Really excited about the Halo Group blog this week which features an interview with the amazingly talented visual artist Liz West. We hope you enjoy reading it as much as we did interviewing her.
The Halo Group has been following your work for some time but for the benefit of anyone reading our blog who isn’t familiar with your portfolio please tell us a little about yourself.
I graduated from the Glasgow School of Art in 2007. I studied sculpture and environmental art which was the perfect course for me because it taught me a lot about how to work with space so I spend a lot of time out of my studio visiting different sites and thinking about how my work might fit in site specifically. I have kept that ethos throughout all of my practice.
I am also really interested in our individual relationships with light and colour. This is a subject which is at my very core as I have Seasonal Affective Disorder, so it matters to me and my wellbeing. As such, I thought it would be a really interesting avenue to explore as an artist and give other people an experiential encounter with the two mediums together.
Light and colour are themes concurrent throughout your work. What is it about light and colour that captivates you so much that you are able to produce so many stunning pieces centred around them?
You cannot see colour without light. The two mediums are intrinsically connected which is really important for me. I don’t just make work with artificial light, I also think about natural light as it is as equally important to us as we go about our day to day lives. One thing I am really interested in exploring is how we see and I think we are all guilty of going about our daily lives looking at screens. We live in this digital age, we have access to information and knowledge instantly and so much of the time no one actually stops to look around and appreciate what’s around them. I want to highlight natural phenomena such as light and colour through my work so people become more aware. The irony of course is that images of my work then travel around the digital ether. I guess that’s got a nice symmetry to it!
It’s well documented that you have consulted with experts in the field of human psychology in your quest to explore the link between colours and emotions. How rewarding was this process and what was the most valuable thing you learned?
I think first of all, I would say I am still learning all the time. My whole practice is research based, I am always on the quest for knowledge. I don’t feel I know enough yet. Each piece of work I make, I learn more. I think that’s how you will see my work progress over the decades. The future is about gaining more knowledge and that knowledge might become more intricate.
I think the work I have done with researchers has been really insightful but I do try to tap into my own feelings so as to feel aware myself. Having said this, it’s still quite nice to have it explained to you. I guess I am taking their knowledge and actually making it physical in space for people to experience. It feels rewarding to be able to do that for people.
How did this influence your work and did you feel it changed your approach after the process or simply reaffirmed how you already felt?
I think it reaffirmed how I already felt but also opened up new avenues of exploration. For example, when there are subjects we think we might already know about which are then explained and the details subsequently made explicit to us, this just makes it even more intriguing and inspires me to show this knowledge to other people who might not be so aware.
My installation at the National Media Museum last year entitled, “An Additive Mix” is a good example of this. When I tested and experimented with different coloured light bulbs in my studio I found the glow was white light. I already knew this and I understood the concept, I knew it from physics but to actually see it in person was a real WOW moment. The project was conducted on a massive scale. I combined 250 different colours each being represented by 6-foot fluorescent bulbs. People of all ages went into the installation and couldn’t believe they were bathing in pure white light. They expected to see stripes of colour on their skin and they didn’t. So it’s just about making natural phenomena physical. I like that.
What are your favourite physical materials to work with?
I really enjoy materials and I really enjoy finding out about new materials. I am always on the lookout because I am a super sensory person, a highly visual person, a highly tactile person. When I am in a DIY shop for example, I’m thinking about my work and thinking about which materials I could use. It might not be using the material for what it was originally intended but I am always thinking about how I might re-appropriate materials. I really enjoy reflective surfaces or ones that refract light – things that go hand in hand with light, for example; mirrors, Perspex, prisms, glass orbs and so on. I’ve just started looking at some really interesting concave and convex lenses too. The list is endless and I enjoy the possibility of different materials.
Your work is very immersive, how important is it for you that your installations have this sensory quality?
Very important. I went on an artist residency about two years ago at Kurt Schwitters Merz Barn. I went for a week and I questioned my entire practice there. I broke everything about my work down and tore myself apart. I asked myself: Why am I an artist? Why use colour? Why light? What else could I do with my life? What is the best piece of work I have ever made? Why? What is the worst piece of work I have ever made? Why? I came out of that week feeling pretty shocking to be honest, but it was really good for me. What I came out of that experience feeling was that although I had enjoyed the more sculptural work I have made, I felt the work that was most pleasing to me and that I was absolutely in love with was my immersive installation environments, where people could feel the passion coming though my work. It was after that residency I went on to make “Your Colour Perception”
Do you think you will ever reach a dead-end working with light and colour? Some artists choose to work with multiple mediums to avoid being pigeonholed or have their creativity stifled, but you seem to continuously reinvent the same discipline with refreshing originality.
There is so much breadth in just light, from natural light to artificial lights. There is so much breadth within just colour. I’ve got the two together. I’ve also got my investigation of space and architecture, so how can you get bored with all those subjects? There are just so many things I could do. I just hope I can have a lifelong practice exploring that and all the materials that go hand in hand with them. The one thing I would say is I don’t like being called a light artist, I see myself as a visual artist.
You work on quite a wide scale in terms of the size of your projects. Do you prefer working on the smaller more personal exhibitions or on your large installations and why?
