Liliane Lijn © Mayotte Magnus : National Portrait Gallery, London
Liliane Lijn © Mayotte Magnus : National Portrait Gallery, London
Stories & Ideas

Fri 07 Oct 2022

Laura Castagnini

Laura Castagnini

Curator, ACMI

The lead curator of our Light exhibition reflects on the transfixing qualities of Liliane Lijn’s ground-breaking kinetic sculpture.

American artist Liliane Lijn moved to London in 1966, where she quickly became a pioneer of early developments in kinetic art in Britain. I first met Lijn during a visit to her studio in North London in 2017. At the time, I was working as a curator for Tate, and one of my first assignments was to curate a solo display of works by Lijn alongside my colleague Dr Elena Crippa. We wanted to display two large sculptures that had been acquired into Tate’s collection decades earlier: Liquid Reflections (1968), which is currently on display at ACMI, and Space Displace Koan (1969), one of a number of conical sculptures that Lijn has made throughout her career. Both works explore light as both subject and medium and, to achieve their full effect, are best displayed in a darkened room.

We wanted discuss our ideas for the exhibition with Lijn and to see what other works we could borrow to exhibit alongside the two sculptures. We were especially keen to see works that exemplified Lijn’s inventive use of text, which dematerialised language through movement.

Lijn warmly welcomed us into her beautiful studio, an old industrial building converted into a three-part office, exhibition space and studio. It was bathed in natural light, filtered through big windows and generous skylights, as well as museum track lighting, to create perfect viewing conditions. We spent an enjoyable afternoon together looking at a huge range of work including several of her ‘poem machines’, a series of kinetic sculptures comprising short texts on cylinder drums. They included Time is Change (1964–5), which we subsequently acquired for Tate’s collection, as well as a large sculpture entitled Poemkon=D=4=Open=Apollinaire (1968), which we included in the exhibition. It was similar in scale to Space Displace Koan, but included one of her ‘word number poems’: in this case, made from numerical analysis of the name of French poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880–1918). We felt it would complement the existing Tate collection works but also enable us to elucidate broadly the ways that Lijn’s sculptures used movement to explore the physical properties of light and language. In addition, we held a Tate Lates event organised by Tate Collective (a group of young producers aged 15–25) in collaboration with Lijn, in which we celebrated her long career through a “takeover” of the entire gallery with interactive digital artworks, performances, workshops, music and video projections. A major highlight was the premiere of Lijn’s participatory performance The Oracle, which she first developed in 1974 but had never before had the opportunity to perform in public.

Liliane Lijn performing The Oracle (with participant Laura Castagnini), Tate Britain, 2017

Liliane Lijn performing The Oracle (with participant Laura Castagnini), Tate Britain, 2017

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Five years and one transcontinental relocation later, I’m now working at ACMI, and Liquid Reflections is on display in Light: Works from Tate’s Collection. To see it again was like meeting an old friend. I sat in awe of its meditative qualities, transfixed by the rotating sculpture and its ever-changing patterns of light and shadow. I remembered the magical quality of installing it alongside Lijn at Tate Britain, watching as she adjusted the lamp to ensure its beam hit the Perspex ball “just so” to create mesmerising effects. I also recalled many of the logistical difficulties that arose during that first installation, as well as the incredible team efforts made (shout out to Gates and Liam) to deliver such a technically complex presentation that relied on a 50-year-old motor and a puzzle-like construction of plinths.

Through working on this exhibition, I’ve been able to see Liquid Reflections in a new “light” (pun intended). I was previously fascinated by Lijn’s poetic approach to science [1] as well as her role in the women’s movement [2]. However, in the context of Light: Works from Tate’s Collection, I’ve realised that Lijn’s sculpture can be seen as an analogue form of film projector – with the Perspex balls acting as ‘lenses’ that filter light and cast its reflections – and how her approach builds on earlier scientific investigations of light by artists such as 18th century painter J.M.W. Turner. The Light exhibition creates a wonderful visual dialogue with Turner’s Lecture Diagrams c. 1810, on display in the Scientific Light room, which were created when he was Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy for his students, to demonstrate the reflection and refraction of rays of light and the production of shadow. Lijn’s intention, however, was more poetic: her stated aim for Liquid Reflections was to capture light and “keep it alive” [3]. She experimented tirelessly, first creating patterns of clear acrylic polymer droplets on thick blocks of Perspex, before deciding instinctively to replace polymer with water. She explains:

“I could not however help but feel that there was a need for more fluidity and one day, in a spontaneous gesture, I threw some water on to the revolving turntable. I was fascinated to see the water pulled outward, stretched and narrowed by some force of which in that moment I was unconscious, absorbed as I was by the visual demonstration of its power. Once the water had reached the rim and some of it had dripped off onto the floor I slowed the turntable down and stopped it and was quite amazed to see the liquid trail across the disc had taken on the form of a many armed spiral.” [4]

After five years of gradual experimentation, Lijn developed the current form of Liquid Reflections, in which the carefully chosen transparent materiality functions on multiple levels to explore the nature of human perception and our place within the universe. She writes: “I see it a cosmic model not only in the metaphorical sense of being reflections within reflections, circles within circles and spheres within spheres, but also through a demonstration of forces.” [5]

