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Light fantastic: The work of Liliane Lijn

— June 2014

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Liliane Lijn has been working with light and kinetic phenomena since the 1960s. She talks to Frances Follin about her work

Frances Follin: When did you realize that you wanted to be an artist and how did you train?

Liliane Lijn: I started painting and making small sculptures in clay, while I was still at school. At first, I did it in my spare time but then I began to skip school and stay at home, spending the whole day painting. In the autumn of 1957, after a weekend in Venice, meeting a childhood friend, whose mother was a Surrealist painter, we both decided to become artists. I arrived in Paris in late November 1958, enrolled at the Sorbonne and the Ecole du Louvre to study Archaeology and History of Art. Through my friend Nina and her mother, Manina, I met many practising artists. Although I did not go to a specific art school, I would not say that I was self-taught. I had the benefit of living in the middle of a very lively art world, daily meeting artists who advised and influenced me.

FF: You have travelled widely and lived in a number of countries. What effects do you feel that has had on your work? Are you conscious of having drawn on specific influences from anywhere that you have lived?

LL: Immersing myself in a number of different cultures has definitely had an enriching effect. The years I spent in Paris were very important for the development of my work. Paris was like a hub, where artists from all over the world met. The café culture contributed to easy and frequent meetings between artists, writers and musicians.

My first year in Paris laid the basis for much of my subsequent work.

New York in the early 1960s was a very stimulating and generous place for an artist to live. I was offered a space in a plastics factory on Canal Street that altered the direction of my work from expression to research. Access to new technological materials was easy there.

Back in Paris, I met Beat poets Gregory Corso, William Burroughs, Sinclair Beiles and Nazli Nour, whose experiments in writing had an influence on my early Poem Machines

Perhaps, of all the places I have lived, Greece had the most profound effect on my work. I was married to the Greek artist, Takis, and, together, we built a house north of Athens. The light and bareness of Greece infused me with a sense of spirituality, while simultaneously building our house kept me grounded in daily material reality and introduced me to working with other craftsmen. I loved the language, the food and the direct generosity of Greek people. I found the remains of Greek antiquity both haunting and inspiring. Even then, I noticed that industry had invaded many of the ancient Greek sacred sites, such as the major oil refinery close to the temple site of Eleusis. The Greek myths and archetypes became an important part of my inner world.

In London, where I arrived in 1966, I discovered small precision engineering companies, thanks to which I could develop complex art works that I could not have made in Greece. This led me to develop and make Liquid Reflections. Liquid Reflections and the works leading up to it were my first and most complex works with water and light. The Liquid Reflections series, inspired by my interest in astronomy and the physics of light, was the outcome of five years of experimental work with plastics and fire, acrylic polymers, lenses, prisms, light and finally water.

FF: Kinetic and Optical art were massively popular and important in the 1960s – I believe this was at least in part because people then were becoming more socially and politically conscious. They did not want to be passive recipients and these forms of art – and others such as performance art – made them feel more like active participants, actively engaged with the work. Would you like to comment on that?

LL: Kinetic art has an atavistic attention-grabbing attribute because motion is connected to predator–prey genetic memory. Mobile works of art have been popular for centuries but very few have been preserved. There is a large public for kinetic and performance art, because these forms of art overlap theatre and dance, drawing people into their space. My 1960s work, Liquid Reflections, places the viewer in a meditative state of mind, while stimulating questions and thoughts about invisible cosmic forces. More recent works, Stardust Ruins provokes thoughts about the boundary between substance and illusion, while Starslide is both art and playground, allowing children to enter, climb and slide down the exterior spiral chute.

FF:  You seem to have been interested in science for a long time – you have worked on a number of projects with scientists and have been an artist in residence at NASA. When did your interest in science develop – what sparked it?

LL: I became interested in science in 1960, because of my close involvement with Takis’ work with magnetic force fields. I was simultaneously interested in Buddhism and its central concept that life is an illusion. This drew me towards physics, where I thought I might find the most basic understanding of reality. I became interested in light and its relationship with matter. Early in the 1960s, I worked with polymers, making lenses to metaphorically ‘trap’ photons. During the same period, I began to work with text, transmuting it into visual vibrations to allow people to ‘see sound’. In the late 1960s, I began to ask questions about whether human behaviour could be modelled on the behaviour of elementary particles and this led me to write my epic poem Crossing Map. I have recently recorded this work, in collaboration with sound artist Sharon Gal, in a Jerwood commission broadcast on Resonance FM that can  be heard online on Soundcloud.

FF: Can you tell us something about the development of some of these collaborative projects? Your use of NASA’s ‘air gel’ and your recent work shown at ‘The Republic of the Moon’ in London are intriguing examples.

LL: I conceived moonmeme [the work shown at ‘The Republic of the Moon’] in 1992, in the continuing development of my work with language that began with Poem Machines in 1962. In moonmeme, the feminine pronoun SHE is projected onto the lunar surface and the relative motions of the Moon, Earth and Sun both create and transform this word.

In 2005, I was awarded an ACE, NASA, Leonardo network artist residency at the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. My meetings with scientists there led me to make the film Inner Space Outer Space, interweaving my interviews of scientists with images of my own work.

I had the privilege to be shown a small block of aerogel and to learn from the Principal scientist in the Stardust mission, Andrew Westphal, about Nasa’s use of this quasi-material to collect dust from outside our solar system. He made it possible for me to go to JPL in Pasadena, where I began a collaboration with Steven M. Jones to make my Stardust Ruins series of works with aerogel. An important third project generated by my NASA residency is Solar Hills, my collaboration with astronomer John Vallerga to create large solar installations in the landscape.

FF: Like a lot of people, I was very disappointed that your proposed project for the fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square did not get the go-ahead. It would be really interesting to see a piece of Kinetic art there. I appreciate that it must be very difficult to get funding for major projects at the moment – what other potential projects are you working on now?

LL: The Dance[the work intended for the fourth plinth] was a robotic ballet, an interactive piece of performance art that would have brought something entirely new to Trafalgar Square. It is also a work that relates to the world of entertainment surrounding the Square. I hope that someone will have the vision to commission The Dance for another site.

Solar Hills Solar Citiesis a work I feel passionate about. It embodies much of the work that I have done with light from the early 1960s and brings it out into the landscape or the cityscape on a very large scale. It is a work both of great spirituality and of ecological, scientific and educational interest. I have been working with a team of scientists on this project since 2005. In 2008, with the help of grants from ACE and the Gulbenkian Foundation, we tested two prototype arrays on the Headlands, sending large rainbows across the Golden Gate.

Since then, we have been looking for funding to create temporary or permanent installations. In 2012, we created a white light installation, Solar Beacon, on the two towers of the Golden Gate Bridge for a four-month period to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the building of the iconic bridge.

Inspired by Archaeoastronomy,the earliest form of cosmic observation that took place on high hills or sites that simulated them, Solar Hills Solar Citieshopes to connect people to the wider reality of the cosmos by surprising and astonishing them into questioning everyday phenomena, such as the sun, that they normally take for granted.

FF: Is there a project you would love to carry out if money were no object?

LL: There is more than one project I would like to carry out. I would like to create Crystal Koan, a huge tower I have designed, built from glass brick walls, refracting light in millions of brilliant colours both inside and outside. I would like to install Solar Hills Solar Cities in multiple sites in different countries across the world to allow people to see brilliantly coloured stars flickering on the horizon, defining the shape of the edge of the world.

FF: Thank you very much for talking to Cassone.

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