profile: Liliane Lijn

TATE Modern and the Institute of Physics recently got together to curate a series of events entitled Light and Dark Matters, which saw leading artists and scientists, philosophers and theorists debating our contemporary experience of light, darkness and dark matter

Liliane Lijn was in conversation with mathematical physicist Robbert Dijkgraaf and Professor Sean Cubitt, in a talk which examined the transformative and unifying qualities of light in both art and science. Lijn is an American-born artist who has been exploring the phenomena of light in her work since the 1960s. she is well known for pioneering the interaction of art, science and technology. we caught up with Lijn at her London-based studio, to find out more about the use of light in her practice...

At the TATE talk you mention the physicist David Bohm, can you say more about how you have been inspired by him?

I met David Bohm in 1974, when I attended a number of his seminars at Birkbeck College. I had been invited by an American physicist on a research sabbatical whose girlfriend happened to be my assistant. He came to the opening of an exhibition I had at the Bill Jordan Gallery and told me he thought I would be interested in the work he was doing at Birkbeck College. There were usually about seven or eight physicists at David Bohm’s seminars and they were all men. I was the only artist. Bohm’s seminar was the first one I went to, it was about scattering experiments in theoretical physics and the changing energy of particles.  A lot of what Bohm said was unintelligible to me because it was mathematical. However, what I found interesting was that he was trying to understand what reality was. How can we imagine invisible phenomena?

I found it most interesting that he compared reality to an interference system. When photons interfere with each other, they may create matter. Bohm defined light as anything travelling at the speed of light. Of course, he was trying to explain a mathematical concept with words and that is less precise than using mathematical equations. Years later I came across his books. I enjoyed the way he thought.


Stardust Ruins: Ruins of Kasch, 2008, Liliane Lijn. Image courtesy of the artist. I love what you said about aerogel seeming like a “piece of solid sky”, can you tell us more about your experience of working with Aerogel?

Silicon dioxide Aerogel interacts with light in the same way that the sky does. Depending on which way you look at Aerogel, either with light reflecting off it or passing through it , it will change colour from blue to amber – just like the sky does.

How important is materiality in your practice?

That is a word that comes up a lot, materiality – it’s a word which is unusual for me. I would either say matter or materials. Materiality is the opposite of conceptual, and perhaps that is why it is such a frequently used word right now. Working with materials has always interested me. When I was 16, I wanted to be a writer – but until you have experience, writing is quite difficult. Matter is something that I could work with, without having much experience. Materials spoke to me. I learned from materials, I could observe their behavior. I more or less dissolved into them. You can have an extraordinary relationship with them.


Stardust Ruins: Ruins of Kasch, 2008, Liliane Lijn. Image courtesy of the artist.

Would you say that light can be a material?

Light is a material and a subject or content of a work. Some artists work with light more as in lighting and then it does become a material, neon, fluorescent tubes, light bulbs, LEDs. I work with light as energy and, no matter what material I am using to manifest that energy, it is always light that speaks and reveals some aspect of the world.

You were saying in the talk about how light is a phenomena, you can’t really harness it and are collaborating with it in some way. Light is something which does its own thing. Can you say more about that?

Because I couldn’t direct the light of the sun or keep it one place, I decided that I didn’t want to use sunlight. I thought there was a certain amount of exploitation, the idea of using something seemed to me a way of exploiting it. There’s nothing really wrong with that, but, at that time,  I felt that there was. Instead, I wanted to get to know the material, become familiar with this energy and as you say collaborate with it.

Could you say more about your experiences with using “pure light” as opposed to artificial light?

In the collaboration with John Vallerga, Solar Hills,  we’re projecting a rainbow, dispersing sunlight, or as he puts it: the sun’s light. When you look towards where we have sited the installation, you can just see a twinkling star changing colours. As you look at the piece, your pupil is filled with a narrow area of the spectrum, red or green or blue. The sun’s light filters through your eye to your brain – and that’s the key thing! You’re receiving a part of everything that makes us alive. It’s amazing what it does to you. The people who saw it were ecstatic. I had incredible feedback, especially when we used prisms and people saw spectral colours.


Zero Gravity Koan, 2004, Liliane Lijn. Image courtesy of the artist.

What significance does the cone have in your work?