I think they are both as important as each other. I think they both do really different things for people. I really enjoy exhibitions as they are really communal, like “Your Colour Perception” & “Our Colour” because they allow people to have the same experience together. I think it’s really interesting when I have been in those spaces watching how other people react to different colours that you might not personally like. Other works are more intimate, and they are a very different experience but still experiential, immersive encounters. I think they do different things and I hope people enjoy them equally.
How important is architecture in your work and what function does it perform?
It depends on the architecture. I have done non site specific work like “Our Spectral Vision” at the Natural History Museum. That is now going on a tour around the country and it could go in any space. Other strands of my practice are completely site specific, site responsive & site conditional. This process involves site visits, documentation and developing work that is harmonious with that space. I really enjoy that and I think that’s my favourite side of my practice although it is the most challenging. Sometimes it’s really difficult to get a clear idea of what you might do. Sometimes it’s instant and you think “that space needs this” or sometimes you have to really take time with it.
How do you go about selecting the locations for each of your projects and do you fit your installations around them, or vice versa?
I have never selected spaces, I have always been offered spaces. It’s funny as the more site specific I have done, the more people come up with suggestions like “I’d love to see your work in a castle” for example. I’m then left thinking, “I don’t want to work in a castle” but often this pushes me, challenges me and I end up taking the project on. The National Trust exhibition “Autumn Lights” is a good example, it was one of the hardest projects I have ever worked on. How do you work in a Tudor mansion? You can’t drill into the floor, into the walls or ceiling and there’s an undulating floor. That was a real challenge. That’s why I work with a good team of people.
We would love to hear about which artists inspire you? Have you been to any art exhibitions lately that blew you away?
Both my parents are artists. I was taken to exhibitions from a very early age and educated in art. I have built up a huge catalogue of artists I like, but not all of them are people dealing with light or colour. I almost don’t want to list them because they are too obvious but I love Olafur Eliasson, Daniel Buren, Carlos Cruz Diez, Jim Lambie, David Batchelor, Dan Flavin, Turner, Mondrian – all the people you would expect me to like.
Overall, I just love art, I love experiencing art – even if it challenges me. I have also just spent two weeks in South Korea and I saw an amazing show by Olafur Eliasson there called “The Parliament of Possibilities” which blew my mind. I also saw an exhibition by Kimsooja who is a Korean artist. She’s just brilliant, very minimal but she produces beautiful work.
Where do you draw your inspiration from generally?
Everywhere. I walk around with very open eyes I think having access to the internet as we do is great. I look at all the architecture, design, art around me and the amazing photography blogs – which endlessly frustrate me because I am impressed with what I see. I’m looking out the window now for example, I’m in Manchester and there is a building being built opposite my studio and the shapes, the geometry and the design of it is inspirational. In Korea, I went to one of Zaha Hadid’s buildings, they are not my favourite, but I was thinking all the time how every single element of that building has been considered by someone at some point. I mean WOW! Just take that in. I think so many people take everything for granted.
How do you personally feel when witnessing your own work?
I am my biggest critic. This can be helpful because it keeps pushing me forward. But it also means that when I see my own work for the first time I am looking at it through very critical eyes, so I will always pick faults in it. This isn’t something I always tell people.
There’s been a few situations recently where I have not installed my own work because my fabricators have done it. So I have gone in after it has been put up and I am seeing it for the first time and it’s a weird sensation even though I have been privy to every detail. I have made every decision from the weight, the size, the colour and the form right through to the build, the materials, absolutely everything. Having said this, I have a very good imagination and I feel I am able to visualise the end product well which helps.
I installed my Bristol Biennial work “Our Colour” myself with 2 assistants. I had fitted all the filters onto all of the bulbs and the final job was to cover the windows which turned the piece from being a muted colour to a bright intense shot of colour. Just as we were taping up the last two windows with coverings, my team said to me, “Liz, go and sit outside, have a break, have a minute and we will give you a shout when it’s done and you can walk into it like you are the first visitor”. I did, and I cried. I thought “I made this. This is amazing”. It was everything I wanted it to be and that makes me very happy. You have to savour those moments.
You’ve earned the respect of your community and beyond through your output but art can be a tough world to gain widespread recognition or commercial success. What advice would you give to an aspiring visual artist or any artist looking to follow in your footsteps?
I don’t feel I have got success, so I don’t know what to say to that? Just, keep going – there have been times recently where I have thought, I don’t want to be an artist anymore, it’s so much to deal with. There are things that people don’t even realise artists have to deal with, but then of course, you carry on because you see the result of all that hard work and it makes it all worth it. So it’s about just having faith in yourself. I love what I do and I think that’s at the core of it. You couldn’t do what you do unless you love it.
What do you have on the horizon, any exciting projects in the pipeline?
I’ve got my first permanent installation opening tomorrow (Thursday 9th December). I’ve been working on it since May and it’s called “Sevenfold” and will be at The Met in Bury near Manchester. It’s a suspended light piece in the theatre’s foyer. It is made up of 6 mirrored and coloured prisms with a light inside so when its dark outside the whole room radiates with the spectrum. The installation is part of The Met’s £4.6 million refurbishment. This site-responsive piece will inject vibrant colours and a sense of illusion into the magnificent entrance and staircase of the theatre’s Victorian neo-classical building. Sevenfold takes its reference from Newton’s rainbow sequence of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. I have created Seven (six prisms in the main installation plus one mini above the reception desk) individual prisms that use mirrors to further radiate colour and reflect elements of the beautifully restored architecture.