The work of Leontine Lieffering has an extremely delicate way of disordering the expectations of the viewer. Extremely delicate, because her intervention in the space is subtle yet nonetheless manages to direct the viewer’s gaze. At first sight, the work she made for the Sites and Structures exhibition resembles a system of tubes. The collection of tubes is suspended in the air, up against the roof. It hangs just under the ceiling from fine metal cables like a grid or the flies in a theatre. As your gaze briefly lights on it, you think that you are mistaken: a collection of short tubes, a bifurcated system. The tubes are hollow; they are actually iron protective sleeves that have been woven around something that could be – or could represent – a tube. Are they actually connected to anything? They virtually fade into the background in this space; they are coarsely meshed nets that have the shape of tubes. They have the wispiness of fishing line or angel’s hair – they are unarguably made from very fine material. Two corners go at angles to the rest of the collection: bending off to the side; not connected to anything. How you experience the work depends on where you are standing. The nets seem to unravel at the end, their wires coiling through the air, the tubes’ ends broken off. Further on the wires once again form a woven tube, tight and round as a corset. And then the wires unravel again, like radio signals searching for a receiver. Their final destination is hundreds of nails in the wall, a separate wire winding around each one of these, fixing itself to it. The wires seem to be cast against the wall: they cling to it like ivy. One could view the tubular sleeves overhead as horizontal tree trunks that are throwing their foliage onto the wall or, conversely, are trying to tear their roots loose from this wall. On the wall itself, they form a drawing of nails, similar to what children create when they make a connect-the-dots drawing.
Each wire in the work follows its own course. The tubes of wire have been torn apart, like in a sketch – but in this case, a sketch with a tangible presence that is suspended in space. They are made of iron, yet it nevertheless seems as if one could erase them, that’s how light they are. Combined in a bundle, they seem almost like liquid thread. The nails in the wall are all thin, black and somewhat resemble enlarged pins. Every wire has been wound around its nail a number of times. It is patient work: demanding patience when making it and demanding patience when viewing it. Leontine Lieffering personally refers to it as an irrigation system. As an association, irrigation makes sense: the work is a system and it seems natural. It proliferates, it is deformed and it is deteriorating as a system. By working with extremely fine material, it seems as if the forms that the artist has made are being hollowed out. However subtle the work is suspended in space, it nevertheless implies a certain infestation of the site. It comes as no surprise that Lieffering selects special spaces to realise her work for and in. It cannot exist in just any location. A former archive where empty bookcases still line the walls, a space directly under a raised garret window, a grain transfer warehouse or the entrance hall of a tenement flat in a condemned area. Once the exhibition is over, the work disappears along with it. It is made on location and deteriorates on location – and as long as the work hangs there it forms a record frozen in time of that deterioration. Ultimately, it is inconspicuous: you can walk through the space where the work is located and view it from a variety of new angles. It does not force a univocal focus. It introduces an extremely subtle accent to the space. Lieffering’s work leaves the space intact. That’s what makes her work so subtle: it is an accent, emphasising the space in which we stand rather than drowning it out.
If you don’t have a background to draw on, you need wire. Lieffering makes aerial drawings with wire. She started to draw with iron wire when she was renovating her house and became aware of all the corners, edges and supporting beams. She stretched the wire into tight lines that represented the staircase in her home and a corner of the attic. She fixed these wires against a white wall in her studio. It became a kind of blueprint, like the floor plan of a house – although the drawing did not concentrate on whole rooms, but rather on corners and details. The relation between drawing (on paper, with graphite or chalk) and installation (in a space, with metal) is relevant in her case: the difference between a sketch and a completed work of art is subtle. One could almost call it a trick of the eye. Her installations resemble lines that have been sketched in the air. With a sure hand, but deliberately schematic. Wires that have been wound around nails resemble the lines of a sketch with tiny knots at the end. Her work has a graphic side. You can view it as a grid or a blueprint. You can also see it as the start of something new: a carcass, the threads that are stretched across a field before construction.
