Essay by Dan Fox
December 2019. My kitchen, New York, USA. Athanasios Argianas has sent me a link to a SoundCloud page from which I can access the new music he has been recording. The first composition is Pivoting. It begins with a single, soft, sustained string note, which effloresces into three tones. They start to sweep, glissandi in and out of each other, dipping to earthy tones before re-registering as a high keening blade of sound. Periodically the notes hang — so momentarily it’s almost imperceptible — before dissolving again, dissatisfied, in search of a new tonal relationship. Sometimes the notes argue dissonantly, at others they resolve in a reassuring major harmony.
The piece ends. I open a jpeg of a pair of bronze, Art Deco-style heads that Athanasios has made. They lay on their sides on a concrete floor. The heads contain binaural microphones: the ears are the mics, designed to replicate the way the human auditory system works. I click back to the start of Pivoting but the head triggers an association which distracts me and suddenly I want to listen to the song My Head is My Only House Unless It Rains by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band. I dial it up on Spotify. Forgetting that Pivoting has just started re-playing, I am surprised when I hear the two pieces of music run simultaneously through my speakers. By a fluke of timing, those glissandi strings slide in and out of tune with Beefheart’s ballad. Their brief calibrational pauses are almost in time with the rhythm of the song. For a fleeting moment — a feeling on the brink of emulsifying into a thought — their interplay captures the experience of viewing art; artist and viewer, tuning themselves in and out of each other around a shared object. Bodies touching across unbridgeable spans of time.
September 2019, Athens, Greece. I rest on my side on the speckled terrazzo floor of Athansios’s studio. I am a binaural microphone in the shape of a human head. The KU-100 Neumann is my inspiration. It was designed to make realistic 3D recordings, but I look better. That one is drab grey, whereas I am made from bronze. I look like a modernist sculpture, or the head of an Atlante designed to watch down on visitors
from an imposing 1930s edifice. Pessimists tell me this prone position makes me deaf in one ear, but optimists say I have my ear to the ground. Paranoiacs accuse me of having my ear to the ground only in one, small place. Selective deafness, they sneer. I tell them mono has its advantages.
I am one stage in a chain of actions and reactions which started in the artist’s brain, moved to his hands, and produced me as an object. The objects artists make fall from their hands as soon as they are made public. A visitor might walk into a gallery and pick the object up with their eyes and ears, putting it into their own head. From here the visitor exports it elsewhere, and once more lets the object fall to the floor when they explain what they saw to their friend, or when a writer uses their hands to externalise these feelings as words, which the author drops to the floor on publication, waiting to be picked up by a reader.
On my upward-facing microphone ear, Athanasios has placed a small seashell for me to record the thoughts of any creature that takes it as their temporary house.
Sometime in 1928. Maurice Martenot’s studio, Paris, France. I am a metal wire encircled by a ring, a component of the Ondes Martenot musical instrument. I sit on top of a schematic of black-and-white piano keys, a grid that suggests well-tempered, evenly tuned pitches. When my operator, The Ondist, moves the ring from one end of me to another, I produce a clear, round tone that glides in mournful, portamento swoops, micro-tones that skate from note to note. The Ondist regulates the intensity of my voice using a set of switches which put pressure on a small sack filled with powdered graphite and mica. Through three resonators — one of which contains a gong, another containing strings arranged like a palm leaf, a third shaped like a gravestone — you can hear the material that plays me, the invisible natural processes of conduction and radio, just as the brass of a cornet or gut of a guitar string defines their timbres.
Meanwhile, back in Athens, Greece, tomorrow and 300 years ago, I am trapped in a series of repeated events. It begins with an iridescent, geometric crystal resting on top of my hand. I hold it as steady as I can but an invisible force tips my hand and the crystal falls onto a white surface, producing a rich percussive note. The surface turns out to be the skin of a drum. The crystal bounces off it, and the drum drops into a river which carries it away. Repeat. Driving the process is an urgent, modulating filigree of notes played on a harpsichord. Their timbre is baroque, but their personality is postwar modern. In each cycle, the crystal is different, as if its lines and right-angles are growing. So too is the length of the drop from hand to drum to river. The harpsichord repeats the same musical shapes, but they expand and turn new corners, like a fractal. The phrase promises a musical resolution, but confounds the ear with its lateral reconfigurations: Crystal, hand, drum, river. Crrystal, haand, drrum, riiver. Crrrystaal, haaandd, drrrumm, riiiveer. Crrrrystaaal, haaaanddd, drrrrummm, riiiiveeer. Crystl, hnd, drm, rvr.
