Liliane Lijn Energy coil: divine balance, Espaivisor.
26 January – 13 April 2018.
Being herself means entering into the skin of everything else, not limiting or closing herself off to what she thinks she is. Subject to cyclical change, she becomes her own object. She is a filter, a mirror, a prism, an energy coil. She is subject and object, active and passive. She finds herself the meeting point of opposites…To carrying within oneself the contradiction of opposites and not instantly explode in a flash of light is surely a feat of divine balance. – Liliane Lijn, Crossing Map, 1983
A voyage of discovery in time and space: we are invited here to explore a surprising range of Liliane Lijn’s work from her Paris period of the mid 1960s through to 2011: the evolution from the mechanical blurring of images at speed to the dissolution of words in light and movement; from lines in space to ‘industrial photography’; from the diagram and graph to almost traditional landscape.
La Madeleine, 1964, uses a Bakelite-based turning mechanism where postcard strips of La Madeleine church in Paris spin into feathery light rays. Looking back in time however, Proust’s famous madeleine comes to mind: hence the dissolution of images in memory — their potential recall. Time Forces Split, 1965, is a more classic rotating machine, its blinking with the words of the poet Nazli Nour, who asked her friend if she could ‘make her poems move’. Lijn recalls this memory in the context where ‘I grew up in a family that spoke six languages’: the cosmopolitan Paris of the early 1960s was likewise exhilaratingly polyglot. Changing countries and languages involves the simultaneity of influences and discoveries that for native dwellers would be a question of evolution and change. At the moment of the rise of op, pop and kinetic art (La Madeleine is optical, uses popular postcards and is kinetic) it was her school-friend Nina who brought her into the milieu of the brilliant critic Alain Jouffroy, who was living and writing the surrealist movement’s swansong. Nina and her mother Manina’s friend, Jean-Jacques Lebel, Lijn’s boyfriend and mentor, (the fiery revolutionary of 1968) had, like Liliane, experienced a New York childhood, and been taken to school with Aube, the daughter of surrealist leader André Breton. A new and complex world of passions, art and literature opened up.
The breath of surrealism, its transformative vision, its premise of desire as the primum mobile of art (Breton’s L’amour fou — mad love, 1937) never leaves Lijn — at the very moment when one might think of other proximities. Time Forces Split relates to the dream machines of Brion Gysin and performative poets such as Bernard Heidsieck and François Dufresne — or Liliane’s new friend William Burroughs, doyen of the cut-up. The deconstructive bite of a Dada revival and its interest in the decomposition of language echoed the structuralist context of this period, hence the anti-individual, anti-psychological stance of the Poem Machines. Initially inspired by the interference patterns of physics they brilliantly spin and break words. In that so-sixties medium of Letraset, Lijn transferred on to steel drums the strong monosyllables of the English language — not the romance language heritage of French courtly love or surrealist sexiness…Break … Time… Split…. but also …Explode… Barriers…Planet…. a poem for a nuclear age and the era of space travel. The American poet, John Ashbery, referred even to the unconscious effect of subliminal advertising (a TV phenomenon) in his review of her show at La Librairie Anglaise in Paris in 1963. Yet despite the mechanics and the labour — and the masculine Dada heritage of the celibate machine, Lijn’s manifesto of 1968 inevitably reintroduces the feminine and the creation of new entities: ‘The word accelerated loses its identity and becomes a pattern pregnant with energy. It is pregnant with the energy of its potential meaning should it once again become a word’. The féminin-masculin of Lijn’s world and art are ever present — as indeed was an alternative milieu of a still-lost female avant garde: Françoise Janicot (Heidsieck’s partner), or Esther Ferrer, Lijn’s Parisian contemporaries.
Contrasting with the various exhilarations of Paris, New York again and Greece, Lijn also participated in London’s Swinging Sixties, its polychrome fun and bright new plastic colours: the origin of the Koans in stripy English traffic (‘highway’) cones — see Hiway Cones 1966. This world offered artists like Takis or Lijn a completely different context of reception: the dynamic Signals gallery and an alternative internationalist entourage in Wigmore Street — so near and yet so far from the geometric, op and kinetic milieu of the Galerie Denise René in Paris.
