Tower, 2008. Steel, razor wire, and glass beads. 6.7 x 23.5 x 23.5 ft.

Liza Lou: Fragile Security

“I moved to South Africa in order to find another way of working, one which can make a substantial difference to other people’s lives,” Liza Lou says. Her recent barbed-wire-topped cages and disintegrating prayer rug reliefs have glistening glass surfaces that draw attention to borders and skin. Among these stark yet stunning works is Maximum Security, a silver-beaded, human-sized cage for four in the shape of a cross. Standing alone in the all-glass Lever House gallery, it seemed to refer to literal and symbolic means of confinement. The cage metaphor may even suggest that we all dwell in proscribed spaces, whether created by ourselves or others.
At L&M Arts, human-sized, beaded sculptures and reliefs filled two floors of the gallery. Tower, a white tower of five stacked, beaded cages rising about 30 feet, suggested an infinity of imprisonment. Lou created these labor-intensive works over a three-year period in Durban, South Africa, a tropical port city whose population suffers from AIDS, economic hardship, and ubiquitous barbed-wire fences. She says, “For the past several years, I have been making a series of work that explores issues around security and fragility. Security Fence and Maximum Security reference the architecture of confinement. Security Fence is similar in scale to my earlier work, Kitchen—it is a claustrophobic enclosure, as is Maximum Security, with its layers and layers of chain link—a moiré effect, as if the pleasure and pain could go on forever.”

The most personal of these new works is Self-Portrait (Face Down), an all-white, glass-beaded pillow dented with the artist’s facial features. Of its many possible meanings, one is sure that life and death rest in close proximity, in contact as intimate as one’s head pressed against a pillow. The other works shown at L&M Arts included an eight-foot-square security fence topped with barbed wire; a Barricade made of 24-karat gold-plated beads; white- and black-beaded versions of Continuous Mile, a three-quarter-inch-diameter coil resembling braided hair, installed, strand on strand, to form a circular enclosure; and Roll, a spiral roll of silver beads. These works, in editions of two to five, represent countless hours of hand-applying millions of glass beads one by one with tweezers. The monochrome cages and coils suggest the increasing role of security and confinement in daily life, attest to the labor of the largely anonymous makers behind these hand-crafted arts, and evoke life at its most elemental, micro-organismic level.