So, what made you leave the art world and then, after 20 years, come back?
‘One of the reasons why I stopped making the solid light films was that in the 1970s their visibility was dependent on dust in the air, which you always had in good old grotty, downtown, New York loft spaces, plus there were always a few people smoking. But when I began showing in brand new museum spaces I discovered to my horror that the works couldn’t be seen. In the 1990s the invention of haze machines, which produce a fine translucent mist of microscopic water droplets, re-opened the way.’
It’s interesting that after that gap your work is more likely to be described as installation than film, in the same genre as Olafur Eliasson’s Tate Turbine Hall ‘Weather Project’…
‘That’s true. My initial interest was very much about the medium of film and the cinematic problem of how to make a film which only exists at the moment of its projection. Having done that I gradually realised that I was also now engaged with three-dimensional, volumetric space. When I took up the “Solid Light” works again in early 2000 it was with the idea of sculptural rather than cinematic space, although the series can only be really understood as existing somewhere between the two. In the 1970s it was an issue as to where this kind of work belonged. It was written about as avant garde cinema, which I was perfectly happy with, but I felt that I was a conceptual artist working with film, rather than a filmmaker. Now artists are not required to define what they do in terms of medium.The only issue is – is it interesting?’
Why choose these particular four vertical works to show at P3?
‘My exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in 2007 was all horizontal works but the experience of the vertical works is very different because their structure is almost tent-like and suggests chambers or rooms. It creates a sort of strange mutating architecture. I work with a very limited vocabulary of forms – lines, circles and waves and each of these four works involves two forms in some kind of exchange, such as a wave interacting with an ellipse or two ellipses interacting. Another reference is that the footprint of the works relates to the traditional cinematic screen ratio of 4:3. It still all comes back to cinema.’
You’re also making a commission for the Cultural Olympiad in 2012 called ‘Column’. Tell us about that…
‘I’m collaborating with my friend, the scientist John McNulty, to create a 20-metre diameter column of spinning warm air, on a disused dock in Liverpool. It will rise 10 kilometres in the air, although you would need a very clear day to see that height. It’s literally a column of cloud. I’ve talked a lot with John about my films and I’ve said wouldn’t it be fantastic if one day we could not only shape the light but shape the mist. In a way it’s the inverse of the projected vertical pieces. Those works are a question of projecting a column of light through ambient mist, whereas “Column” is a question of projecting a column of mist through ambient light.’