In The White Goddess by the English poet Robert Graves, Lijn found correspondences linking her Koans to the goddess’s ‘white mound of ash, which kept the sacred hearth fires burning. Lijn’s first white cones were her own height. Their name is also Zen-inspired: her forms sometimes bowing like Japanese monks (Koancuts,1969), while the very nature of the pun, cone and koan, involves ‘the question that has no answer’.  The mystic dimensions of the 1960s — the quest for enlightenment — should not be forgotten, in conjunction with, for Lijn, the satisfying mathematics of the Koans, their sections and lines of light: the material qualities of their making. This was especially challenging when expanded to monumental level. Generations of students have loved the great White Koan, 1972, installed on the campus at Warwick University.
There is surely an analogy between the monumental Koans and Lijn’s attraction to the huge hyperboloid cooling towers that dotted the English landscape at the time. They signified at once masculine destruction (nuclear power) and a paradoxically feminine nurturing: like giant milk churns spread over grassy meadows or in one of her images, a football field; like the Koansthey loom as apparitions (Industrial magic, 1969). Working with coloured crayons on enlarged photographic prints or photocopies of newspaper clippings, Lijn created a family portrait extending from serried ranks of cooling towers in Yorkshire to those rising in pure geometric shapes above the architectural hodge-podge and cacophonous street signs of an undistinguished London suburb (Ghostly Cooling Towers, Acton, 1970/1971).
Lijn has also been inspired by London’s well-loved Battersea Power Station: its monumental columns appear miniaturised in her black and white photographs. This play between geometric form, scale and presence is the key to the Linear Light Columns, whose twining copper wire bases are bound round steel cylinders on motorised turntables. They point again to the high-tech 60s: as conductors, the copper wires speak silently of microwave signals, telecommunications. Yet they retain an archaic, almost sacred presence. Like the fluted stripes made by the sun on the fat Doric columns of the Acropolis, the ‘line’ becomes light to orchestrate the hieratic, an intimation of anima…
From the giganticism of Battersea Power Station’s columns to the microcircuit: Lijn’s little-known drawings such as Tension use Letraset electronic symbols as ready-made elements. I recall Francis Picabia’s mechanical drawing copies: the sparkplug inscribed For-Ever, titled Portrait of an American Girl in a State of Nudity, 1915, and the Surrealists’ magnetic fields (André Breton and Phillippe Soupault’s desire-led writing experiment, Les Champs Magnétiques, 1920). Lijn’s Paranoia and the Neurogrammes drawings take the electric circuits inside the head — where indeed they teem within each of us. The same relationship between the mechanical, the ‘scientific’ and the sexual are at play; indeed, these works were made in 1971 to accompany the poet, Sinclair Beiles’ manuscript Deliria.
Often the relationship between the scientific and the auratic involves an elemental beauty. In the Liquid Reflections, 1967-8, Perspex balls roll on a circular base rich with prismatic light, like so many planetary ellipses. The later Crystal Clusters have a darker past. They rehouse the periscope prisms that served as the eyes of Centurion tanks: the main British battle tank produced from 1943 to 1962, deployed to kill all over the world. Periscopes signal escape from enclosure, light in darkness. Arriving wrapped in 1942 newspaper, crackling with fear and death, Lijn’s prisms are given new life. They become precious, producing rainbows. Enclosed in hand made boxes they speak again to surrealist precursors like Joseph Cornell’s Taglioni’s Jewel Casket, 1940 with its crystal necklace and small glass cubes — my favourite.
Liliane Segall became Liliane Lijn, lady of line: but her lines are never just lines. Like her precursors in the fields of geometry and biomorphism — the Armenian Leon Tutundjian or the English Paule Vézelay — lines, even Letrafilm lines may assume character. They acquire playful titles, like Easy Does It: are we speaking to a line? As in the Forcefield series, where Letrafilm is pressed by hand into graph-like, coloured trajectories with waves and meanders, lines may retain the fragility of their making.
‘It could only be stretched into a curve so far before it bent over itself, creasing or tore into two pieces. I felt that the curves I obtained were at the very limit of what was possible with that particular strip of material and for that reason particularly taut and resonant.’ Graphs without coordinates? Lines at play? A doubled horizon — with river? — a setting sun? Lijn’s is not a body of work inviting a critic’s pen. True to her trajectory of loves, of forms and of life, she invites imagined responses, a desiring beholder. We too must ‘enter into the skin of everything else’, the energy coil, the divine balance.
Sarah Wilson, Courtauld Institute of Art.