Liliane Lijn

Headborn

1987–90

In Tate Britain

Artist
Liliane Lijn born 1939
Medium
Glass, bronze and leather
Dimensions
Object: 425 x 290 x 260 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased with funds provided by the Denise Coates Foundation on the occasion of the 2018 centenary of women gaining the right to vote in Britain 2019
Reference
T15096

Summary

Headborn 1987–90 is an object that combines two materials formed in fire – glass and bronze. The glass element is shaped like a head and neck with a large hole blown through the top. It is transparent other than blue veins snaking vertically down its surface. The irregular spherical form tapers down to a narrow, ribbed opening at the bottom where it meets a patinated bronze tube that winds around upon itself to create a base. The work’s title suggests an otherworldly birth narrative that implies delivery from the head. Headborn was one of the earliest works in which the artist used bronze. Her foray into this material was inspired by an exhibition of Roman bronze figures found in the Tiber river in Italy, that were broken and pieced together for display. She said: ‘I wanted to use bronze in a way that had not been tried before. To use this very traditional opaque and solid material to express transparency and transformation.’ (Lijn 2002, p.77.)

Headborn is from Lijn’s Torn Heads series, a group of works she began in 1986, working in a traditional glass factory located near Lake Luzern in central Switzerland. Assisted by two technicians, Lijn’s process involved creating a blown glass spherical form and then bursting it open by cutting, manipulating and torching the glass with fire. She described the series in autobiographical terms: ‘My idea was that it was torn, that my head was torn apart but also – it was like a wound – and also it was like hair. It was wound, hair, vulva.’ (Lijn 2013, p.39.) She also talked of the process of manipulating the blown glass as the creation of a wound that was both painful and erotic: ‘As I came to understand how the glass reacted, I used a blow torch to open a wound in the surface of the glass heads. Using the torch was extraordinary since the glass opened slowly and painfully, but at the same time it was very erotic.’ (Lijn 2002, p.77.) Bridal Wound 1986–90 (Tate T15097) and Armoured Head 1990 (Tate T15098) are also from the Torn Heads series.

In turning to blown glass, the Torn Heads marked a shift in Lijn’s use of glass as a material for her work: from a scientific tool through which to transform light, to an emotional medium that she used to express pain and suffering. Lijn has utilised glass in her work since the 1970s, initially in the form of optical glass prisms sourced from centurion tank gun sights and periscopes. She used these prisms to investigate the physical properties of light and its spectral colour emissions and to create the first heads of her totemic figures such as Feathered Lady 1979, Heshe 1980 and, later, Lady of the Wild Things 1983. Lijn felt that the prisms represented ‘brain ... mind ... clarity ... vision ... the enlightened mind’, while blown glass enabled her to venture ‘into emotions’ (Lijn 2013, p.39). In addition to making the individual sculptures in the Torn Heads series, Lijn used blown glass for the heads of animated and caged female archetypes in large installations such as The Bride 1988 and The Electric Bride 1989. Lijn’s material shift in her use of glass was part of a broader change in the character of her work during the late 1970s and 1980s. She has said: ‘It was around 1980 when I realised that [feminist mythology] was what really interested me ... I wanted to find a new way of looking at the feminine and to bring into that everything: plants, animals, humans and machines.’ (Quoted in McNay 2014, accessed 21 August 2018.)

Lijn’s subsequent three-dimensional work articulates a feminist imagery through references to female mythology and personal biography, including the monumental performing Goddesses (Lady of the Wild Things 1983 and Women of War 1986), the small series of blown glass Torn Heads 1986–90 and later bronze works cast from the artist’s body (Lilith 2001) and incorporating video (Paradise Lost 2000).

Further reading
Liliane Lijn, in conversation with Guy Brett, ‘Lijn – Brett: An E-mail Dialogue’, in Light and Memory, exhibition catalogue, Rocca di Umbertide Centro per l’Arte Contemporanea, Perugia 2002, pp.69–83.
David Alan Mellor, Liliane Lijn: Works 1959–1980, exhibition catalogue, Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry 2005.
Liliane Lijn, in conversation with Althea Greenan, ‘Adrift in the depth of our mind’s eye’, in Cosmic Dramas, exhibition catalogue, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art 2013, pp.34–49.
Anna McNay, ‘Liliane Lijn: Interview’, Studio International, 12 February 2014, https://www.studiointernational.com/index.php/liliane-lijn-interview, accessed 21 August 2018.

Laura Castagnini
August 2018

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Display caption

This is one of several sculptures Lijn made in a traditional glass factory in Switzerland. They were created by blowing hot glass into a wooden mould made from Lijn’s drawings. The head shapes were then cut and pulled apart or torched with fire. She said of this process: ‘As I came to understand how the glass reacted, I used a blowtorch to open a wound in the surface of the glass heads. Using the torch was extraordinary since the glass opened slowly and painfully, but at the same time it was very erotic.’

Gallery label, August 2019

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

You might like