Liliane Lijn, 1968 © The Lewinski Archive at Chatsworth. All Rights Reserved 2022 / Bridgeman Images

Liliane Lijn, 1968 © The Lewinski Archive at Chatsworth. All Rights Reserved 2022 / Bridgeman Images

Lijn’s experimentation with reflective surfaces continued into the 1970s. She employed optical glass prisms, sourced from centurion tank gun sights and periscopes, to investigate the physical properties of light and its spectral colour emissions [7]. To Lijn, these prisms represented “brain... mind... clarity... vision... the enlightened mind” [6]. The prisms were used to create heads for a number of totemic female figures made during the late 1970s and early 1980s. A selection of these sculptures are on show at the 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, curated by Cecilia Alemani, whose title The Milk of Dreams is taken from a book by the Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington (1917–2011). The exhibition, according to the curator: “takes Leonora Carrington’s otherworldly creatures, along with other figures of transformation, as companions on an imaginary journey through the metamorphoses of bodies and definitions of the human.” [8] Lijn’s anthropomorphic forms included in the exhibition, Feathered Lady (1979), Heshe (1980) and Gemini (1984), combine glass with other industrial materials – feather dusters, synthetic fibres, piano wires and steel – to articulate an uncanny and corporeal feminist imagery that resonates with Carrington’s poetry.

Liquid Reflections, Liliane Lijn, 1968, installlation view ACMI - Phoebe Powell

Liliane Lijn, Liquid Reflections (1968) installation view, ACMI (credit: Phoebe Powell)

In the 1980s, Lijn continued to use glass to create heads for her female forms, however turned away from the rigidity of glass prisms to the more fluid and organic medium of blown glass. Blown glass was used for the Torn Heads series, a group of works she began in 1986, now in Tate’s collection, as well as for the heads of animated and caged female archetypes in large installations such as The Bride (1988) and The Electric Bride (1989). Lijn’s material shift in her use of glass was part of a broader change in the character of her work during the late 1970s and 1980s:

“It was around 1980 when I realised that [feminist mythology] was what really interested me... I wanted to find a new way of looking at the feminine and to bring into that everything: plants, animals, humans and machines.” [9]

Lijn’s investigation of industrial materials and their potential to relate the female form to the cosmic has continued to the present day. In 2019, at the 13th Gwangju Biennale, Lijn showed Gravity’s Dance (2019), a large-scale installation which encompasses an oversized spinning black skirt edged with LED lights that levitates by rotating at a precise speed [10]. Lijn describes the work "as a cosmic dance, a hovering rhythm of the push and pull of opposite forces, in which the form taken by the spinning cloth appears very similar to the twisted form of the Milky Way” [11]. The traditionally female symbol of the skirt is magnified to over 6m in diameter, enveloping the viewer in light and circular movement, to create a hypnotic viewing experience. Fifty years after making Liquid Reflections, Lijn continues to push material boundaries in order to find new ways to capture light and “keep it alive”.

– Laura Castagnini; Curator, ACMI

Elements of this article have been previously published by Tate and Contemporary Hum.

See Liquid Reflections at ACMI

Learn more about Liliane Lijn (Tate)

How are these works connected?

Explore this constellation

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[1] The solo show at Tate began with this wonderful quote by the artist: "My feeling about science – in particular the physics of light and matter – was that it was pure poetry." – Liliane Lijn

[2] After protesting at the lack of exhibition opportunities for women artists, in 1978 she co-curated what came to be known as the 'women’s' edition of the Hayward Annual, featuring a higher proportion of female to male artists. The 1978 Hayward Annual was selected by an all-female selection committee including Liliane Lijn, Rita Donagh, Tessa Jaray, Kim Lim and Gillian Wise. It featured 23 artists, of which 16 were women and seven were men. The show is considered a feminist response to the 1975 Hayward Gallery exhibition The Condition of Sculpture, which featured only four women artists compared with 36 male artists. The 1978 Hayward Annual catalogue essay is written by Lucy Lippard.

[3] Liliane Lijn, quoted in Cyril Barrett, 'Art as Research', Studio International Journal of Modern Art, June 1967, p. 314

[4] Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.441-6, reproduced p.441. Available online Liquid Reflections, Liliane Lijn, 1968 | Tate

[5] ibid

[6] Liliane Lijn, in conversation with Althea Greenan, ‘Adrift in the depth of our mind’s eye’, in Cosmic Dramas, exhibition catalogue, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art 2013, p.39.

[7] Liquid Reflections, Liliane Lijn, 1968 | Tate

[8] Biennale Arte 2022 | Statement by Cecilia Alemani (

[9] Anna McNay, ‘Liliane Lijn: Interview’, Studio International, 12 February 2014

[10] Laura Castagnini, Vivian Lynn/Liliane Lijn: A synergy spanning 1991 to 2021, Contemporary Hum, 7 October, 2021

[11] Gravity’s Dance, 2019 – Liliane Lijn