Light Years

Big Magazine 2004

Interview: Magda Keaney

"Light is universal and it is a means of powerful subconscious communication"

Warren Du Preez

Chris I wanted to start by asking why and how you came to work with lasers?

Chris Levine: I’ve always had a fascination with light and what light is on a spiritual level. I was really involved with holograms for a long while and gradually got more interested in laser. Laser is, by definition, a single frequency of light and we don’t normally experience light that pure. Increasingly it is a meditation for me. I can’t really separate what I do in my life and my work. It is an expression.

Is there any particular experience of light that has inspired or changed you?

CL: There have been lots of moments or notes along the way, but they are difficult to express in words. I’m not sure if it is a particular experience, or reaching out into something that hasn’t been experienced before. In the process of experimenting with light you get a sense of the infinite, which does trigger a deep response. You can also be spellbound by looking at the stars in the night sky.

Warren du preez: The things that excite me are areas of the unknown – galaxies and gaseous states. Laser has that quality to it which makes it mysterious and unknown. Olafur Eliasson’s sun (in The weather project ) at the Tate was a profound experience. It floored me. The power of it was universal.

Nick Thornton Jones: There are quite a few. I agree, it is not so much about what inspires you as it is about what excites you. You are not searching for one particular experience you are searching within a process of discovery. I get off on the process and the journey of that process.


This group of images is selected from a greater archive of work you’ve done over the past ten years together. What does this particular sequence reflect or represent about your working relationship?

WDP: There is no prescribed answer to that. There is an alchemy of light and crystal which is the underlying ethos of the sequence. It is about a mutual fascination, three people coming together who are preoccupied with similar things. They are driven visually.

NTJ: There is a large body of work, but selecting these says they are the ones that stand above the rest. I think we were searching for moments in time. The process around creating these moments is a different experience to physically putting them on a page. I think the selection has been happening over the whole nine or ten years we’ve worked together.

CL: It is about observing the nature of light. Crystal is a way of interacting with light – you can use to literally break light down into its component parts so that a profound beauty becomes apparent in a way that hasn’t been experienced before. Laser and crystal has been a fascination with us for a long time. You can experiment and play, but in putting it on the page we are trying to capture it.


How do you think it works bringing them together?

NTJ: Literal juxtapositions of images in the layout cause visual impulses and responses but I view them as singular moments, because that’s how I’ve lived with them for so many years. The fact that they are in context with each other is amazing but there is still no joining the dots between them for me. They are captured in a very singular way and if you try to impress another shape or form on that it diminishes the purity. The layout is about trying to make a gentle visual sense of it. For example you might start to understand that various aspects of light have similar properties, but for us these have been totally different journeys from graphic-based stuff through to the more nebular worlds.

CL: They are facets of a whole. Each of these images is an area of exploration,a part of a journey.

WDP: The selection was based around stand – alone images. Putting them together is about finding a layout that looks right for the body of work to live together, but the premise from the beginning is that each is iconic. I think you read and receive and interact with them in a very individual way because they are so abstract. There aren’t too many clues or definition. As you turn a page you are hit by light – it’s less familiar than a fashion story.

NTJ: They are not fashionable moments. They are moments that needed to be expressed through certain aspects of photography, laser, projection and crystals.

Can we talk about the mediation of laser with crystal in the creation of the images?

WDP: I’ve never met anyone as transfixed with crystal and laser as Chris.

CL: These images start off as a straight beam of very intense focused energy, but by using crystal you can interact with it in such a way that you are able to extract components contained within that. Light is a thing of fundamental beauty in that it overcomes darkness. The combination of crystal and laser is a very powerful way of showing the beauty of light.


Chris you have had an ongoing relationship with Swarovski haven’t you?

CL: Nadja Swarovski once said to me ‘light is life’, which is a truth. I’ve been experimenting with crystal and laser since I was at art school. Issy Blow brought Nadja to my studio and Swarovski has been very supportive of my work ever since. They recently cut me the biggest crystal they’ve ever made to do a commemorative light sculpture for their museum, the D-cube.

NTJ: The geometry is infinite, the combinations are infinite, and they are infinite in an organic way, because you are working with natural, physical objects.

Is there something specific about the combination of crystal and laser which is magical for you?

CL: Laser light is pure and the structure of Swarovski crystal is also very pure. That is what they are known for. The combination of the pure structure of crystal and pure light together is bound to do something incredible. They are all interactions with light.

WDP: It is light and refraction that creates these images at the end of the day. The complexity of the crystal is what ultimately gives you your image. It’s difficult to locate that. It’s not easy but you know you can get there. You get in a zone and it is like magic. We are talking about the ‘arrestment’ of these images. The emotion is another dimension.

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Is there is a single image in the group which you’d like to single out and comment on?

NTJ: I’d come back to the image created during the Cartier project [p.173], which had the aspect of producing something which was both an end result for a client but was equally a process of discovery on the level of going into the studio for five days to really experiment. Chris’s level of knowledge with laser is incredible. For us to get into a space and understand that within an object there is something happening that you can’t see unless a physicality is brought to it, and it is captured, is flooring. When you see it at its true resolution it has no beginning or end and it has no definitive colour makeup. In terms of structure and how it has been put together it is like nothing I’ve ever seen other than in dreams and fantasy.

WDP: We have a premise of experimentation and it is about knowing when something in front of you is innovative and exciting, and harnessing that and taking it further. Many people have accidents happen. What is important is to recognise those accidents and the potential within them.

CL: You set the parameters and then operate with that, but you don’t necessarily know where it is going to lead.

WDP: For me it is the image we made when we were doing Cacharel [p.168-169] in the early days. It almost encompasses all of them for me. It’s galactic and it’s universal and it’s colourful. Isolated as one single image, we’ve never managed to get back there, which is ironic, but in a way that shows the level of specialness behind the image, which is what drives us.

CL: It captures the beauty and potential of laser with crystal and the full spectrum you can get with high-end lasers. You rarely see that. It was the first time we locked it down and made it happen. In many ways it is like meditation because if you try to consciously hold on to a certain state, you are thinking again and you’ve lost it. If you tried to recreate any of these images it would be almost impossible. You have to let them come out naturally. You have to let them flow freely. If you try and control the process too much you restrict it.


Could you say something about your collective journey as image-makers?

CL: A lot of what we have done has been about making experiments. Being in the studio and having the facility to use high-powered lasers, having the time to do it and the inclination to explore. Out of that keynotes come to the surface and that is what you are looking to capture. There was a chemistry between us. It clicked.

NTJ: It’s a shared fascination.

WDP: It has become a unified journey because I don’t think any one of us singularly could create these images.

In a sentence could you distil the essence of light? What is light for you?

WDP: Light is universal and it is a means of powerful subconscious communication.

CL: Light is fundamental to the very nature of existence.

NTJ:  Light allows me to dream.