Category Archives: surrealism

Interview: Liliane Lijn

Black and white photo of the moon with word She written across it

Liliane Lijn is such a hands-on artist that, within two minutes of arriving at her North London studio, my own pair were enlisted to help lift a Poem Machine from the floor onto a well-worn work surface.

There was an issue with this kinetic, text-bearing sculpture. It creaked as it rotated, so Lijn and a more capable assistant than myself were examining the drum, sketching the mechanism and muttering things about radial bearings.

It is the last place you might expect an artist with a background in Surrealism and Beat poetry to be. The workshop smells like a hardware store. Tooling machinery lies dormant on all sides.

There was barely enough time to note the spools of wire on the shelves or identify the pieces of industrial machinery. Lijn’s latest technical challenge was too baffling.

“I find engineering interesting, yuh,” says the American émigré, with an accent that belies her teenage move to Europe.

“If you make something, you’ve got to get it to work. I’ve never been the kind of artist who says, ‘I’ve got this idea, now who’s around to get it to work for me?’.”

This even holds true of a scheme to project text onto the moon. Lijn and scientific advisor John Vallerga have considered lasers, kites and lately heliostats for a project called Moonmeme. For recent work Solar Hills, they have even developed spectroheliostats to beam colour distances of 5km around the earth, .

The physics goes over my head, but Lijn points out: “I’ve been working with prisms for years. So I’m used to thinking about colour, refraction, the spectrum, what that is and how to deal with it.”

Moments later she demonstrates a wound copper sculpture and this is a wonder. As it rotates, a point of light rides up and down the column, like watching a vertical oscilloscope.

“The spiral does something weird,” the artist points out, seeming as confused as me by the two-directional waves. But today the penny drops. “I’ve figured it out,” she says. “It’s the direction of rotation.”

“Everything has an explanation,” she concludes. As the interview progresses, more and more of her sculptures come to life as Lijn moves around the studio switching them on at the wall.

In addition to Poem Machines and the tube of copper wire, the less industrial end of her workshop is home to rotating cones which are hooped with neon and a column made of solvent barrels. This rumbles away in the background as she talks.

Holes are punched in the side of these drums to spell out five words which fans of William Burroughs may recognise from Naked Lunch: “Way out is way in”.

It should be noted that the impetus from this piece came from a meeting with the Beat author, who “intimated” Lijn might draw on his work for a kinetic piece. (It was years before the artist came to the task, so sadly we cannot know Burroughs’ response.)

Soon it becomes clear that Lijn is as happy to discuss poetry as engineering. “The only people who liked these [Poem Machines] in 1962 when I first exhibited them were artists and a few poets.

“Though not many,” she adds with a laugh, “because they didn’t like the idea you couldn’t read their poems.”

Lijn moved to Paris in the late 50s and, along with Burroughs, got to know Sinclair Beiles, Brion Gysin and Gregory Corso. And whether they did or not, she still likes “that idea of words floating into your head and not being linear”.

If this is what she took from the beats, a crash course in automatic drawing was what Lijn came to through a meeting with the few remaining surrealists who André Breton had not expelled from the group.

“I’d done drawing at school and I never liked very much doing drawing from reality. So I started – which is probably a fault – doing drawings from my head.”

Now she says: “Drawing is very much about controlling the instrument that you’re using. It is, of course, an eye to hand thing, but it could be an inner eye to hand thing.

“You do have to control your hand and it’s very difficult; you find you’re thinking one thing and your hand is doing something completely different.”

As the many finished sculptures suggest, Lijn has got to grips with many instruments in her time. And as the odd creaking Poem Drum suggests, she may still not have total control, but practically speaking, she’s there.

Written for Culture24. Moonmene by Liliane Lijn can be seen in Republic of the Moon at FACT, Liverpool, until Feburary 26 2012. Read more about the artist’s work on her website.

12 pieces of conceptual art that would probably work as tweets

From the 20th century onwards, the beauty of much art is it has no need for the eye of a beholder. Conceptual works, in theory, place as much importance on the idea as the finished visual object. And while lots can be said about the dozen pieces below, the kernel of each is a thought of no more than 140 characters.

This is not to assume that simple ideas are the best. But it is possible that in a time of information overload, and web-based attention spans, they are the ones that travel best. If these artworks translate into tweets, it is only a sign of their power.

