In conversation with artist Liliane Lijn


Stardust Ruins, Ruins of Kasch 2008. Photo credit: Liliane Lijn

Born in New York in 1939, Liliane Lijn is an internationally acclaimed artist who has had a prolific career spanning 50 years. After studying archaeology and history of art in Paris, she began experimenting with pictures based on jigsaw puzzles, and shadow paintings made by drawing in the air with molten plastic and then began in 1961 to inject drops of polymer onto the surface of Perspex blocks ‘to trap photons’. Her first kinetic light works called Echo-Lights and her Poem Machines, which are motor or hand-turned cones or drums printed with words, letters and signs, were shown in her first one-woman exhibition at La Librairie Anglaise, Paris, 1963. She has since worked continuously with light, using all materials, which are conducive to transference, reflection and refraction of light: glass, perspex, water, copper, nickel, neon, etc. Lijn lived in Athens between 1964-66, and since 1966 mainly in London. In 2005, Lijn was ACE NASA, Leonardo Network artist in residence at the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. Public commissions include Solar Beacon, a solar installation in collaboration with astrophysicist, John Vallerga on the two towers of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and Light Pyramid, a beacon for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in Milton Keynes.

Liliane, Robbert Dijkgraaf said at Tate Modern’s recent panel discussion, The Power of Light, that light is a metaphor for science, and how matter and light interact is the way we understand the world. Would you say this is true of your practice?

Robbert Dijkgraaf spoke of light as a metaphor in science that shows us what is not there, making manifest the invisible. I like to think that my work looks at the relationship between matter and light. As Robbert said, their interaction describes the world, the universe. Light is anything that travels at the speed of light. Light and matter are interchangeable according to Einstein’s famous equation E=MC2 . My work is multi – layered, examining light from a feminine perspective.

But what is a feminine perspective? I see it as receptive, complex, refined, personal and interconnecting.

I have been fascinated by reflections, since I was a small child, staring at flickering reflections of light on the wall of my room on the fourth floor of a tall building, where sunlight entered only rarely and for short intervals. Reflections, light and shadow.

You have said you are interested in the behaviour of materials and how the end piece is not perfect in form. Would you say a lot of the discoveries in your work happen as happy accidents or is the process more controlled?

Some of the discoveries I have made as an artist occur accidentally, others, probably the majority, derive from observation, often of quite small details in the world around me. Even when one discovers something by chance, one has to be prepared to embrace that chance.

An openness to random events goes hand and hand with precision and control in my practice. Perfection carries with it the seed of death.

In some ancient cultures, possibly Japanese, a small imperfection was purposely made on the most perfectly crafted art object. I do not aim for perfection. I want to encourage both awareness and contemplation. So, for example, my Koans need to be perfectly white to allow the viewer to focus on the thin luminous lines that appear to oscillate on that surface. These lines, are, in fact, planes of Perspex that have been sandwiched between the elliptical sections of the cone, the latter having been cut into a number of sections. Once, the cone is bonded together, the perspex planes appear on its surface as lines. When the cone spins, these lines appear to rock up and down.

Observing their interaction somehow melts the volume of the cone, the lines becoming dominant, more and more as daylight recedes, and describing with their motion the conical form. The cone must be white, without any marks, like a blank page, to enable the viewer to enter into a contemplative state in which they will actually see matter dissolved by light.

Language and thought interact in a number of ways in your art – for example in Poem Machines (1962–63) and in your Poemcons between 1964-68 when you collaborate with the poets Nazli Nour and Leonard D. Marshall. You have said that it was your intention to explode both prose and poetry, remembering their origin in vibration. Can you expand on this?

I wrote continuously, poems and prose, from the age of eleven or twelve and imagined that I would become a writer. When, at the age of fourteen, my parents moved to Switzerland and my main language became Italian, although I continued writing, I became more interested in expressing myself visually with imagery. In the early 1960s, I became interested in Science, principally in optics and light. Visiting the Palais de La Découverte in Paris, I was mesmerized by Fresnel’s experiment with the diffraction and polarization of light. I created an experiment using parallel lines in motion on two spinning cylinders to create interference patterns and was very excited to see colours emanate from the vibrating black lines. It then occurred to me that words were formed using letters of the alphabet and letters from lines.

