Liz West exhibited her site-specific installation, Consumed, in 2013 at Barnaby Festival.
Her work, which was placed in a disused shop unit in Grosvenor Shopping Centre and consisted of found, discarded and recycled transparent bottles placed on top of red, yellow and blue light boxes, arranged to resemble cityscapes in light-flooded vitrines, was set to reference the historic town of Macclesfield and explored themes of metamorphosis.
By playfully combining light and translucent, transparent or reflective materials, West brings out the intensity and composition of her spatial arrangements. Interested in exploring how sensory phenomena can invoke psychological and physical responses, West also investigates the relationship between spatial light works and wellbeing.
Your work mainly focuses on the relationship between light and colour. Has this always been your main point of interest?
It’s always been very high on the agenda ever since I can remember – not just in my career, but throughout my life.
Some of my earliest memories were centred around the experience of light and colour together. In a way it is part of my DNA – both my parents work as artists. There were always arts professionals in the house, so those conversations and theories about artwork, colour and perception were always around me.
I also remember having very vivid experiences of play, which were linked to colour and light as well. When I was three or four years old, I had my little table set up in my mom’s studio, and I was mixing inks and PVA glue together to make concoctions of colour, which then I spread out on acetates, let them dry, peeled them off and stuck onto my windows to make almost stained-glass panels.
Thinking about what I do now, it’s not far away from that.
You started out with smaller works – ones that could fit into galleries, like your 2013 Consumed piece for Barnaby festival – and then you progressed onto large-scale site-specific works. What challenges have you identified in moving out of the gallery space (and into bigger spaces)?
I still make smaller works – I’m still as interested in making them as I ever was – that side of my practice hasn’t been cancelled out.
What ended up happening is that when you make a piece that’s of scale, people recognise that you can take on the challenges of space, and you end up getting offered more opportunities for site-specific works. At least, this is what happened to me.
However, I still crave those smaller gallery shows. Interestingly, I find making small-scale – human-scale – work more challenging, than making monumental site-specific works.
Each side has its difficulties and pleasures, but I can more easily get my head around those large spaces, I feel more familiar in that realm.
If it is not really about the difference in challenges, but more about the transition from one space to another, then how did you, as an artist, experience the transition to be like?
It was not an easy experience. When that transition clearly happened in 2014, I hit an absolute artists’ block, which resulted in a real confidence crisis. I questioned everything. I questioned why I was an artist, why I was making work about colour and light. Why colour? Why light? I had to take some time to pick apart and critique everything. Why was I doing this? Who was it for?
It was an emotional roller-coaster, it was a hard thing to do. I came out of the other side having found answers to those questions, which meant I could develop my voice as an artist. It meant that every work I would make is a self-portrait.
In essence, it means that every piece is linked.
How do you think this self-reflective period reflects and affects your work now?
After the period of self-critique, I devised five pointers that guide me when I’m conceiving a new piece.
Each time I aim to work with vivid colour; I aim to work with luminous light – either artificial or sunlight; and I aim to create work that is site-specific or site-responsive, meaning that I might take a pre-existing modular piece and reshape it to the site in a way that’s site-sensitive. I also aim to tap into people’s individual colour perception, so I usually end up spending a lot of time looking, listening and researching how we all see colours differently.
And finally, I aim to create an immersive environment. More specifically an environment that enables people to look at their surroundings more clearly or differently; it might also mean illuminating the surroundings to illuminate parts of the architecture that might not be visible; or it might mean making a piece of work that feels like it belongs to that space and feels like it has always been there.
These five points are almost like a manifesto to me – if I can tick every single one of them, I may have created a successful piece.
This is why I had to have that gap. Thinking about the work I made pre-2014 – even though I had amazing opportunities, like Barnaby Festival in 2013 – the work is completely different to what I started making a couple of years later. I didn’t quite know how to achieve that impact, which only immersive light works have on audiences until I did it. I was completely in love with the results when I made my first large immersive artwork, which is how I knew how had to move forward.