Chris Levine: Light fantastic

Chris Levine made his name when he created a hologram portrait of the Queen. Now he has rock royalty queuing up at his studio. Charlotte Cripps meets the laser artist
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The Independent Culture

There are not many artists who can take their pick of the crown jewels and style the Queen according to their super-modern vision. But that is what the light artist Chris Levine did when he turned the Queen into a hologram in 2004.

His subjects are usually not so traditional. A series of 3D light portraits of Grace Jones, including Superstar, in which rays of light bounce off the singer's crystal Philip Treacy bowler hat, came about after Levine did the laser installations for her 2010 live tour. Now Levine has been commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art (Moma) in New York to collaborate with Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons for a show and laser installation at Radio City Music Hall in January. Moma curator Klaus Biesenbach had seen the laser installation Levine created for the band's live performance at the Manchester International Festival in 2009 and asked him to bring it to New York.

"I create key peak moments in response to the music to bring about harmony of light and sound", explains Levine. "During the song 'Crying Light' I slowly immerse Antony within a cone of laser light. It's as if he is projected as a hologram and the effect is quite haunting. During the set I take the audience with us into different heavenly modes with the use of lasers projected into crystal. There have been hair-raising moments of sheer beauty."

Levine is also developing a "visual echo" portrait of Hegarty which at first glance will appear to be a vertical strip of oscillating LEDs. But, as the viewer looks away or past the artwork, Hegarty's face will appear and disappear in a moment, like a ghost.

"To shoot interesting individuals and somehow try and connect with their spirit in an image is inspiring," says Levine. "There is a strong feeling of mutual respect. It's a journey into beauty and wonder and we're on it together."

Levine, who trained at Central St Martins and the Chelsea School of Design, is fascinated by the "sensory energy" and "spiritual dimension" of light. He is currently developing a project at the Eden Project using lasers to induce a "collective high" in the audience. He road tested "the iy_project" after shows by Razorlight and Paul Weller at the Eden Sessions in 2009.

"All the lights went into blackout after the final note of the encore and we went into five minutes of sound and light. I took the sounds of nature and played them louder than Paul Weller's music, immersing the entire site in laser light. I projected images of the surrounding plant life and sacred geometric forms into the sky above, then down over the audience. It's an experience which, like meditation, can induce inner peace. You can take the person out of their mind and away from their fears into the bigger universe."

This week an exhibition of Levine's work opens at London's The Little Black Gallery. It includes a light work, Light is Love, in which a silver sheet of glass with a vertical white strip of light projects the word "love" into the viewer's peripheral vision. Some 3D light portraits from his Grace Jones series, entitled Stillness at the Speed of Light, will also be on show, as well as holograms and a new 3D lightbox of the Queen with her eyes shut, which costs £75,000. Levine works in a variety of media including laser, optics, LED as well as natural light.

"For me laser is the purest form of light," he says. His first serious experiments with light came when he created holographic portraits of Seal and the band Oasis. He also collaborated with Massive Attack on a laser show for their Glastonbury set in 2008, and with Mario Testino on an abstract light painting for Tom Ford when he editied an edition of Visionaire magazine. "Using laser and different materials I created projected lightforms which were then photographed by Mario," says Levine. He also created a luminescent sperm for the same magazine. "The sperm was an acrylic sculpture I designed to react under laser light - before it was photographed."

Levine's fascination with light started when he was 11 and he saw his first beam of laser light in the school physics lab. A hologram portrait of Dennis Gobor, who invented holography, at the Science Museum, was also an early inspiration. "I remember I kept pressing the button on and off, seeing Dennis appear and disappear."

His big break came in 2004 with Equanimity, his hologram portrait of the Queen, which was commissioned by the island of Jersey to commemorate 800 years of allegiance to the crown. He was soon much in demand. In 2008, the hat designer Philip Treacy, who was art-directing Grace Jones's first live show in over 10 years at London's Royal Festival Hall, introduced Levine to the singer. She asked Levine to create some original laser-work for her tour and Levine later co-directed her video "Love You To Life".

"When I conceived and directed the video I wanted it to be just Grace naked and light. I didn't want to get distracted by fashion, which would have been so predictable. She has such a raw nature and that's what I wanted to tap into and amplify with my laser. The only prop was the crystal bowler hat – the object that was the catalyst for the relationship and project."

Working with Hegarty came out of the blue. "Antony and I came together as if guided by some magic creative force. I was driving back down the A40 really late at night a few years ago," says Levine. "I was listening to something on the radio which really touched me and I wondered who it was. It turns out they were interviewing Antony, who I'd never heard of. I thought: 'This is the voice of an angel. Maybe we'll do something one day.' The next morning I got an email from Antony. He had seen some of the live work I had done with Grace and wanted me to create some original laser work." Levine is now working on European dates with Hegarty and developing the installation for New York.

"The more I've worked with him the more I've come to respect and be inspired by his genius. And the more powerful my contribution is becoming," he says. "We have some great work to create together and I'm really looking forward to what we are going to do at Moma; each show we've done so far has been working towards it as a finale. What I'm trying to do with the light is to connect people at a level where you are not just observing something – you are light."

Chris Levine: Selected Works, Little Black Gallery, London SW10 ( www.thelittleblackgallery.com) to 26 November

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