I decided to try using words instead of lines, beginning with the alphabet. Then a poet friend of mine, Nazli Nour, asked me to make her poems move. Using Letraset that at the time could be obtained in varied fonts, colours and sizes, I rubbed abridged versions of Nazli’s poems onto metal drums that I then made to rotate at quite high speeds. At speeds of 60 to 70 rpm the words blurred into visual vibrations. I felt I had created a confluence of logos (word) and light, where written language dissolves into the visual equivalent of sound. I called these works Poem Machines, introducing the machine as a conscious statement of opposition to what I felt was the elitism and effeteness of much contemporary mainly male poetry, in which language, meaning and rhythm seemed to lose contact with the real world.

I wanted to explode language to return it to its original intensity.

In the 1980s you made the series Cosmic Dramas – in particular, Lady of the Wild Things and Woman of War. These are two mixed media performing sculptures that enact a computer controlled 6-minute drama, which includes movement, song, and the transformation of sound to light. Can you tell us the history of how these works evolved, as I know they took many years to make?

These works were initially conceived in Paris in 1959, when I saw in a sky illuminated by a vivid sunset reflecting off small clouds, a very clear image of a towering goddess figure. I immediately tried to paint what I saw that evening. I now only have a very poor transparency of the ensuing painting but it shows a massive triangular form, part figure, part architectural structure. I wrote about the rediscovery of this tranny in the catalogue for my exhibition at Fischer Fine Art in 1986, in which I exhibited the Conjunction of Opposites (the title for the combined works Lady of the Wild Things and Woman of War).

‘I was amazed to see a prismatic bird Goddess gigantic against a turbulent sky. She rises central, grounded and formal, surrounded by chaos in the form of flying creatures. I realized that the imagery of the painting was so complex and emotionally laden that I had been unable to deal with it as a whole. I had, over the years, to dismantle it, unconsciously to analyze it and, bit by bit, to reconstruct, clarify and make real that chimera, which had appeared to me on the 6th floor balcony of my apartment in Convention, a Polish quarter in Paris.’

In Feathered Lady, the soft stacked palm-like feather dusters represent the female body as tree (1). There is an ancient connection between certain trees and the female body. The palm is the Tree of Life in both the Sumerian and Babylonian Garden of Eden stories. In ancient Sumerian epigraphy tree is drawn as a mesh or net, and the idea of the net has been used in contemporary physics as a metaphor of life. The coincidence between these associations and my constant use of net and mesh is striking. My fascination and use of the net in numerous materials – steel mesh, crocheted copper wire, aluminium and paint began in the early 1960s. In 1966 I invented and patented a way of using open weave (net) fabrics to create kinetic clothing. The hard tank prism, used as periscopes in 2nd World War tanks, was a representation of the head but in this sculpture I softened the precision of the prism with a headdress of tremulous piano wire and glass beads. Whereas before the feminine had entered my work elliptically in archaic symbols such as the cone or in sinuous movement, in this sculpture I began to move towards a more conscious representation and also began to use materials that were associated with the feminine such as glass beads and feathers. Feather dusters, in particular, represent her body somewhat ironically as a housewife. I was particularly pleased that I could combine that association with the archaic image of the birth-tree since they are so clearly related.

Heshe, made immediately after the Feathered Lady in 1980, is an ambiguous bisexual figure, 6′ high with a tank prism for a head and a body of purple and orange synthetic fibres used industrially for brushes, in particular, car wash machines. The car is an extension of the body. I have often experienced it as a symbol of my own body in dreams, but on the other hand, it is generally thought of as a male object, but that way of thinking is open to discussion and change.

In Heshe, I attempt to unite contradictory feelings and messages. Jung’s basic male female archetypes, the anima in the man and the animus in the female are not so much complimentary as an attempt to reconcile opposites.

This has entered very often into the thought processes underlying my work. As a girl I had been brought up to believe that both mind and spirit were male qualities, whereas body and emotions were distinctly feminine. On the other hand, I experienced my mind as acutely present and felt distinctly uncomfortable thinking of it as a male attribute, or to use Jungian terms the animus side of me. My interest in Buddhism led me to understand that this was mainly due to Western Christian man’s inability to accept the integration and interchangeability of opposites both in the world and within his own psyche. Jung is very much a man of his generation in that he considers the animus or male figure in women to be pejorative and the anima in men as a beneficial influence. I did not feel the need to look for an image of the masculine, I focused my attention on the female or the shape shifting essence, She. In our culture, most icons of authority, energy and vitality are male (2) Part of me felt connected to the purity of thought present in the contemplation of light, but, on the other hand I needed to find icons for the disturbing feelings and powerful drives that I experienced and that caused me to feel divided between my prismatic male mind and my un-representable female body.

