Published  07/01/2014

Julio Le Parc: Light and Movement

Julio Le Parc: Light and Movement

Le Parc Lumière – Kinetic works by Julio Le Parc
Casa Daros, Rio de Janeiro
12 October 2013 – 23 February 2014


When talking about the Argentinean Julio Le Parc, it is impossible not to mention the remarkable episode that led to him being celebrated as an artistic legend of the 20th century.

Le Parc participated in the 1966 Venice Biennale alongside the Venezuelan artist Jesús Raphael Soto (1923-2005) and both lent to the Giardini unexpected movements of light and shapes, the best example of what later became known as optical and kinetic art. As Le Parc later recalled, there were 40 of his works in an isolated exhibition room: unstable mobiles, rotating mirrored discs, rudimentary machines with precarious little motors running at variable speeds that reflected and projected light into the space. His intention was to play with the spectators’ perception and consequently invite their participation. The light’s movement over the surroundings and the spectators’ movement in response to them turned out to be the work of art. The aesthetic experience Le Parc offered astonished not only the public, but also the jury, which conferred on him the exhibition’s grand painting award, upstaging strong candidates such as the American Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein (1923-97).

The award came as a surprise to Le Parc. It was the first chance he had had to present a large number of his creations. Thus far Le Parc, who had been intensively producing artistic objects since he was a fine arts student in Buenos Aires, hadn’t had the opportunity to have a single solo show until he became the Biennale’s overnight star. Soon after the award, he was given solo shows in galleries in New York and Paris. Although it was a surprise to the artist, it was not so unexpected for the critics. The prize was an indication to the art world that the subtle lines that had separated art into categories such as sculpture or painting were blurring. The Argentinian artist was showing through lighted signals the path for the future.

Le Parc was born in 1928 in Mendoza in the Argentinean countryside. Nonetheless, it was in the city of light, Paris, where he still lives today, that he began to devote himself to experiments with light and movement. In Argentina, Le Parc studied art and was politically engaged, becoming president of his university’s student union in Buenos Aires. However, besides studying and being a political activist, he also needed to work to support himself. Making art was possible just during a few spare hours. For this reason he applied for a scholarship to go to France, where he felt he would be in touch with great art collections and have time to dedicate exclusively to his art. In 1958, he received a grant and went off to Paris. In 1960, with a group of other French and Latin American artists, including François Morellet (b1926), he created the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV), which, above all else, fostered the debate surrounding the relation between artistic phenomena and the human eye. That same year, Le Parc began his experiments with the moving shadows of illuminated pieces of mobiles that consequently shaped the series Continuel-Lumière. The GRAV, with Le Parc as its main theorist, later shifted the focus of its investigation around visual perception from the spectator as simply an onlooker to the spectator as a full participant. The group organised, for example, the work A Day in the Street (1966), a playful activity, a sort of a happening with visual and participatory games, which, according to art historian Alexander Alberro, was a way “to integrate the work of art into everyday life in a real and not simply metaphorical manner”.1

These two seminal themes of the GRAV are also the topics that have guided the five decades of Le Parc’s career. His works in colours or lights, paintings or installations, sensorial labyrinths or games that can be variously labelled optical, kinetic and participatory art have already gained retrospective exhibitions around the world. The last was in 2013 at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris with works from 1950 to now. This is the first time, however, that the public in Brazil has had the opportunity to see a major exhibition of Le Parc’s oeuvre. At Casa Daros in Rio de Janeiro, Le Parc Lumière – Kinetic Works by Julio Le Parc presents more than 30 installations and games from the 60s and 70s from the Daros Latinamerica Collection in Zurich. During this period, Le Parc built his light machines using unusual materials, so all the works had to be carefully and faithfully restored when purchased by the collection. As a result, the magical impact the works had many decades ago is recreated.

The curatorial project by Hans-Michael Herzog was loyal to the artist’s intention. The exhibition space is in absolute darkness, creating the ambiance required to experience the spectacle of light using simple and ingenious resources: there are no legends, no captions, no text to distract. Not a single ray of sunlight is allowed to enter the Casa Daros exhibition. The visitor is completely absorbed in a space in which the light projections of Le Parc reign. One of the first works presented is Continuel-Lumière Mobile (1960), a mobile that resembles a curtain of little circles made of stainless steel held by nylon wires. Two small projectors illuminate the piece that reflects light everywhere. This is merely a preparation for what the visitor will see next – pulsing lights, fluid shadows, mirrored labyrinths, and so on. The simplicity of the mechanisms Le Parc built so skilfully amazes the visitor when they observe the proportions that the visual effects generate.

Le Parc participated in a round table at Casa Daros with Herzog and Alberro. After the public talk, I was able to ask the 85-year-old artist a few questions for Studio International.

