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The Koan is coming home!

Wednesday 15 December 2021

White Koan by Liliane Lijn has stood outside Warwick Arts Centre since 1973. It has become an unofficial icon of the university, the subject of numerous urban myths and the alleged author of an unauthorised commentary on university life through its tweets and Facebook page.

Liliane Lijn is an American-born artist who was the first woman artist to work with kinetic text (Poem Machines), exploring both light and text as early as 1962.

Working with highly original combinations of industrial materials and artistic processes, Lijn is recognised for pioneering the interaction of art, science, technology, eastern philosophy and female mythology. 

We asked Liliane Lijn to describe her feelings of freedom. Much as she cut up texts to explore language and meaning in her early Poem Machines, she has nominated excerpts from her forthcoming autobiography, Sylvana Bismark Speaks, that include or address freedom.

At PS 96, assembly was held every morning and due to the size of the school, the crowded hall was an impressive sight. Following role call and saluting the flag, of which I never entirely grasped the meaning or sense, the Headmistress would always give a little speech. One such speech stuck in my mind. It was about Freedom and its relation to Responsibility. That America was the country of the Free and the Brave, I had heard over and over in the anthem we daily sang but connecting it to responsibility was something quite new and seemed to me, even at the age of eight, quite correct and sensible. Freedom could not work, she said, unless you took responsibility for making it work. I remember this speech as perhaps my earliest awareness of my own potential for social involvement, as a call to consciousness and conscience. 

Horses were power, freedom and sexuality for girls. 

I remember running barefoot with a small boy, running together through a shaded wood, with mud oozing through my toes. 

I was alone, and the feeling that I was finally on my own in Paris gave me a great sense of freedom and empowerment.

It was my duty! They used the same constricting words, pressing me into service, inhibiting my freedom of choice. I believed that the only duty I had was to be true to myself! 

When alone, we would have long talks, during which she reminisced about her youth and her years in Paris with her husband. She told me how free they had felt but how their relation had spun out of control with freedom becoming excess, ending with his horrible suicide.

Like Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, in whose room at La Louisianne I lived, we loved each other but had chosen to live in freedom our separate lives.

Perhaps he was jealous of my relationship with her, and the freedom her looking after things gave me.

I had never taken a motor apart or seen the inside of one but, smarting with guilt for having insulted him and annoyance that he had left, I attempted to slip the tiny bronze gears onto the correct pins and put the motor back together. Realising that I was able to do this, gave me a sense of freedom and independence, I hadn’t felt before. I understood that there were no mysteries inherent in motors.

While he was in prison, he educated himself by reading and communicating with a great many people. He would scold me for writing to him in a serious tone, for commiserating with him about his life behind bars, insisting that he carried his freedom within himself and in his actions. "Remember,", he wrote me, "that is real freedom."

White Koan has been undergoing conservation and will return to its position outside Warwick Arts Centre today, Wed 15 December 2021.