Rubén de la Nuez - The Riddles of the Abstract Sphinx

"The sand of the desert, upon which I used to be, (now) confronts me; and it is in order to cause that you do what is in my heart that I have waited."
Thutmose IV (Dream Stele, 1401 BC)

"I insist upon the equal existence of the world engendered in the mind and the world engendered by God outside of it"
Mark Rothko (1943)

In 1868, French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme painted Bonaparte Before the Sphinx. History and mythology appear face to face in the Egyptian plateau of Giza. Napoleon is portrayed as unusually humble and introspective in front of the imposing limestone statue of the Great Sphinx. He does not act like the defiant Oedipus ready to solve the deadly riddle of the menacing female rock. His powerful army appears dissolved in the shadows of the endless sand-scape of the desert. The only mighty feature is the profound silence of contemplation. The couchant sphinx projects her gaze over the head of the would-be emperor into the vast horizon. She ignores and hypnotizes him.
Unavoidably, nature and human interference will continue to deface and polish the Great Sphinx into an abstract monolith. Somewhere in the future, the naked soul of a lost civilization will still surface from the dust of time. One can sense this history of solitude and timelessness in contemporary Egyptian sculptor Armen Agop's work. His silent objects appear as leftovers in the desert, witnesses of an age that preceded and will succeed humanity. Each of Agop's sculptures is an objet trouvé that has fallen from the edge of time. The idea of the Transcontemporary, which titles his most recent exhibition, speaks about the extemporary quality of an object that could be articulately found in a cabinet of archeological wonders, the royal cache of Ramesses II, the workshop where the Persian alchemist Jābir ibn Hayyān tried his philosopher's stone, or even at Leonardo storage module in the International Space Station.
Agop's 'trans-contemporary' objects produce, indeed, a sensation of alchemical outcome: halfway between geological science and mystical gesture. They perform as a sort of talisman in which spiritual properties are embedded in the nature of materials. The transformation of the material's nature acts as a form of consecration. Furthermore, this uncommon geological mysticism claims an equally special type of interaction: a metaphysical experience that goes beyond the aesthetics of traditional sculpture.
Comparable to the above-mentioned philosopher's stone of the medieval alchemists, the anxiety about immortality is a fundamental currency in Agop's aesthetics. Being born in Cairo might have influenced Agop's material sensitivity. It is not incidental that the use of granite as an artistic material would find its genesis in ancient Egypt, precisely associated with its most sacred concern: the conservancy of death. Agop's art is to some extent a quotation of the material concept within the cultural history of sculpture. Granite and bronze imply a semantic of transcendence.
Material is never semantically neutral in the art of sculpture. The "zero degree" of sculpturing can only be achieved before the selection of the material. Once it is chosen, a meaningful language, developed from centuries of material culture, is inexorably activated. Materials speak before they are touched by the sculptor. Herbert George mentioned that: "Creating a sculpture is a three-way conversation between sculptor, material and viewer. Material is by necessity at the center of that conversation, and it is as much alive as the other two. However, the ultimate aesthetic challenge for the sculptor is to create a form that transcends the material from which it is made.(*1)
"1 Material as transcendence of reality and reality that transcends materials are part of the philosophy beneath the surface of Agop's sculptures. Agop is a descendent of an Armenian family displaced as a consequence of the genocide that began precisely a century ago, in 1915. Agop has referred to the Armenian word koyadevel. Loosely translated as 'continued existence', this term is familiar to every Armenian living in diaspora. (*2) Agop said that: "In the Ancient Egyptian civilization you find the dream of eternal existence. So in both the Armenian present and the Egyptian past [one finds] the dream of eternity or survival."3 Hence, equal to the loose gaze of the Sphinx in the desert, the sense of permanence in Agop's art is related to cultural objects that struggle to exist outside of their original time and/or space. Chronus and locus travel within the same dimensional spaceship. In Agop's art, the impression of 'continued existence' occurs when an object has been 'scraped' from its narrative, idiosyncratic, allegorical or any circumstantial form of culturally conditioned reading. Fundamentally, this process of abstraction from physical and ephemeral reality brings us a few chapters back to a certain obsession with formal purity that characterized Modern artistic movements, such as 1930s concrete sculpture. Sculpture becomes an object per se, and not a "casting" of a piece of reality. Likewise, Agop's objects do not intend to symbolize reality. They are meaningful and heterodox fragments of reality themselves.
