Lillian Lijn creates poetry from the city streets

“Like Soane, Liliane Lijn is fascinated by light, movement and new technology,” he says. “Her work is as diverse as it is exuberant but our Light Years exhibition will focus on her sculptural pieces, graphic art and utopian architectural propositions, which blur the lines between sculpture, architecture and conceptual art.”

Lijn has lived in the same house in Camden Town since 1974, working for many decades in Camden Mews but she acquired a larger – indeed splendid – studio in Manor House in 2007. I met her there last month to see some of the works that were destined for Light Years and hear about their origins. The Valley Of Darkness (see my photograph of Lijn) is one of the last works she made when working with prisms in the 1960s, when she started making “dramas” or “rituals” related to architecture.

Born in New York City in 1939, Lijn became fascinated with the tops of skyscrapers “where architects got to play”. This is one source of inspiration behind Hanging Gardens, in which verdant walkways between rooftops form “a skyline highway”, taking people away from cars and pollution and providing fantastic city vistas. The twin source of this idea was the archaic Greek custom of garlanding temples.

The Whirling Wind Tower proposal is for a 200ft conical aluminium tower which uses wind power to generate electricity and also produces music. She envisaged that flutes attached to sails on its wings would make sounds depending on the wind’s mood and “turn on the town with a kaleidoscope of brilliant light images”.

Lijn’s art can be better understood in the light of ideas and people she encountered after moving to Paris in 1958 in the era of Existentialism. Through friends, she gained access to the Surrealist circle around Andre Breton at a time when members were interested in the occult, met her future first husband, the Greek sculptor Takis, whose obsession then was cosmic music, and also the Beat writers working with cut-up text.


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While living in New York, she developed her interest in plastics – including polymers and Plexiglas – through working directly with industrial manufacturers. The ethereal beauty and inventiveness of a sculpture using such materials – Liquid Reflections – made a lasting impression when I saw it in Art & The 60s: This Was Tomorrow at Tate Britain in 2004.

From 1960, there has been a science-fictional aspect to Lijn’s imaginary world and to the works that came out of this. These include the novel Crossing Map, published in 1982, an artist’s monologue describing a world inhabited by people who can become light. The book is on display at Light Years, along with other early works, a recent kinetic sculpture – the mesmerising Three Line Koan – and one of her new Poemdrums, where text is cut into a nest of rotating cylinders lit from within.

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