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Julio Le Parc: The Artist Who Anticipated Virtual Reality

SNA (Buenos Aires) — Julio Le Parc is considered one the founders of kinetic art, and of op art. Today, at 90 years of age, Le Parc has become a living legend. Fittingly, his home country, Argentina, celebrated his anniversary with a blockbuster retrospective at the prestigious Kirchner Cultural Centre in Buenos Aires. The exhibition is titled Julio Le Parc: A Visionary, and is running from July 19 until November 10, 2019.

Le Parc was born in a small, provincial town in 1928. He moved to the capital, Buenos Aires, when he was barely 13, where he studied at the Institute of Fine Arts. The talented youngster soon became part of the abstract avant-garde collective, established in the 1940s by adventurous intellectuals and artists. Amongst these was the prominent Italian-Argentinian artist Lucio Fontana. Inevitably, Le Parc fell under the spell of the ‘Maestro.’

1958 marks the great transition in Le Parc’s life, for he travelled to Paris, France, where he has lived ever since. Although nearly penniless, as soon as he felt settled in Paris, he began to work earnestly.

“I devoted all my time to create ‘something’ that I sensed was about to emerge.” Nowadays we understand that the ‘something’ that so motivated Le Parc was his urge to come up with a different kind of art; art that could be participative, immersive, and that included movement in its composition. It can be said that Le Parc anticipated today’s omnipresent virtual reality.

At the beginning of his career, Le Parc felt attracted by the Russian school of Constructivism, as well as to Mondrian theories, which introduced the option to produce art that’s based on geometry. Interested by the problems of form and participation, Le Parc gradually developed an approach that examined the interrelationship between various artistic practices. Many of Le Parc’s succeeding themes revolve around these early reflections.

In 1960, Le Parc launched, Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV) together with fellow artists Jesús Rafael Soto, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Victor Vasarely, Georges Vantongerloo, François Morellet, and Denise Renee. Its members aimed to fuse individual identities into a communal one. For that purpose, they staged activities that were called Labyrinths. The spectator was invited to enter rooms designed with the aim to stimulate their five senses.

Their goal was to demolish existing barriers between art institutions and the public. For this they requested people in the streets to join their activities. Often, they drove in a van for a day’s time around Paris, staying approximately two hours at different areas of the city producing ‘events’ that any passerby could join in. They wished to achieve a sort of democratization of art, freeing spectators from the hierarchical impositions of museums, galleries, and artists.

The GRAV members admired the ‘destabilizing effect’ produced by Victor Vasarely paintings. They favored images created without a clear focal point, for through distortion, confusion is born. Such compositions forced the viewer to reconsider the act of seeing. In their view, confusion could be considered a portion of the journey for freedom. From early on, Le Parc’s palette consisted of fourteen pure colors that were rotated to see them appear and disappear. Line, light, shadow, and movement were employed to transform fixed forms into moving ones by employing mirrors and other simple devices. Eventually, his interest shifted towards experimenting with the peripheral view. Seeking to achieve instability led him into dematerializing solid constructions, while also augmenting the role of light as a fundamental element of his opus.

The group believed in the power of art as a tool that served to awaken the equalitarian political spirit that lay dormant in the French people. The artists were very much in syntony with the agitated Paris of the 1960s, sympathizing with the student movement of 1968. Due to his activism, Julio Le Parc ended up being deported from France. In those days, foreign residents weren’t allowed to join political causes. Le Parc was a foreigner who dared to design posters supporting a demonstration organized by factory workers from the automotive company Renault. Ultimately, thanks to the strong pressure exercised by a distinguished group of artists and intellectuals, the artist was permitted to return to France.

Le Parc strongly desired to create a new art that wasn’t static. Initially, he employed very simple instruments to fabricate the illusion of movement. Entering the 1970s, the time came when he could afford to buy small electric motors to use for the mechanics of his creations.

Consequently, he was able to incorporate ‘movement’ to his pieces which had been until then an essential part of his creative quest. The ‘miracle’ of simultaneously producing thousands of images had come to pass. By including movement, each art piece acquired the potential for constant change. Thus, instability and change took place in real time, in front of the spectator. One image could turn into thousand images that the viewer could play with. From the start of his career, Le Parc’s aim was to incite a participative relationship with the spectator, which for him, completes the artist’s creation.

The aesthetics of instability were a crucial point for an artist who wanted to convey the message that nothing is ever fixed in our societies. Social unpredictability comes hand-in-hand with the current disturbed political and economic global climate of unrest.

Although Le Parc’s message is a sobering one, his allegorical pieces possess a deep beauty. The Blue Sphere that’s displayed on the ground floor of the Centro Cultural Kirchner is a good example of instability coupled with visual splendor.

Le Parc explained that on one side there is the experience evident on the surface of that upon which he created, while on the other side stood the viewer. He also spoke about a third place that originates from the relationship between the eye and the object. Le Parc concluded that the spectator was treated as an ‘outsider’ by the art institutions and by most artists. Thus, Le Parc strived to change the passive role of the spectator. He wanted the spectator to interact, to form a relationship with the artwork. It for this reason that his optic and kinetic pieces offer a variety of ways for the viewer to experience them. Le Parc’s aim implied a desire to break the existing boundaries between the artwork and the spectator.

For instance, in the series titled Displacements, it’s the spectator’s presence that renders meaning to the refractive materials, to their fragmentation and movement. It’s through the viewer’s participation that forms are altered. Several of the pieces on show at the Kirchner Cultural Centre tacitly invite the viewer to go into them, to physically experience the essence of change. Le Parc wishes for the public to get involved with his works therefore become aware of its renewing features.

Le Parc believes in a dialogue with the public, and the public visiting the Kirchner Cultural Centre did indeed respond. Visitors enjoyed interacting with his large luminescent installations.

“I hope that the people coming to view the retrospective of my works will leave the exhibition hall feeling more optimistic than when they came in. For that is what gives meaning to my sixty-year career in the arts” said Julio Le Parc.

Indeed, he is a true visionary whose theories and works anticipated by three decades our own age of virtual reality.

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