As part of our series of profiles on imagemakers working with light, published in association with Aurea by Philips, Paula Carson interviews Chris Levine. Shown above: Lightness of Being: Glycee Print portrait of HM Queen Elizabeth II as shown at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2007
Beauty in the pure, simple form of light is the gift artist Chris Levine proffers to those who encounter his work. Using media such as laser, optics, LED and natural light, Levine aims to inspire a sense of wonder in viewers, hopefully taking them to unexplored sensory and spiritual territory in the process.
His experimental work with holograms (most famously his portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, above) helped Levine to develop a profound understanding of laser, which he describes as “the purest form of light,” and which he uses with great clarity and impact. His work has graced fashion shows, band tours, galleries and the occasional ad.
Book One cover for Colette. LED light painting created with Warren du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones
Over the years Levine has worked for and collaborated with the likes of Cartier, Swarovski, Massive Attack, Warren du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones, Selfridges, Issey Miyake, Absolut, Chanel and BMW. With photographer Mario Testino, Levine has formed concept lighting label Plugg: its first product, the Laserpod, has been widely hailed as a modern equivalent to the Lavalamp. Levine studied graphic design at Chelsea School of Art, completing his MA in Computer Graphics at Central St Martins during what he vaguely refers to as “the ‘80s”. Such ambiguity isn’t motivated by vanity: Levine simply prefers not to attach dates either to himself or his work. As he puts it, “All work is produced within the wholeness of light and space and is timeless.”
Creative Review: What do you describe yourself as?
Chris Levine: Light Artist.
CR: There’s a picture of you on your website standing on the top of a hill looking out at an expanse of sky. Where was that picture taken, and why have your chosen it for your site?
CL: My wife Emma took it on a field, near where we live outside a little fishing village in South East Ireland. We have our own beach and the kids run wild. The natural light and rural lifestyle has had a profound effect on my life and work.
CR: Is your studio based in Ireland too?
CL: I’m actually planning to move with family back to the UK soon – we’re considering setting up camp and studio in the West Country – but I’m definitely keeping a studio here in Ireland for lots of good reasons: the light, the air, the tax benefits for artists….
CR: Where/when were you born?
CL: I was born in Canada to British parents a lifetime ago.
CR: When did you begin working specifically with light, and what was it that prompted that development?
CL: My epiphany with laser came at school when I saw and felt my first beam of laser light. I got detention for shining it at the headmaster. Ever since then, it has been a thrill to play with laser and I never cease to wonder at the sheer resonant beauty of its pure light. Working with light is something of a calling for me and I feel very lucky that I’ve found it as a medium at a time when, technologically, it has evolved so much.
CR: What is it about the nature of light that you find so compelling?
CL: Light is fundamental to the very nature of existence. It operates on a metaphysical level with our consciousness. Light resonates deeply with our emotion and perception: it goes beyond image and form.
CR: Can you talk more about some of the media you use?
CL: My work operates on a sensory level and is in essence about the experience of seeing. The media, whether laser, holography or LED, are merely technological formats that create different modes of light, but it is light itself that is my medium. I am currently looking at projects where the sun, the source and power of life, is the ultimate medium.
CR: Your work clearly has a spiritual context…
CL: If we accept that light is the fundamental energy of life, then working with light becomes more than a job. For me it is increasingly an exploration into the very essence of life.
CR: What was your first major project using light?
CL: I was commissioned to create a light sculpture for the new British Council offices in Tokyo. It marked a new era for me in my transition from holographic designer to light artist. If I were to determine milestones along the way though, I’d say it was Modulation 1.2: a four metre high light sculpture in the atrium of the BC Tokyo office that modulates colour in a sensorial way.
CR: Tell us about your working process. What does an average day in the life of Chris Levine entail?
CL: Meditation has become central to my way of life and is a part of my working process. My day starts as the sun rises over the sea and I settle into about an hour of stillness. This brings about a sense of clarity that helps me deal with a workload that can sometimes be overwhelming. I usually spend an hour or two simply experimenting and interacting with light, most recently natural light and optics. Research, communicating about projects and developing work is done as best I can by planning my time and in response to deadlines but I follow my instincts in terms of what I do and when I do it.
CR: In terms of influences, is there anything beyond the realm of design that informs or inspires your work?
CL: I have never looked to design for inspiration and this has worked for and against me. That is not to say the world of art and design hasn’t fuelled my passion for my work; Anish Kapoor, Andy Warhol, Takis and Björk have all turned me on in different ways. But since I can remember there is something inside me that pushes me to the uncharted and unfamiliar. This has made my work original but often hard to categorize. My transition from designer to artist was primarily about the need for a freer approach to my work.