In those rare instances where her tubular sleeves are intact and truly represent an irrigation system, the iron networks bear a passing resemblance to chain mail. Like armour; a shell. It hangs there like the fittings of an absent tube. Like all exceptional art, Leontine Lieffering’s work is about looking at something – perception. In her case, the very essence of perception, because when looking through the work that is suspended in front of the space, we ultimately perceive the space itself in a different way. It makes us aware of our perspective.
Lieffering’s work is consistently interrelated. The exploratory basis of her work is formed by observations: a tile from a ceiling system that is slightly raised, a house that is covered in scaffolding, a blank wall, an underground tube that has been opened up and is crossed by a wooden bridge. Moulds, casts, pipelines stretching across the wall, a fluorescent tube over a door, a floor section that has been raised up vertically with white paint on the wood. Bars, a stone wall – and then cities that have been hewn from the rocks, like in Syria. Her work in the public space has also been integrated in architecture and paving: the additions or interventions are extremely minimal and incorporated in the street scene. They are effective as subtle accents.
One of her installations, Potential Earth, works precisely the other way round. In a tenement flat in Vlaardingen that was earmarked for demolition, Lieffering got the run of the corridors and halls of the building. She fixed a system of installation wire, strip connectors and wire connectors with split pens on the wall that ran past the doors, across the ceilings and along the staircases. In front of the window, the wires combined to form a drawing that responded to the foliage that could be seen from the building. It seemed crude to be installing an electricity network at this point in time: the residents wouldn’t be around for much longer. It was as if the flat was being overgrown by electricity. On the ground floor, the wires spread out into separate ends. It was an extremely adventurous and probing work, but the Vlaardingen residents nevertheless tolerated it in their public space for no less than two years. After that, the work disappeared together with the flat that housed it.
When you go to a particular location, this location always has an impact on the idea you have of that location, or on the note or the drawing you make on site. In her work, Leontine Lieffering always brings this notion to a head. The location where she makes her work is to a large extent decisive for that work. Insofar possible, the work and the location are one. Before she starts working on one of her installations, Lieffering makes a study of the building, its purpose and where required its history. In the European Ceramic Work Centre in Den Bosch, ceramic forms were suspended in her wire structure. They formed a fragmented second floor. In De Overslag in Eindhoven, Lieffering also made a wire drawing: the elements in this drawing were casts of supporting beams, the butt ends of supporting beams, copied in ceramics. Once again, they were suspended in space in the form of a grid. Lieffering gives the space that she is working in a small, controlled but decisive tap. By raising up floors, simulating electricity as deterioration or making a chain mail irrigation system. What is contained in the space itself and the artist’s contribution are so closely related that your experience tilts over and your awareness of the perspective shifts. In fact, this only makes you more aware of the architecture and the space. The old exhibition hall of Pictura in Dordrecht, with its raised ceiling of upturned glass, reminds Lieffering of a greenhouse. Her wire structures turn towards the light like plants. As fine as they are, they even take away a small part of that light. And it is precisely here that growth and stasis converge – that a lifeless material like iron creates a suggestion of the rampant growth of weeds.
There was once a theatre company that used to stage its productions in a variety of venues. They went for monumental buildings: churches, museums, a town hall or a warehouse. The productions that they staged on location actually weren’t theatre at all. Only after walking along certain lines through the space did you really become aware of the architecture. The building was dissected by moving players. The group called itself het Bewegingstheater (the Moving Theatre). After attending one of their performances, you left the building with a remarkably enlarged graphic awareness. Leontine Lieffering’s visual work is exactly the same. She doesn’t place things in a space. She dissects the space with subtle additions, unhinges the elementary corners and lines and regroups them. This allows her to accentuate that which is essential to a space. Her work helps us to fathom the space in question, to perceive it with more acuity – indeed: better. And it comes as no surprise that from this concentration, something seems to come to life, even when it’s only made from metal.
Erik Lindner is an author and poet, and writes reviews for De Groene Amsterdammer, Ons Erfdeel, Poëziekrant en De Reactor.