50 AD, South East Roman-occupied Britain. My job is making clay roof tiles for a provincial villa. I use the pan method, creating a flat surface then gently curving it using the contours of my leg. I arrange the fired tiles in roughly tessellating, overlapping patterns. They remind me of a legionary’s shoulder armour, or small architectural models of catacombs. Sometimes they provide shelter for my cat. The decapitated heads of two broken Atlantes lay on the ground near my tiles. Their ears are to the ground, as if scanning for messages from the earth.
Oxfordshire, England, 1985. A family walks across farmland where they find many interesting stones in the ground. They pick me up from the soil: I am a petrified echinoderm dating from the time the area was beneath the sea some 7000 years ago. Medieval people used to call my fossilised brethren ‘fairy loaves’ for our resemblance to bread, and would keep us in their homes for good luck. I have shared the earth with fragments of Roman tiles marked with fingerprints or gouged by a cat’s paw made whilst the wet clay was still drying. The family’s child keeps me and 30 years later transports me across an ocean to a large city, where I am placed on a shelf next to a roof tile fragment.
My living room, New York, 2020. An old piece of music from the 1930s plays: Fête des belles eaux, a piece composed by Olivier Messiaen for the Ondes Martenot. Feeling listless, a little unstuck from the present moment, I lookfor something for my mind to settle upon. I pick up a fragment of Roman-era roof tile found decades ago near my childhood home. Its surface holds the impression of its maker’s thumbprint. I put my own finger into the mark. A sudden jolt of energy makes the tile drop from my hand to the wooden floor, where it makes a rich, percussive thud. The impact opens the floor up beneath me to reveal a river, which carries me off as the notes from an Ondes Martenot glide in search of their harmonic home.
François Couperin, various harpsichord works, c. 18th Century
Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, Continuum, 1988
Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, UK: Hutchinson Radius, 1990
Peter Greenaway (Dir.), Water Wrackets, 1975
Wim Mertens, Stratégie de la Rupture, 1991 and Maximising the
Olivier Messiaen, Quatuor Pour la Fin du Temps [Quartet for the End of Time], 1941
Astrida Neimanis, Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology (Environmental Cultures), Bloomsbury Academic, 2019
Sappho, Come Close, c. 6th–7th Century BCE
Shaw Method swimming drills, youtube
Steve Reich, Different Trains, 1988 and Pendulum Music, 1968
My minor-Asian grandmother Maria’s hand written cookbook: Bonito Baked on a Roof Tile
‘The Pink Panther imitates nothing, it reproduces nothing, it paints the world its colour, pink on pink.’ Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari
Athanasios Argianas (b. 1976, Athens) lives and works between London and Athens. Between 2018 – 19 he was in residence at Camden Arts Centre as the Freelands Lomax Ceramics Fellow. Solo exhibitions and performances include: The Length Of Your Arms Unfolded, Barbican Art Gallery, London (2011); The Length Of A Strand Of Your Hair, Of The Width Of Your Arms Unfolded, EMST National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens (2010); We All Turn This Way, Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, London (with Nick Laessing, 2008); and Art Now Live, Tate Britain, London (2001).
Group exhibitions include: Slow Painting, Hayward Touring, UK curated by Martin Herbert (2019–20); La Inhalación de un Aliento de Carbono Oceánico [The Inhalation of an Oceanic Carbon Breath], curated by Cristina Ramos, ETOPIA: Centro de Arte y Tecnología, Zaragoza, Spain (2019); Distress Over Parliament, Flat Time House at lítost, FOAF, Prague, (2019); Antidoron: The EMST Collection, Documenta 14, Fridericianum, Kassel (2017); The Promise Of Total Automation, Kunsthalle Wien (2016); Art or Sound, Fondazione Prada, Venice (2014); Art of its Own Making, The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, St Louis, USA (2014); PERFORMA 13, New York (2013); The Imminence Of Poetics — The 30th Biennale of São Paulo, Pavilhão Ciccillo Matarazzo, Brazil (2012); 2nd Athens Biennale (2009); 3rd Thessaloniki Biennale (2011); and Pale Carnage, curated by Martin Clark, Arnolfini, Bristol and Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee (2007).
Argianas’ latest LP Purr will be released with Lo Recordings in February 2020 along with a re-release of his Melodic Records EP Warm Industry (as Gavouna, 2003). The limited-edition lathe-cut vinyl, cd and digital download of Hollowed Water (single) will be released with the exhibition.
Dan Fox is a writer and filmmaker based in New York.
Supported by Freelands Foundation