The geometry of the cone is something I’ve worked with continually during my career as an artist. I started by working in two dimensions – I started off with circles and triangles, which in three dimensions become a cone. All of my work begins with that geometry. Cone geometry is ubiquitous on Earth and in space. Triangular shapes are important in astronomy. The trajectories of comets and planets are all elliptical.

It was interesting what you said in Light and Dark Matters, “without imaginings there is no inner world, and without those inner worlds creating culture the world is dead”. Is that something you have talked about before?

I have spoken and written about that, because there is an obvious deadening of culture. It’s been happening for a long time. Why is it that we have so much depression in our society? I would say that people have been undergoing some kind of inner impoverishment. I think that the connection between Art and Science is more interesting, than say Pop Art. Pop Art has been Top of the Pops for at least 45 years.  If you try to analyse the meaning of Pop Art, it takes you to consumerism. I’m not actually a political artist – but what is that doing to people?

I am interested in your piece Moonmeme which was exhibited at The Art Catalyst’s exhibition Republic of the Moon. In this piece, you imagined that the word SHE was projected on to the Moon. Can you explain more about this?

It is a very clear feminist statement. There were two female astronauts but not much is said in the media about them. The space race is a male place. If you think about it traditionally and historically, with a few exceptions, space exploration has always been a male occupation. Going west, going to the North Pole, climbing Mount Everest – it’s always competitive, achieving, controlling and dominating. Which is what we’ll do – we’ll mine the Moon! I want to do something more poetic, drawing inspiration from ancient superstitions, magic, potency and fertility. It is a celebration of the feminine and the connection between Moon, water and the feminine throughout the ages.

Going back to the title of a Light and Dark Matters event, do you think we are darkened by the light?

I brought that up at the initial workshop for the Year of Light event at the TATE. We began by talking about light – but electric light rather than daylight. We illuminate darkness with electric light and that stops us seeing light from celestial objects. Due to our artificial lights we are losing view of the cosmos.

Do you think that losing view of the cosmos has affected our culture in a way as we can’t see our place in the universe?

Of course it has, people walk around thinking they are characters in a film. Life has become the movie. People find it incredibly difficult to connect with nature. To me it seems that people have become desensitised, they lack feelings for other things – not just people. For example, we’re poisoning seas and rivers and making whole species of animals and plants extinct. If you lose the feeling of your connectedness to other things and to other people – you’re left with enormous loneliness and desperation. The desperation turns into hate, anger and darkness. The universe doesn’t really care, it’s just there! Why should it care? Life is a random event. I can’t feel that we’re special.

But we do have the benefit of consciousness…

We are special in that way, though consciousness is not just exclusive to human beings. Consciousness is being studied in some depth, and we are learning that consciousness may even extend beyond animals and plants to cells. Contradictions and polarities are an essential part of nature as the Chinese well knew in their Yin Yang concept of cosmic equilibrium. For example, the positive and negative electrons were very difficult to accept. It was Dirac who theorized the positive electrons, everybody knew about negative charge but no-one thought about the positive electron! Dirac discovered it using a mathematical theory, people couldn’t fault his  equations (apart from the infinities) but they didn’t believe it was true because there was absolutely no evidence for it until C.D. Anderson photographed accelerated particles in a bubble chamber. Carl David Anderson didn’t believe it either – he thought he’d got the photograph wrong! Anderson wrote a paper on his experiments, but without claiming that he had proved the existence of Dirac’s positrons, and it still took a long time for the theory to be proved. Those polarities are an integral and important part of nature. The Chinese understood that with their complex cosmology of yin and yang forces creating cosmic balance and imbalance.

It’s interesting, the point we are at the moment where we’ve got all of these technological advancements that are happening at an exponential rate, but at the same time things are happening in the world, which may mean that our species may not exist in the next 100 years. On a more light hearted note, I was wondering if you could describe one of your purest experiences of working with light, whether that’s through a telescope or from using prisms?

Experiencing the Sun in my brain was an amazing mood enhancer. Once, I was very depressed and felt very, very grey. The day was full of sunshine, and I didn’t see it – I thought it was a grey day. I had this experience of a spectrum entering my eye – not seeing a rainbow but having the rainbow entering my brain. When I had that experience, it felt like the lifting of a curtain. Everything that I had previously felt just evaporated.