Shields and Universes

It all started when I was a child in Greece. Because my mother happened to be called Helen like my paternal grandmother, I was named after my maternal grandmother, Athena. As I was a single child, my father tried to instill in me the ambition and confidence that a son would normally have developed: he told me that I should take after the ancient goddess Athena in courage and wisdom. To make me believe that I could resemble her, he concocted as toys for me spears, a bow with arrows, and a shield. He often used to tell me ancient Greek myths as well, instead of fairy tales.

In the warm Greek evenings, when we sat in our garden in the dark, he also used to show me the Milky Way and teach me the various constellations with their mythical names. I am sure that looking at the radiant Greek night-sky endowed me with a rare sense of wonder about the Galaxy and the universe.

Both of these threads seem to have surfaced in my recent work.

Since the mid-60s, when I started making art as a young part-time artist, I felt convinced that I could invent a new sculptural idiom only by understanding the new concepts of space, time and gravity. Cosmology as a science was in its infancy at the time, so I started reading avidly about Einstein's theories of relativity and about subatomic particles, the infinitely large and small -- the limits of reality. Trying intuitively to understand the laws and structure of the universe and to express them in my art, has informed my sculpture from its beginning.*

While my mainstream sculpture, inspired by nature and science, moved into the public space after 1970, I simultaneously developed work that dealt with the human body, the self and inner reality. This conceptual (textual and photographic) art compensated me for having to constantly struggle in the scale of the public domain, where there is little room for personal feelings or pain. When my two dearest friends both died from cancer in 1992, I started a series of intimate, body-oriented sculptures, made mostly with natural materials, such as shells and feathers. These sculptures took the form of armors and headdresses that cannot protect the body and poignantly stress its intrinsic vulnerability.**

After I stopped teaching at Oberlin College and moved to Washington, D.C., in 1998, I resumed work in this mode with a series of shields. Every past summer, when I went back to Greece, I collected urchin shells, abalones, and limpets during hours of swimming and skin-diving off the beaches of the Saronic gulf, between Athens and cape Sounion (where we had a summer home up in the hills). Also, during recent sabbatical leaves in North Carolina and northern Florida, I collected oyster, clam and cockle shells from the Atlantic ocean. Wherever I live and travel, I pick up single feathers or pluck them off the wings of killed birds as I find them. Also, my husband and I love wine, and drink it with dinner almost every evening, so I have kept an awful lot of wine corks! (Most artists collect found materials, but I usually gather only lightweight stuff because I travel so much.)

All of these materials testify to my interests and living habits. I recycle and use them as the inspiration comes. The shields continue to talk about the futility of protection, about the fragility and strength of feathers, about the delicate creatures that the shells shielded during their lifetime, about nature's "wastefulness" in generating prolifically both life and death. Limpets back to back, with their rough exteriors hidden and their tender interiors exposed; cockles crowding randomly side by side, like the millions of them lying on the beach; abalones moving in the wavy formations of the medium that created them; oysters as rough as the rocks of the beach in which they bedded; corks telling of the vineyards in which their wine was raised, with feathers growing from every corkscrew hole, dreaming of untold flights. All coalesce into circular forms, small universes of their own.

While the sculptures affirm the need to work with my hands -- my sense of tactility, the drawings in these series came out of my wish to apprehend the structure of the universe and my feeling of union with the cosmos. I still read as avidly as ever about cosmology and astrophysics (now fortunately a popular subject) and try to grasp the philosophical implications of quantum physics about reality. Theoretical physicists have the advantage of mathematics; I have my innate and trained knowledge of structure (form). As attested in my journals, I often have reached independently similar conclusions (such as my conviction that "form is the backbone of matter"). But I am not after truth, or even understanding. I am simply elated by reality's never-ending layers of complexity, scales within scales, the foam of galactic clusters and bubbles mirroring the boiling foam of spacetime that may give birth to endless universes -- unknown and unknowable. As a human, I can only glimpse all that grandeur and try to make it visible as I imagine it.

Athena Tacha (Copyright 2001)

* How my art has interacted with scientific ideas of our time is described in my essay, "Chaos and Form: a Sculptor's Sources in Science", to appear in Leonardo, volume 35, issue 3 (June 2002).

** A group of these works was exhibited in my last New York show at Franklin Furnace, "Vulnerability: New Fashions", April 1994 (catalogue), and in my exhibition at the College of Wooster Art Museum, Wooster, OH, "Fashioning Life and Death," Dec. 1994 (brochure with an essay by Thalia Gouma-Peterson).


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