the most difficult forms of sound to represent in any way — cast into slender, amorphous shapes in varying metals, which are often held in place by calipers like specimens on top of, again, tripods (the artist’s fondness of the three-legged structure no doubt has to do with its delicate reluctance to, unlike a four-legged table, allow the viewer to pick sides.) Created in pairs, each element is generally placed in different parts of a space, such that gazing upon one and then moving on to appraise its counterpart, you would never know that they are identical, it being virtually impossible to retain a visual memory of their wrinkled surfaces. The piece could be said to question what degree of knowledge or intimacy a viewer is capable of developing with something that cannot be remembered. And yet, the series is not without a certain subjective, even intimate, charge.
Indeed, much of this work’s strange appeal comes from the balance it strikes between subjective presentations of objective phenomena, and vice versa. This is no small feat, given how subjective, traditionally affective and apparently expressive most of this phenomena is, namely poetry, sculpture, painting and music. It’s as if in using quasi-scientific or mathematical methodologies, the artist were seeking to neutralize the contents of these affective phenomena, but failing splendidly. For instance, there is something weirdly moving, not to mention hauntingly beautiful, about the sound track from an early sculpture Music for Four Imagined Theremins (whistling quartet) (2005-06), which consists of four whistlers seeking to replicate a theremin, or say, the leitmotif featured in many of the artist’s canons: “I was swept off her feet, I was swept off her feet, she was swept off her feet.” Although distributed among three singers with the mathematical compositional rigor of a canon, this pronominally unsound declaration of elation nevertheless refuses to surrender its emotive content, which becomes oblique and hard to pin down. A similar transmutation of the emotive takes place in Argianas’s double portraits of friends, his oddly fetishistic paintings of women’s braids (the loop, the Möbius strip) or, most recently, in his coruscating images of crumpled up pieces of paper, which he rearranges and renders unrecognizable according to strict temporal principles. Significantly, the fact that Argianas’s work is aesthetically informed by the historical turning point of the early 20th century — a time when the occult was allowed to co-exist with science, machines were pregnant with both transcendental promise and material progress, and art began to systematically draw its content from ‘elsewhere’ — is consonant with the artist’s whole enterprise. A mystical phenomenologist, Argianas loops the past into the present by allowing the unaccountable magma of the present to blur into the hard empirical fact of the past (or maybe that was the other way around?)
Chris Sharp is a curator and writer based in Paris.
Athanasios Argianas was born in Athens in 1976. He lives and works in London.
Selected solo shows: 2009: Max Wigram, London. 2008: Arcade Fine Arts, London; Serpentine Gallery (with Nick Laessing,) London; Alessandro De March, Milan. 2007: The Breeder, Athens.
Selected group shows: 2009: “Heaven,” 2nd Athens Biennial, Athens; “In praise of shadows,” Gabriel Rolt, Amsterdam. 2008: “The Show Will Be Titled After Its End,” Formcontent, London; “Manifesto Marathon,” Serpentine Gallery, London