CR: Choose some projects that you are proudest of or that you feel took your work to another level.
CL: It’s rare that I do a project and stand back with pride when it’s completed – I’m not sure I’ve ever done that. Each project contains its lessons and hopefully takes you to a more elevated place (whereby if you did the project again you would do it differently). That said, I have done some work I think hits certain notes and that has helped me develop my work in light, among them, Equanimity (I consider the original portrait a light installation). It’s a holographic image lit by intense blue LED’s and was shown at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace. It was in its own room next door to Lucien Freud and Leonardo Da Vinci. I was proud of that – but I’m not deluded – it opened up channels for me to develop my work and I feel enormously privileged to have been trusted with the task and pleased that I completed it successfully.
I would also choose the Laserpod, a patented lighting principle I invented. I think it’s revolutionary and it’s a thrill for me to get mails from people saying it’s had a positive effect on them or improved their life in some way. Laserpod is about the meditative experience of pure light – I think the more people that get turned on to that the better.
The Cartier campaign that I did with Warren du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones is also on the list. The hyper-organic and super abstract nature of light diffraction has always been an inspiration for me. This project was the first time I had the opportunity to really study and capture this raw energy in an image making process. Finally, the BMW ad with Warren and Nick was important too, purely because it was my first work in film and it’s an area I would like to develop. There is invariably a time factor in my light works and I am excited to bring my experience with light as visual energy into that creative domain.
CR: Tell us about the exhibition Hypervisual 1.2.
CL: In the past I was obsessed with holograms and collaborated with some of the best holographers in the world. Hypervisual 1.2 was a kind of retrospective of my holographic imaging and included hologram portraits, the first Laserpod, prints on electroluminescent film and an animated hologram of Freddy Mercury. Collectively the work pulled into focus my vision for what I termed ‘hypervisual’ imaging. Mario Testino came to the show, Isabella Blow, Hussein Chalayan… I got so much positive feedback. The show went on to tour 12 countries with the British Council. Though I say so myself, that work was ahead of its time – in fact time still hasn’t caught up with it. Gradually, however, I became more interested in the lasers used to make holograms than in the holograms themselves. Hypervisual 1.2 marked the end of my holographic work and the beginning of my career as a light artist.
CR: You made Equanimity, your holographic portrait of the Queen, in 2004. How do you feel about that piece now?
CL: Equanimity was commissioned by the Jersey Heritage Trust to mark 800 years of the island’s loyalty to the Crown. I will always be grateful to Gordon Young who was lead artist on behalf of Jersey at the time and was forward thinking enough to recommend me for the job. As I said previously on reflection, after each project, I’d invariably do it differently and this piece is no exception. I produced a huge body of work during my two sittings [with the Queen], several thousand images, and there is some material that I think is much stronger that the original published image, ‘Lightness of Being’ which I showed at the Royal Academy Summer exhibition 2007 being one.
CR: Can you explain the process of making Equanimity?
CL: Holography is a highly technical subject. Like a lot of my work it was collaborative, this time with holographers John Perry, Rob Munday and Jeff Robb. The image was a transmission stereogram and involved capturing the subject using a specially commissioned video camera that moved along a linear rail taking a sequence of 200 images. The final images were selected with Her Majesty and then translated into a large format hologram in the US.
CR: I’m sure everyone must ask you this, but what was it like working
with the Queen?
CL: I had two sittings with her at Buckingham Palace and two private one-on-one audiences with her to show her the work in progress. The first sitting was fraught: there were technical problems and I was extremely nervous about meeting her. However, it all worked out and she took a personal interest in the project. She is an extraordinary woman with a unique life experience and I felt a real affection towards her. I’m going to meet with her one more time, to present a final boxed set of prints from the out-takes.
CR: Tell us about your work with Mario Testino, your lighting label Plugg, and the product Laserpod.
CL: I have known Mario an age – we met when I was at Chelsea School of Art and I consider him a much-loved mentor. He approached me with a view to making my work with laser accessible to a wider audience and we decided to create the concept light label ‘Plugg’. Our first product is the Laserpod. It’s been widely hailed as the next Lavalamp although it’s actually an entirely new genre of lighting using laser and Swarovski crystal.
CR: What drives you to keep working?
CL: The pursuit of new experience and of wisdom and the fact that I’ve got several mouths to feed! I have three small children and having them made me realise how precious time is. I don’t waste it on things that don’t really matter or projects that don’t facilitate growth in some direction. My children as beings of light are my ultimate creation and have inspired me so much. Love is light.