I made Lady of the Wild Things in 1983. As a result of recent performances I had given from my book Crossing Map, I had the idea to make the figure responsive to the human voice (3). I designed a system that would allow the sculpture to transform sound into light emitted by 250 LEDs. The LEDs were inserted into the perforations of the steel wings in patterns corresponding to 6 channels that related to both volume and different sound frequencies. Therefore, the larger the vocal range expressed, the greater the spread of light across the sculpture. In addition, an increase in volume increases the speed of change of the lights. The wings are covered with a fine plumage of red and green fibres. The head, a tank prism, is encased in a headdress of very fine black aluminium mesh. The double mesh creates moire patterns that pulsate as one moves around the sculpture. I took my title from Robert Graves who mentions the Lady of the Wild Things in The White Goddess. (4) In reinventing the archetype of the Goddess, I wanted to reinvest the feminine with spiritual power. Lady of the Wild Things is patterned on the lunar archetype. Her light side, which is woven in red and green fibres, opposite and complimentary colours, remains passive until activated by sound, but is warm and engaging, even seductive. Her dark side is all embracing and, as death is in our society, unacknowledged. As the archetype from which she takes her name, she represents life in death and death in life. As if her reaction to sound begged for a singer as a complimentary figure, the inspiration for my next work came from a song I wrote that spoke with a violence and anger that I did not know was mine. I felt as if the earth was singing through me, although the lyrics are complex and hold more than one meaning. These lyrics described the Woman of War. It then became apparent that the Woman of War would sing to Lady of the Wild Things, who would respond to her song with light. I called the ritual enacted by the two sculptures a Conjunction of Opposites, a dialogue between two female figures, the one reflective, transforming, sensual and the other a fierce warrior, part bird, part insect, part machine.

I’ve been armoured by your love
I’ve been blasted in your furnaces
And poured into your moulds
To fit the Image
the Image
I’m the Image of Woman
The Image of She
A Woman of War…
The 2014 S/HE series of works explores the relationship between language and gender and demonstrates the interlocking of opposites. Can you tell us more about this project?
I conceived moonmeme in 1992, in the continuing development of my work with language that began with Poem Machines in 1962.
Most of my text works use revolution or spinning to detach words from their context and return them to their original vibrations.
The overall purpose of this project is to cause the meaning of an essential word to be transformed and renewed by the relative motions of the moon, earth and sun, the cosmic movements that control day, night and the tides. This is a project that has occupied me for many years and because of this and the inherent technical difficulties, it has evolved through numerous different approaches. Originally I had the idea of projecting a word onto the surface of the moon. I envisaged the letters large enough so that they could be plainly seen and read by a person standing on the surface of the earth. Since the moon presents itself to us in a repeating cycle of phases, the letters composing the chosen word would only slowly emerge and then eventually disappear with the waning of the moon. The choice of the word was instantaneous. SHE came to mind as another epithet for MOON since the lunar cycle has since time immemorial been connected to the feminine principle. Working with John Brown, Astronomer Royal of Scotland, I considered using laser technology to project the letters and discovered that most of this technology was comparable to that of star wars. I also investigated the idea of ‘earthworks’ on the moon, which led me to imagine the eventuality of these moonworks having already occurred and how a viewer on earth could experience moonworks. Another imagined solution is the construction of huge composite ‘kites’, lightweight structures that would orbit the moon and cast shadows on its surface. These shadows would be seen on earth as letters appearing across the lunar surface, as the new crescent moon waxes to become a full moon. Since actual lunar projection is so challenging technically, I began to explore virtual projection. With the assistance of a post- graduate astronomer, Tom Ruen, I developed a basic real-time website anima on that tracks the movements of the moon with the word SHE projected onto its surface. This animation can be viewed on my website. It is interactive allowing the viewer to enter any date, both in the past or in the future, to see how moonmeme would appear on that given date. moonmeme, both online and as an installation is accompanied by a sound work and by quotations from Pliny, the Talmud and the Orphics (5) to illustrate the profound connections between the moon and the feminine, as well as human conjectures and fantasies about it throughout the ages. Interweaving science, myth, art and language, this project is homage to the feminine principal of transformation and renewal, which for millennia was held sacred in the form of the full moon and its recurring monthly cycle.

