Liz West’s immersive works add a burst of colour to unexpected places
The United Kingdom has a reputation for rainy weather. There are some years when summer seemingly skips those stoic isles altogether, and the further north you go, the gloomier the weather gets. Just ask artist Liz West, who grew up in the small Yorkshire town of Barnsley and then spent three years at Glasgow School of Art in Scotland. “Think about it,” she says. “Barnsley, Northern. Glasgow, really Northern. And then I moved to Manchester. Also Northern. Three gritty, grey places, and out of that, this.”
We’re at Dubai Design Week, and West gestures toward a colourful art installation comprising 169 neon plastic bowls arranged in a sizable hexagonal shape. Fittingly, it rained for hours in Dubai the night before, and water has filled the bowls which glisten in the Arabian sun, adding another dimension to the kaleidoscopic panoply. But this work, commissioned by emerging fashion brand Nemozena, and titled Aglow is no anomaly. West’s oeuvre is an exploration of colour, from lights illuminating spaces, to tinted mirrors casting polychromatic reflections around rooms.
Until she was approached by Nemozena, her major works were all immersive installations, but what the Dubai-based fashion label needed was an outdoor piece that could travel from Paris Fashion Week, to Dubai Design Week and on to Milan Fashion Week. “They sent me their look book and I loved the collection,” she explains. “I also loved their ethos of empowering women. Being into Girl Power it was a good match. When you see the clothes with the work, you can immediately see the
connection in the patterns and the colours.”
Girl Power has been a part of West’s life since she was eleven. When the Spice Girls’ debut music video Wannabe slammed itself into the world’s collective consciousness, the band became an obsession for an entire generation of young girls (and some boys). Unlike most fans though, whose fandom waned when say, Geri Halliwell left or when the group eventually disbanded, West’s remained steadfast. At university, armed with student loans and the newly minted eBay, she quietly amassed the largest collection of Spice Girls memorabilia in the world – she holds the Guinness World Record
– and her loaning of the collection to various events and institutions since then has enabled her to pursue her career as an artist full-time.
West is quite careful when she talks about her collection. She explains she’s faced criticism from people in the past, and given interviews to journalists who’ve spun things she’s said in a disparaging manner. To her detractors the Spice Girls represent shiny, asinine pop, and the arbiters of High Art have trouble consolidating the two; pop culture and art have often had a complicated relationship (see: Andy Warhol). Although West’s work isn’t figurative, it is a product of the colourful energy of the ‘90s. Her transportive installations are reminders that despite those overcast skies, life can still be fun. West’s big break was a self-produced show titled Our Colour Perception. She spent five days on her own, up a stepladder, sticking leftover theatre gels to the preexisting light fixtures inside the building. She opened to the public for one weekend, and through social media and word of mouth, the show was a huge success. She was commissioned by the National Media Museum to create a similar installation, and An Additive Mix was the result – coloured neon lights arranged to produced a pure white light. And in her first installation using natural light, West arranged 800 coloured mirrors on the floor of a church so, as the sunlight streamed through the lancet windows, the colours reflected upwards and enveloped the eaves.
As a child, growing up with parents who were both artists, West wanted to go to London’s Goldsmiths School of Art. She’d read books about other young British artists like Damien Hirst who’d been there. She didn’t get into Goldsmith’s, perhaps, she muses, because her work has always been as much about the aesthetic as the concept, and Goldsmiths is heavily conceptually led. But the work we have from West is as evocative. You won’t see a cow in a vat of formaldehyde but when you walk through rooms lit like rainbows you’ll smile widely. “Sometimes I think we’ve forgotten the art of seeing,” she says. “We’ve stopped looking around ourselves. I’m trying to slow people down and to invite them to see.”
“Sometimes I think we’ve forgotten the art of seeing. We’ve stopped looking around ourselves. I’m trying to slow people down and to invite them to see”
BELOW: LIZ WEST IN NEMOZENA AT HER INSTALLATION IN DUBAIBOTTOM: AGLOW AT PARIS’ MUSÉE NISSIM DECAMONDO FOR DUBAI-BASED FASHION BRAND NEMOZENA OPPOSITE: COLOUR TRANSFER, A PERMANENT COMMISSION SPANNINGTHE UNDERSIDE OF PADDINGTON STATION ’SWESTWAY BRIDGE