Caroline Menezes: Light has been a key element in visual art since the first evidence of painting on walls. In the Byzantine period, beams of sunlight used to give life to golden mosaic figures. Later, the understanding of light effects also enabled the illusionary depiction that we see in the Renaissance. These are emblematic examples of how light has been used in art as a medium, or as a matter of representation. However, you use light as the raw material for your creations. How did you start to become interested in light as the raw material, the main and exclusive source of artistic production?

Julio Le Parc: It wasn’t from one day to the next that I decided to make artworks with light. I was seeking a way to multiply images, visualise them and place them in my presence in a simultaneous or progressive manner. The first small boxes of colours I created made me realise that I had to illuminate them from within, with openings, the light and colours would be visualised on Plexiglas screens where the images would be superimposed and multiply. So I started using the little lights not for the light itself, but as an element that helped me visualise the images and, gradually, as I was testing different artworks, I realised there were other possibilities. I started putting some elements in motion and became aware that I could take these moving elements out of the little boxes and started exploring with them. Then I realised that, depending on how these elements were made, they would provoke images and reflections on the wall, and I tried to see how I could exploit this and give it form and make them reflect and refract.

CM: So purely with light you got everything you needed to express the movement and all that you intended?

JLP: Yes, I didn’t want colour to create a distraction. It wasn’t necessary to add colour. The light itself was more powerful, precise – just light as it was added to movement.

CM: What was the reaction of the public and critics when you presented these works with light and space for the first time?

JLP: The works were very easily accessible, the public could create a direct relationship with them. There were a few criticisms that they were not aggressive, forceful, in the sense of not distancing the public, but instead attracting them. This was because they were delicate: indeed, they were charming.

CM: How do you think that people who nowadays are so used to being overloaded with images and lights everywhere will receive these works from the 60s?

JLP: I think they will see it in the same way. It is the opposite of being overloaded. The enormous use of light projections everywhere, the light coming from the television, issuing from computers, music shows, the amount of light. At that time, in the 60s, these mediums of communication did not exist; the only thing that did exist were the discos. Then technology was developed and is used intensively, and images keep on being added, but in the end there is no vehicle transmitting a real idea of something, they don’t reach a conclusion. I think the different themes are limited, but within these limitations there can be richness due to the multiplication and the variations and the successions even within just one experience. But sometimes, with this huge amount of images, one gets lost, there is no common thread, there is nothing that leads to a more precise connection.

CM: We see in your work a kind of inventiveness not only in the visual result of the light in the space, but also in the mechanisms you created using simple materials. I think your artistic expression also resides in these handmade machines that ignite the installations and visual effects. Thus, this is a hypothetical question: if you could make your artworks again with the technology that we have today, would you do that or would you prefer to use the alternative mechanisms that you create?

JLP: You see, what progresses, progresses. I could make them this way, but as I have not mastered this new technology, I would have to depend on others. Not very long ago I made a big sculpture for an exhibition and the people working on the show said: “Let’s illuminate this sculpture.” They said they had the best technicians who light stadiums for shows and all that. So, great, they came, brought all their machines, they got set up with tables, computers, projectors and started doing tests with the lights. I told them how I wanted it done. I said I simply wanted two lights as if they were two lines, going up at different speeds to the sculpture, and then going down at varying rhythms. “No,” they said. “Look, this other way, other things, other lights.” I insisted I just wanted something simple. With all their technology, they couldn’t do it. At the end, they said they could order a program from Germany that could perhaps create this movement. I used to create this same movement with two jars with a small bulb inside. I wanted that same effect and not to be subjected to a technology that would alter that, so it didn’t work out. In another case, little by little a computer did manage to imitate the movements created by the motors when these lamps crossed; they managed to create the same design and have a projection, but to create the same thing that I had already created. I don’t think it’s worthwhile.

CM: It is not that you don’t like to use the new technology …

JLP: Yes, but I would use it to make other things, not to imitate what I have already done. But I would need to learn to use it to take advantage of the parameters and the elements that can be explored within this technology. This technology can be used to create movement, variations and adjustments and be visible, and in some cases time can be saved, especially when visualising something in 3D. However, this is something that needs to be developed and then tested, once, twice and continuously, until it is ready to work.

CM: Most people and most artists call art a work of art – the idea of art as work. But you often use the idea of play and call your work, play. This notion of play in art is really interesting. Do you think that all art can be play?

JLP: There are things that are not playing. It can be a game if there is a relationship, to the extent that if there is a proposal and the spectator brings things, too, and withdraws things and add things, it is a game because there is a more playful participation, which can lead to surprising elements for the spectator. There are important aspects of art that are a game. But I am undecided, because the game, the playfulness, may appear inadvertently without being noticed.

With special thanks to Alexander Alberro and Hans-Michael Herzog who facilitated this conversation with the artist.

1. Julio Le Parc, The Groupe de Recherche d’art Visuel and Instability in the 1960s by Alexander Alberro in Julio Le Parc. Kinetic Works. Exhibition Catalogue, Rio de Janeiro, Daros Latinamerica Collection, 2013, page 67.


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