The cone (or the pyramid) is an important symbol in your work – can you tell us why?

My interest in geometry led me to the cone. I started using the cone as a development of both the circle and the triangle. These two geometric forms, conjoined in one of my earliest drawings, are both related to and wonderfully merged in the form of the cone. The cone is a feminine form, since ancient times a symbol of the Goddess. In Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, he describes how the fire was kept alive in early tribal times by allowing a mound of ash to cover it. This white hot conical mound sacred to the Goddess was guarded by a woman who became the priestess of the hearth. In a footnote in The White Goddess, Graves writes of the pythagorean pyramid drawn with ten dots, the holy tetractys, that was the most ancient emblem of the triple goddess. The top dot represented position, the next two dots, extension, the next three dots, surface and the four dots at the bottom, 3-dimensional space.

My own observations lead me to believe that the cone is the shape of emission. Both light and sound radiate as a cone, originating in a virtual point spreading outward over 360 ̊.

The cone form is ubiquitous and appears almost everywhere from the natural forms of mountains, repeated universally in sacred architecture, to the colour capturing cones in our eyes; the elliptical sections of cones are the form of the trajectories of comets and planets. My fascination with cones actually began with forms such as the striped traffic cones on roads, marking the endless roads of adventure.

Throughout your career you have had many artist residencies, including NASA in 2005. Can you say how this has helped develop your ideas and practice?

Artists residencies are both ancient practice (see Leonardo da Vinci) and a relatively new feature of the contemporary art world. When I lived in New York as a young artist in the very early 1960s, I was given a kind of residency by the owner of a plastic warehouse. He gave me a corner of one of his floors and allowed me to make use of his machines and materials in exchange for a few works that I might produce. His generosity allowed me to experiment with plastics in a way I could not have done on my own. When in 2005, I became the first artist in residence at the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, I thought I might be able to explore possible ways of implementing my moonmeme project. There were about 150 scientists working at the laboratory and I began my residency by having conversations with a few of them. In the first two weeks, I was asked to present my work in the form of a seminar that was not only open to scientists at the lab but also to the general public. Many of the scientists at the seminar expressed an interest in my work and asked me to continue a dialogue with them. I became involved in three projects. Solar Hills developed from my meeting with the astronomer John Vallerga, who, having seen images of my work with prisms and spectra (rainbows), thought I might be interested in an idea he had for tracking the sun across the sky and directing sunlight to determined positions. We began working together and this project is now ready to be installed.

I also met Andrew Westphal, who was the principle scientist on the Stardust At Home (6) project, in which dust gathered beyond Mars from comets and stars, was collected using a material called Aerogel and brought back to earth. He encouraged me to investigate this extraordinary material and to work with it. Aerogel is only 2% matter arranged in a three- dimensional lattice or web. It looks a bit like a fragment of sky. I managed to have a few forms moulded for me; cones and rings or cylindrical sec ons. Some of these broke into fragments while I worked with them and I became more interested in the fragments than the integral forms. They seemed to reflect the light in a more interesting way. I also made a film of my interviews with scientists, Inner Space Outer Space. I am very interested in the way they attempt to communicate their findings to someone who is not familiar with the particular area of their research and does not communicate in the language of mathematics.

Science and technology have played a significant role in the development of your work. In your 2008 series Stardust Ruins, there lays at the heart a kind of mythical quality – about lost civilizations and evokes a feeling of memory and shared experience; it’s what Jung called the Collective Unconscious and later Campbell called Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths – the cycling between dreams and reality and how stories are also part of a living culture and can develop and change with knowledge (science). How much does mythology and psychology influence your work?

Both mythology and psychology have an important place in my work. Myths are oral histories and there is more flux, more layers in myths than in written history. The title of one of my works with aerogel, The Ruins of Kasch refers to the title of Roberto Calasso’s The Ruin of Kasch, in which he quotes Frobenius as saying that the legend of the ruin of Kasch is a recollection of a state of things long vanished. It’s the story of the passage from one world to another – a period of transition and the ruin of both worlds. He writes that the idea of what is historical comes into being in this legend. I felt the importance of fragmentation, the complexity of it and its inevitability. Thinking of Earth as a planet, I considered myself already in outer space and I projected video of different places on earth that I had visited onto the surface of the aerogel ruins. Since what we see are reflections of different substances, aerogel, being almost immaterial, did not resolve the perfectly focused images projected onto it. One saw continually changing colours and vision of the world, as a cosmologist recently pointed out to me. Perhaps the same view as seen by the newly born, before they have mapped out and named what they see. Myths are also coded or encrypted histories, as in the Irish Tree Alphabet and Robert Grave’s The Greek Myths. I was very impressed to read in his abundant end notes that many of the myths revealed/concealed the transition from matriarchal to patriarchal power. In Sumerian mythology I discovered the dynamic feminine archetype Inanna, who descends to the underworld out of interest, to find out, her ear opened to the underworld, since hearing was then more important than seeing. Both mythology and psychology are a looking inward in search of an identity both cultural and individual. Identity is inextricably connected to memory and in the 1990s much of my work was focused on that relationship.

