They sit, like silent sentinels, an army of giant water lilies in a still pond, stones in a Zen garden. Yet, despite their size and arresting form, they do not actively call out to the viewer, demanding to be seen. Rather, like planets spun out on their axes, orbiting around their own centres of gravity, they seem deep in conversation with each other, preoccupied within their own galaxy, oblivious to the outside world. It is this feeling of an energy at once spun out from an internal axis, meeting at peaked edges, yet tightly confined within a rocky heart that characterises Armenian-Egyptian Armen Agop’s sculptures. They rest, on their perfectly curved surfaces in what Victor Hugo Riego calls a ‘secretly precarious stillness’, broken only by the touch of a hand, yet always returning to their original point of rest – a perfect balance.
This is partially due to Agop’s choice of medium – the black granite that has come to characterise his oeuvre. Carefully honed, each individual sculpture can take months to finish, and granite itself is notoriously hard, unlike other, softer stones. “Granite is a type of stone that doesn’t really want to change,” he explains. “It has taken millions of years to form. This creates respect – it is more than a block of stone you buy from the quarry, you are, in essence, interfering with a part of nature.” Agop painstakingly spends as long as it takes in the final stages of each work, until he feels that each and every curve, ridge and line is exactly as it should be. “The process is quite meditative,” he muses, “and stone is an unforgiving medium.”
At the Faculty of Fine Arts, Helwan University in Cairo, from where he graduated in 1992, Agop studied both painting and sculpture, yet he was always intrinsically attracted to the latter. “There was simply a feeling with sculpture that I didn’t have when it came to painting,” he says, “a sense that there was something I could do here, something I could say.” While Agop began with media such as clay, resin and plaster, his ultimate choice of black granite has become as important as the sculptural shapes which he creates. It is also a medium which allows for his pieces to stand out, its very denseness of colour allowing the eye to take in a work’s aesthetic form without marbled veins or other textures detracting from the experience. Black granite is, in a sense, a blank canvas that retains some of this neutrality even after its transformation into a smooth and elegant orb. Over time, Agop’s sculptures moved from figurative creations to simpler and simpler shapes, until they were so compact that they were “just asking to be done in stone,” he explains.
Arresting in their perfect simplicity, he does not intend for his pieces to be dramatic, per se. “They’re not striking at all, in my opinion,” Agop says. “They’re serene and calm. too calm to be dramatic.” Indeed, the works do not scream for one to look at them. In fact, it could be said that they do not even care if they are seen or not. In what is almost a dismissal of their audience, the works’ relation with themselves becomes much stronger than any relationship they may have with the outside world. This preoccupation with what is within harks to a Sufi-like relationship with the universe and an understanding of what is within in order to understand what is outside oneself. “It’s all about uniting with yourself in order to unite with the world,” explains Agop. In their compact nature, his sculptures encompass an internal centre of gravity, and in exploring this, they appear to renounce the outside world. This is, however, a Sufi process with a twist, for while there is arguably a Sufi element to Agop’s work, especially the process through which his pieces are created, working with the material, respecting its grain and understanding its shape, for the artist, the key difference is that he does not seek a oneness with nature. Rather, “while there is harmony to my pieces, one can definitely see the human decision – so rather, they are not at harmony with nature, but are the result of a meeting between the human and the nature.” Ultimately, once a work is complete, Agop’s sculptures are no longer an extension of him, and they become part of the universe. “They’re mine until I finish them,” he says thoughtfully. “Then they’re not really mine anymore.”