One of the essential sculptural features in Modern aesthetic pureness is 'surface'. From the double surfaces Max Bill started in the 1940s to the reflecting surfaces Anish Kapoor initiated in the 1990s, a sense of perfection erases any trace of sculptural process. In the case of Armen Agop, this illusion of disappearance of human action is particularly striking, as his sculptures are the result of a heavy deployment of manpower. The physical gesture of the artist does not seem to erode the object. The sculpture appears as the creation of a divine machine. It is no longer a human but a godly catharsis. The sculptor is concealed within the sculpture. Subjectivity rises from the gaze, not from the object. There is a classical flavor in the sense that the artwork is as far away as possible from the original natural rock. If Bernini's sculptures are never cold and stiff marble but the soft and sensuous skin of Daphne, Agop's sculptures are bronzes ready to fly or granites ready to spin. In Western classical art, sculpture is always "unfaithful" to its natural physicality. In Agop's compact and quasiceremonial steles there is always an impression of weightlessness.
Such ethereal feeling may recall that of Constantin Brâncuși's marble and bronze series of 1920s sculptures Bird in Space. Brâncuși said: "What is real is not the external form, but the essence of things [....] It is impossible for anyone to express anything essentially real by imitating the exterior surface" 4 Similarly, Agop's art aims to formalize immaterial conditions rather that visible realities. This is the aesthetic premise that connects Agop's artifacts with certain chronicles of Modern sculpture.
However, Agop's creations noticeably differentiate from the concrete and abstract tradition by the rejection of the straight geometrical and natural motives that, respectively, characterized those areas within Modern art. Nature and geometry appear off-balanced in his oval planes. His sculptures drift away from these references, although they may still perform as the mother and father of Agop's alien objects.
Agop's poetics are basically focused on the objectification of the intangible, of the mystery of things and events. It is a sort of visual ontology that ossifies what is doomed to fade away. This visualization of essence is generally produced by a minimum of intervention. The legacy of modern design, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's adopted motto "less is more" for architecture, and other forms of aesthetic subtraction, simplification or essentialism are core to Agop's intellectual enquiry and expressive repertoire.
Nonetheless, his pristine output should not be straightforwardly identified with the artistic movement known as Minimalism. In the tradition of Modern abstraction, Minimalist artists acted as facilitators of a platform in which visual resources (shapes, colors, materials, volumes, etc.) could express themselves in full voice. If on the aesthetic level Agop's art appears informed or influenced by this 1960s American movement, the conceptual propositions are different. Minimalism allowed the material world to speak by itself. Agop's objects seem to "materialize" and to confer a "worldly appearance" to the artist's spiritual concerns. He interferes in the nature of materials. He makes them to adopt outlandish shapes. The piece of stone is no longer speaking as its natural being 4 Herbert George. Idem, p. 45 but as the artist's bare self. Minimalism was the nakedness of forms; Agop's sculptures are about the nakedness of the human condition.
Some of Agop's sculptures appear like sorts of wombs, space capsules, or fossilized cocoons from which supernatural lively entities scuffle to emerge. This tense energy may remind one of ancient Egyptian Benben stones or pyramidia displayed at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo. Those mythical black granite mounds that topped the pyramids and obelisks alleged to concentrate the divine power conferred to the monument. In a similar fashion, Agop's granites act as essential or metonymical visualizations of a power that exceeds the object.
Yet, there is a fundamental dissimilarity between these sacred stones and the sense of sacredness manifested in Agop's art. His sculptures condense a sacred experience into a horizontal, tactile and anthropometrically scaled dialogue. These sculptures are not altars but mirrors of the viewer's soul. They produce another Napoleonic humbleness in which one could ponder his own transient power, beliefs, and values with those of the transcendental quality of time-space dimension emblematized by Agop's modeled rocks. These stones express the sacredness of the profane, of the down to (the desert's) earth, of the immenseness that frames and minimizes human existence. The riddles to be answered are in tune with this complex (at once telluric and incorporeal) relationship between Man and Universe.

*1 Herbert George. The Elements of Sculpture, London: Phaidon Press, 2014, p. 12
*2 Gillian de Boer and Armen Agop. "Armen Agop: Life in a Transcontemporary World", Art Plural Gallery Blog, world, November 1st, 2014, 3 Gillian de Boer and Armen Agop. Idem.