Liliane Lijn

Space Displace Koan


Liliane Lijn born 1939
Fibreglass, polyester resin, fluorescent tube and motor
Presented by Mr and Mrs Louis A. Tanner 1999

Not on display


Space Displace Koan is a very smooth white sculpture in the shape of a cone with a truncated top. It is displayed on the gallery floor, standing approximately 170 cm high, and turns at a speed of approximately eight rotations per minute by means of a motorised turntable on which it rests. Five thin, curved, unevenly spaced lines are set into its surface in a transparent material, and these run all around the sculpture, each taking different, irregular trajectories. Inside the sculpture is a fluorescent light that shines through the transparent sections, but does not penetrate the rest of the sculpture’s opaque white surface. When the cone spins, the curves appear to rise and fall as if moving independently.

This work was made by the American kinetic sculptor Liliane Lijn in 1969, when the artist was living and working in London. It is one of many revolving conical sculptures that Lijn has produced during her career, which the artist refers to as ‘koans’ (see also See-Thru Koan 1969–75, Arts Council England Collection, London, and White Koan 1972, University of Warwick, Coventry). In 2014 Lijn discussed the making of her koans, stating that this involves cutting the plastic cones into pieces, inserting the transparent sections between those parts and then reassembling the structure – a very delicate process, since the cones can easily become crooked (see Anna McNay, ‘Liliane Lijn in her North London Studio, February 2014’, Studio International, 12 February 2014,, accessed 2 March 2015). Lijn has also stated that the works are best displayed in natural light.

The Japanese word koan refers to a type of short and often enigmatic text or statement that originated in China in the seventh century and subsequently developed there and in Japan, especially within Zen Buddhism. Koans vary considerably in style, structure and content but are generally designed to invite extended reflection, sometimes in the form of meditation. In the case of Lijn’s sculptures, the word is also significant for its aural resemblance to the word ‘cone’. Lijn was first introduced to Zen Buddhism in Paris in the late 1950s by the artist and poet Jean-Jacques Lebel, and she explained in 2014 that a ‘koan is a puzzle, a type of riddle that you use to meditate, to empty the mind ... the cones I was making were able to do that, they were hypnotic’ (Lijn in Anna McNay, ‘Liliane Lijn: Interview’, Studio International, 12 February 2014,, accessed 2 March 2015).

The phrase ‘space displace’ that also features in the work’s title may refer to the way in which the curved lines appear to move up and down as the work rotates, as if ‘displacing’ the space between them. In 1969 Lijn stated of her conical sculptures that their spinning movement was partly intended to compensate for the ‘voluminous and heavy’ appearance of the cone shapes (Lijn in Lijn and Lindsay 1969, p.221). In 1997 she explained that this is because when the sculptures spin, ‘the elliptical rings appear as lines moving through the volume of the cone’, thus undermining its solidity (Liliane Lijn and Charles Dreyfus, ‘Liliane Lijn Interviewed by Charles Dreyfus’, in Galerie Lara Vincy 1997, p.8). Furthermore, in 1976 Lijn said that she was interested in achieving an appearance of continuous ‘flow’ or ‘undulation’ in her work (Lijn in Asa Beneveniste, ‘An Interview with Liliane Lijn’, in Liliane Lijn, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, London 1976, p.4).

In 1997 Lijn referred to the cone shape as a ‘cosmic astronomical form’, noting that ‘the cone and its sections describe the orbital trajectories of the planets’ and that ‘both light and sound radiate along a conical path’ (Lijn in Galerie Lara Vincy 1997, pp.6, 8). Alongside these connections with physics, Lijn noted in 2014 that she initially chose the shape after reading about sacred ‘conical mounds’ used in ancient Greek religious ceremonies (McNay, ‘Liliane Lijn: Interview’, 2014, accessed 2 March 2015). The curator and art historian David Alan Mellor has discussed Lijn’s combination of spiritual and scientific references, arguing that her koan sculptures are an example of a concept described by the American historian David Nye in the mid-1990s as the ‘technological sublime’ – the pursuit of spiritual transcendence through modern machinery (David Mellor, ‘Sky Never Stops: The Koans’, in Mead Gallery 2005, p.47). According to Mellor, Lijn’s koan sculptures juxtapose smooth surfaces with almost hallucinatory effects that mark them as ‘elements of a technocratic world … re-classified by Lijn as totems of a transcendental realm’ (Mellor in Mead Gallery 2005, p.53).

Further reading
Liliane Lijn and Vera Lindsay, ‘Liliane Lijn in Discussion with Vera Lindsay’, Studio International, vol.177, no.911, May 1969, pp.219–23.
Liliane Kijn: Koans, exhibition catalogue, Galerie Lara Vincy, Paris 1997.
Liliane Lijn: Works 1959–80, exhibition catalogue, Mead Gallery, Coventry 2005, reproduced p.49.

David Hodge
March 2015

Supported by Christie’s.