  1. Benjamin Peret, Insulting a Priest (1926):
    “A black and white photo of a surrealist poet harranguing a man of the cloth, as featured in a 1926 manifesto for the liberation of desire”
  2. Robert Rauschenberg, Erased De Kooning Drawing (1953):
    “After six weeks of careful erasing a heavily worked drawing by Willem de Kooning becomes a gold-framed piece of near blank paper”
  3. Marcel Broodthaers, Femur of a Belgian Man and Femur of a French Woman (1964-5):
    “Two human bones, one from Belgian man, one from a French woman, each painted in the colours of the flags of their respective nations”
  4. Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs (1965):
    “A folding wooden chair, a photo of the same (not by the artist) and a blown up definition of the word chair to be displayed as one piece”
  5. Jannis Kounellis, Untitled (1969):
    “A white-walled Rome gallery became a temporary stable for 12 quite mucky and fairly noisy live horses”
  6. John Baldessari, The Commissioned Paintings (1969-70):
    “Out on a walk, the artist took close up pics of a friend pointing at interesting things, then asked 14 sunday painters to paint the photos”
  7. Adrian Piper, Untitled Performance for Max’s Kansas City (1970):
    “The artist wears blindfold and gloves and pays a visit to a New York bar where the art world generally go to see and be seen”
  8. Jørgen Nash, Decapitated Little Mermaid (1972):
    “The head of Copenhagen’s most famous statue is cut off by (it is said) the Second Situationist International. The artist is a member”
  9. Hans Haacke, Manet-PROJEKT 74 (1974):
    “A proposal that a Manet painting be displayed next to panels giving details of all the work’s previous owners and their business activities”
  10. Gordon Matta-Clark, Splitting (1974):
    “A suburban house is cut down the middle and undermined causing it to split and thereby open a rift in the social fabric”
  11. Gavin Turk, Cave, 1991:
    “For his degree show, the artist leaves nothing in his studio but a blue plaque with the words: Gavin Turk, Sculptor, worked here 1989-1991”
  12. Sherrie Levine, Fountain (1991):
    “Marcel Duchamp’s infamous urinal readymade has been recast in bronze to give it, at last, some respectability”

By now you should be convinced, some of the most important works of modern and contemporary art lose little from a lot of distillation. They might even work as tweets, albeit ones with plenty more to say.

More details on the 12 artworks can be found in Conceptual Art, by Tony Godfrey (published by Phaidon), which contains hundreds more like them all discussed in considerably more depth.

Remedios Varo, The Creation of The Birds (1957)

Remedios Varo, Creation of the Birds (Creacion de las aves) (1957). Oil on masonite. © Remedios Varo, DACS/VEGAP, (ex: Chichester, Norwich) (2010)

It must be tempting for an artist to think the painted, drawn or sculpted subject has a life beyond the canvas, page or block. This was maybe the original impulse of art – with cave paintings as an invocation for the success of the tribal hunt.

Most paintings of beauty could be viewed the same way, as attempts to make desires real. Once we strove to possess mammoths; later we strove to possess landscapes and nudes. The artwork could be a talisman for calling ideal situations into being.

At a stretch this can also explain why artists have painted hell, or suffering, or war. Desire may be the only motive power of the mind, in which case we have more sadistic or masochistic desires than we generally know.

An artist can even yearn for a god. In The Creation of The Birds (1957) Remedios Varo summons one up from her own imagination or perhaps some esoteric text.

This painting is not all that different from a classical sculpture of a god of antiquity or a later western representation of the Christian God, or his son, or any other of the saints, etc.

Varo invokes her goddess through paint. Fine brushstrokes focus the mind. Inventive details (prism, violin string, and paint machine) make the desired being plausible. It is a prayer, or perhaps a spell, or is there any difference in terms of art?

The Creation of the Birds is on display in the show Surreal Friends, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until 12 September.

Francis Alÿs/James White/Clare Twomey/Surreal Friends

Here’s a round up of the pieces I wrote for Culture24 last week. Enjoy!

Art must-sees for the month: June

With surrealism and sound, fauna and flesh, there is much to tempt you indoors this June. Here’s some monthly highlights for contemporary art written for Culture24.

Cage Mix: Sculpture and Sound, BALTIC, Gateshead

Eight artists who work with the ideas and writings of John Cage are brought together by design rather than chance. Their schemes for musical notation and scoring are here overlapped and juxtaposed as in the avant garde composer’s early work Fontana Mix.

Spencer Tunick – Everyday People, The Lowry Gallery, Manchester

Photographer Spencer Tunick responds to the paintings of LS Lowry with mass nudity on location in Salford and Manchester. May be seen as a comment on the passing of industrialisation or at least a curious thing you don’t see every day.

A Horse Walks Into A Bar, Castlefield Gallery, Manchester

We relate to the animal world in so many ways that here nine different artists make use of video, painting, performance, photography and sculpture to explore the issues. Mark Wallinger, Richard Billingham and Corey Arnold are among the humans.

Venice @ Golden Thread Gallery, Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast

Four names represented Eire and Northern Ireland at Venice last year and this is a chance to both shows: from the North, Sarah MacWilliam, and from the South, Sarah Browne, Gareth Kennedy and a Browne/Kennedy hybrid called Kennedy Browne.

Francis Alÿs – A Story of Deception, Tate Modern, London

Here is another famous Belgian for inclusion in the much-loved parlour game, albeit one who lives in Mexico. Even this transposition seems like one of Alys’s poetic stunts, most of which should be documented in this major, comprehensive show.

Surreal Friends: Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo and Kati Horna, Pallant House, Chichester

Pallant House brings another less explored chapter of art history to light with a show of surrealism from rarely shown female artists. Carrington, Varo and Horna were respectively an English painter, a Spanish painter and a Hungarian photographer.