The word ‘silhouette’ is derived from the surname of the 18th-century French Finance Minister Etienne de Silhouette, who was said to have spent his leisure hours making cut-paper portraits. So unpopular were the Minister’s economic policies that his name, and the craft that borrowed it, was synonymous with anything cheaply and unconvincingly made. Plato, in his Republic (c.380 BC), employed the silhouette as a metaphor for the illusory nature of what we take to be reality, while Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia (c.77–79 AD) recounts how a Corinthian maid was so moved by the shadow of her sleeping lover’s face cast on a candlelit wall that she traced its outline to preserve his beauty forever, only for her potter father to subsequently fill it in with a few handfuls of clay. While Athanasios Argianas’ exhibition, ‘The Length of a Strand of Your Hair, of the Width of Your Arms, Unfolded’, turned, in part, on the silhouette’s historical relationship with image-making and truth, it was also, as its title suggests, preoccupied with that most empirical of human activities, measurement.
Suspended from a brass thread that crisscrossed the gloomy gallery’s ceiling, and resembling Constructivist mobiles, Argianas’ two Unstable Objects (2010) take their shape from tree branches, the angles of which have been rounded up to 90 degrees (a cast of a single leaf provided each sculpture with a weight-centre and a sinuous, organic flourish). Formed from three types of metal coated with a further three types of metal, these works appear inert to the naked eye. On a molecular level however, they are a riot of metallic expansion and contraction, their material ratios shifting in response to tiny fluctuations in the room’s temperature. Lit by two projectors, they cast their shadows on two freestanding screens. Now and then, these silhouettes were interrupted by the appearance of the recorded silhouette of artist Hilary Koob-Sassen performing a text by Argianas detailing various highly subjective measurements (‘the length of your shoelace, of the width of your nail…’). Pinching and crumpling the paper in his hand, and occasionally appearing to tap on the surface of the screen, Koob-Sassen accompanied his recitation with a series of physical gestures that delineated his body and the space it occupied. Watching the piece, and listening to the half-aggressive, half-high-camp grain of the performer’s voice, it was hard not to think of Sophocles’ dictum: ‘A human being is only breath and shadow.’
Also suspended from the brass thread were three sheets of white paper, through which Argianas had threaded twigs coated in oxidized silver. Entitled Paper through wood wood through paper (2010), these works suggested the simultaneous occupation of a spatial point by two distinct, yet related elements – all it takes to transform a twig into an A4 sheet, of course, is the exercise of human will and the passage of time. As Koob-Sassen’s projected image appeared at increasingly regular intervals, I got to thinking about the spatial and temporal dimensions of intimacy, about how we measure, say, the contours of a lover’s face not in millimetres but in units of emotional distance. Looking up to the ceiling, I saw that the brass thread terminated in a lead weight, as round and dull as a dying moon. Remove this weight, and the whole show – with its shadows and dancing molecules – would crash to the ground like a toppled grandfather clock. This was not, I suspect, a dramatization of the artist’s ability to find correspondences and order in the objects and images he brings together, but rather of how tenuous and contingent such acts of ordering are. Time – and change – can’t always be measured in seconds, minutes and hours. Likewise, the shadow sometimes tells us more about the turning world than the inert object from which it is cast. ‘The Length of a Strand of Your Hair…’ was not anti-empirical. Rather, it proposed a broadening of the category of things we might consider to be instruments of mensuration. It called for new yardsticks, and new clocks.