What are your current concerns?

At present, I want very much to create a large solar installation, Solar Hills, Solar Cites, in which I can project huge rainbows across the countryside or across a city. Stars in brilliant constantly changing colours are seen defining the horizon connecting the earth with the sky. In a collaboration with scientists in Berkeley, California, I have been working on this project now for ten years and I hope that this year we will be able to find the funding to create this intensely moving installation in which thousands of people might discover a new awareness of the sun as a brilliant star and their own place in the cosmos.

Melissa Budasz in conversation with Liliane Lijn for

ArtVerve – on women’s art | An SLWA Publication | Issue 5 | Mar 2016



(1) The first tree in the Druidic Tree Alphabet is the Ailm, a silver fir, a female tree sacred in Greece to Artemis the Moon-Goddess who presided over childbirth, and the prime birth-tree of Northern Europe. Ailm also stood for the palm, the birth-tree of Eygpt and Babylonia. It’s poetic connection with birth is that the sea is the Universal Mother and that the palm thrives close barely perceptible forms. A nearly quantum to the sea.

(2) “The supremacy of appearance begins with Zeus, and from it begin the tensions that galvanise Greek culture…No other ancient language had such a rich vocabulary for referring to different kinds of images as Greek. And this markedly visual vocabulary contrasted sharply with that of the Greeks’s enemies par excellence: the Persians.” [5] They neither made statues nor built temples but made sacrifices to Zeus from the top of the highest mountains, thinking of Zeus as the whole sky, unlike the Egyptians for whom the sky was both feminine and concrete, personified by the protective Goddess Nut. My own background was Judaism, social, moral and patriarchal. Moses had broken the images of the gods and goddesses to which the people of Judea made sacrifice. But his one God Iahu took his name Ievoa or Jehovah from the five-letter name of the Goddess and was able to do so only by virtue of his birth, marriage and death under female auspices.

(3) Crossing Map, which was published by Thames and Hudson in 1983, is an interior monologue part science-fiction, part social commentary, in which I look at how our Greco-Judeo-Chris an analytical culture has blocked the flow of energy. Robert Calasso in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony refers to this blockage already occurring in Classical Greece.” Forms would become manifest as long as they underwent metamorphosis … But as generation followed generation, metamorphosis became more difficult, and the fatal nature of reality, its irreversibility, all the more evident…Humans could no longer gain access to other forms and return from them. The veil of epiphany was rent and tattered now. If the power of metamorphosis was to be maintained, there was no alternative but to invent objects and generate monsters.”

(4) “In Crete she was the supreme nymph Goddess of archaic totem societies…Originally, the poet was the leader of a totem- society of religious dancers. His verses were danced around an altar or in a sacred enclosure. All the totem societies in ancient Europe were under the dominion of the Great Goddess, the Lady of the Wild Things.” Originally, Lady of the Wild Things was a lunar archetype, Artemis, whose name was the name of the Triple Goddess herself. Later she was represented as the Goddess of the Hunt, sister of Apollo and daughter of the Thundergod, the virgin maiden Goddess who presided over childbirth. Eventually Artemis ceased to be an equal partner with Apollo. He was credited with cures while she became a poisoner. The Apollo priesthood weakened the power of the Goddess by departmentalization. With Apollo, who from a minor mouse-demon became the God of Reason with the mo o “Nothing in Excess”, poetry and art as magical prac se was already in decline; from The White Goddess by Robert Graves.

(5 )Pliny, the Talmud and the Orphics – Orphic Tablet from Thuru 6 a quote by Roberto Caasso in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony

(6) Stardust At Home about/stardusthome


All images courtesy and copyright of © Liliane Lijn

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