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 Ã©migrÃ©, 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 AndrÃ© 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.