This article was added by the user . TheWorldNews is not responsible for the content of the platform.

Bored by physics? These ‘very strange things’ might change your mind

Talking to Liliane Lijn about her artistic beginnings is to be spirited away to a world we might have seen in a French New Wave film. It is the late ’50s; a young and adventurous New Yorker, fixed on becoming an artist, makes her way to Paris to forge a creative life. The names of people she met, whose circles she joined or who gave her advice – Andre Breton, William Burroughs, Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely – are the stuff of legend, but trip easily off her tongue.

Liliane Lijn is 82. As she moved from New York to Paris and back again, a smorgasbord of unfamiliar sources of knowledge and ideas – Buddhism, quantum physics, psychoanalysis, ancient mythologies – were available to artists interested in something new. A lot of things interested Lijn. “I just wanted to know things. So I picked up books on all kinds of subjects and I found physics fascinating. I’d hated it at school, but if you go beyond the sort of things you learn at school and start thinking about atomic particles and what matter is made of – what plastic is, what is metal – then you start to get really interested.”

I visit Lijn in her studio in London where she has lived since settling with her partner Stephen Weiss in 1966. Our ostensible purpose is to discuss Liquid Reflections, one of the pieces included in ACMI’s exhibition Light: Works from the Tate’s Collection. There were actually several Liquid Reflections, a series of works Lijn made during the ’60s. All involve a spinning plastic disc lit by a projector lamp, two rolling acrylic balls and a layer of water, which interact in motion to produce a topography of reflections and shadows through the rolling balls. “These reflections start kind of doubling themselves and doing very strange things,” she says. “I thought of them as photons ... A sort of poetic idea of capturing light.”

Lijn’s extended family came to New York to escape Hitler. Her parents were both born Russian Jews, although her mother grew up in Poland and her father in Germany; she has said that there were six languages spoken in their house, although she and her brother insisted on speaking English. Her father had hopes of becoming a writer but, with little English and a family to support, he went into a succession of business ventures. At least he could help other artists.

“There was a lot of art in my family,” Lijn recalls. “I had cousins who were painters who were painting in the house. Silversmiths who made fine jewellery. My father would buy work from them. He saved a lot of people. When we sat at the table, we would always discuss theatre or philosophy or politics, that was normal, it was absolutely normal. And it was very lively as well, with different opinions.” It wasn’t like her friends’ family homes.

Liliane Lijn in her North London studio.

Liliane Lijn in her North London studio. Credit:Courtesy the artist and Rodeo, London/Piraeus.

“I felt Jewish because my home was quite different from people who were not Jewish. There was a very big difference in the relationship to food, for example. I could say WASP Americans who had been there for generations would throw away food and eat out of a big freezer. We hardly had a fridge – and food was very important. You definitely didn’t throw it away because people were starving in Russia.

“And the whole relationship of parents to children was different. Much more protective, intrusive and containing, holding us in. It was: ‘Don’t go out. Why are you going out? Who do you want to see?’ When I went to Paris, my mother said ‘Why are you going there? Live with me!’ She said that for years. I had to really distance myself in order to gain my own freedom, my own personality.” Her parents would visit often, no matter where she was, to check on her. “It was very difficult. I don’t think I ever really left!”

I wonder how she had mental space to work. She says that working created a space; it was her bubble. And she was determined. “I was very intent. If I wanted something, I did it. I never gave up.” That determination was essential, especially for a woman. Now, her career reads as a series of pinnacles, with public commissions from across the United Kingdom and works held in collections from Sydney to Paris to Chicago. Nobody was interested, however, when she started showing gallerists her early experiments with layers of liquid polymer, light and kinesis, of which she is now an acknowledged pioneer.

 Liliane Lijn’s iLiquid Reflections/i, 1968. Tate: Purchased 1973, ©Liliane Lijn

Liliane Lijn’s Liquid Reflections, 1968. Tate: Purchased 1973, ©Liliane LijnCredit:Tate

“I went around showing it to galleries and they would say, ‘Oh, it looks like Pollock’. And it looked nothing like Pollock. It was on plastic! The only thing that looked like Pollock was that it was scrambled lines. So I started doing these biomorphic shapes on Perspex that you could only see when light was shone on them, which is what led to Liquid Reflections.” She researched the workings of its component parts, through trial and error, over five years. “The piece is really about gravity. And it’s a metaphor, a complete cosmic metaphor. Because if you look inside a disc, a new disc when I’d just put the water in, it’s formless. And then a physical force pulls these drops together and, if you leave it long enough, they will become the same size.”

It was hard enough to present work that was off-beat, that wasn’t conventional; it was harder still for a woman. Back in New York, she met Yoko Ono. “She was doing performance work. She had a hard time then. No one paid her any attention either. Women were not taken seriously. Women were patronised, they were seen as children. Oh you know, very nice work! Patronised. And then of course, there were all sorts of complex things, in that some women dealers wanted men for other reasons and didn’t want any women in their gallery.” They wanted their artists to be their boys. Things are better now, she says, but not great.

Even so, in her stories there are glimpses of people who helped out or inspired her: Takis, a Greek artist and part of what she describes as “a complicated personal life”, whose interest in magnetism inspired her to explore natural forces; Burroughs, who summoned her to visit him at the Beat hotel and warned her to stay away from drugs; the owner of a plastics company in New York who let her use a corner of their warehouse as a studio and have her pick of materials; the Olympic skier who gave her some of the coloured polymer he used to prime his skis and an address to contact when she needed more. It came in candle form; she would melt and drip it onto Perspex and burn the surface with a torch.

And her father, of course, who supported her until she could support herself, even though he wanted her to go to college and have a conventional education. “Yes, he would never disown me. There are parents who do that. ‘If you don’t do what I want, you’re not my son or not my daughter.’ I know people who have had that experience. He would just complain.” He did insist that she enrol at the Sorbonne to study art history, which he thought was a more credible degree than an art school diploma. That was fine; she didn’t want to go to art school anyway.

“I think going to art school is very much like four-year-old children going to school and being taught to draw,” she says. “They know how to draw. Before they go to school, they’re great. Every child is a great artist, but you put them in a school and they start doing banal versions of reality.” She has taught in art schools herself, heard students ask for their tutors’ opinions. “And some people give very strong opinions. I don’t. Let them find their own way. If you try to indoctrinate students with a path you feel is the right path, it’s usually the path of what the art world is doing now. Go and look at what’s happening and do that.”


Which they will do anyway because, as Lijn has said in the past, all artists are sponges. Her poem machines – cones filled with moving light illuminating layered lines of poetry – reflected her interest both in the newly invented cut-up poetry and the common traffic cone. In her airy studio there are larger-than-life figures, colourful with looped plastic threaded with LED lights that respond to each other; she has said that she rates her ’80s works, which explore and try to rename the feminine, as her most important. There are bronze figures, made of pieces of metal cast from her own body and then imperfectly matched together. They reveal that she has had a mastectomy. “Yes,” she says abruptly. “They’re about women’s pain.” Her current work is concerned with a Sumerian goddess, Innali; she has invented her own pictograms to tell a story that was originally written in cuneiform.

It is diverse work, but all of a piece. “I don’t know what the reasons are, but I started working on the track that I’m on now. I didn’t have to search for what I wanted to express,” she says. “I kind of knew it right away, but without knowing it; I had no conscious understanding of it.”

Light: Works from The Tate’s Collection opens at ACMI from June 16.