Artist Chris Levine on How He Turned a Portrait Session With Queen Elizabeth II Into an Iconic Photograph
We caught up with the multidisciplinary artist to discuss his most famous project, and what he's planning on next.
Canadian-born, U.K.-based multidisciplinary artist Chris Levine works with an incredibly diverse range of media in his practice—spanning everything from focused light and sound installations to performance art, and, perhaps most notably, photography.
In 2004, the Jersey Heritage Trust commissioned Levine to produce a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II to mark 800 years of allegiance to the Crown by the Island of Jersey in the U.K. The resulting image, Equanimity, has come to be one of the most iconic portraits in the world. A subsequent work drawn from the materials taken during the course of the commission, Lightness of Being, features the queen still in her royal regalia, but instead with her eyes closed—an image from a moment of mediation, according to Levine.
The photographs that Levine took in 2004 have been the source material for numerous succeeding works and series that reinterpret and build off that original commission. An example of Levine’s reuse of the photographic materials of Queen Elizabeth II can be found in Artnet’s “Modern and Contemporary Editions” auction, which is live for bidding this week.
Last year, Levine had a major solo show at Houghton Hall in Norfolk, England, “528Hz Love Frequency.” The exhibition centered on the work Molecule of Light (2021), a massive spherical structure that produced a beam of sound that allowed viewers to be immersed one at a time in the sound frequencies of the Solfeggio scale, which corresponds with sacred geometry and the body’s chakras. The installation exemplified Levine’s interest in and increasingly skilled employment of light and sound as core media in his artistic practice and the direction his work is headed.
Recently, we reached out to Levine to learn more about his historic portrait commission of Queen Elizabeth II, what he’s working on now, and the potential for another royal commission.
You received the commission from the Jersey Heritage Trust for the Equanimity portrait of Queen Elizabeth II back in 2004. How have your thoughts and feelings about the work changed in light of the recent passing of the queen? How does it feel to have your art on a 100-pound note?
It’s amazed me how year on year the work has become more and more popular. The work was highlighted in 2012 by the National Portrait Gallery to coincide with the Diamond Jubilee, and then the Platinum Jubilee gave the work an international platform all over again. It was then humbling on the queen’s passing that both Equanimity and Lightness of Being were published so extensively around the world. They’ve become historic works over time and will be lasting images into the future. Seeing the work on stamps and currency was quite surreal, and I’m honored. There’s talk of future releases on currency—let’s see.
What impressions do you remember most from your sessions together?
The two sittings were quite different. Looking back, I don’t think on the first one she was particularly in the mood to have her portrait taken. I think there were distractions, George Bush was staying at the palace and security had never been tighter, and Prince Charles was being given a hard time in the press. After the first sitting I was offered a second, which was never scheduled with the commission. On the second sitting, things were much more relaxed and in fact all the work published comes from the second sitting where the mood was much lighter.
Several subsequent works have been drawn from the material taken during that initial commission, including the The Diamond Queen, Equanimity (Crystal Editions), and, of course, Lightness of Being, which has become an icon in its own right. Can you tell us a little bit about the technical aspects of how you made those images? And what inspires you to continue building on that original commission?
The official portrait Equanimity hangs in Mont Orgueil Castle in Jersey as a 3D lenticular on a lightbox. It was shot using a digital camera moving along a linear rail that captures a sequence of images from different perspectives. These stereoscopic images were interlaced together into the final work. I found this sequence of images interesting in themselves, and as an image maker I enjoyed experimenting with them. I captured so much data, and as I own the copyright I was able to explore them. The precondition is that the work was respectful to Her Majesty and to Jersey who commissioned it. I created a body of work beyond the commission.
There has been a lot of change happening in British monarchy and politics recently, including Prince Charles assuming the role of King Charles III. Would you like to create a portrait of Charles? Would you approach it differently than you did the queen’s portrait?
I can’t say too much here but suffice it to say it’s in the cards. I’ve already seen the image in my mind’s eye, and it would apply the same creative processes, but the feel of the work will be quite different. Time will tell.
Meditation and meditative states are a consistent theme throughout your artistic practice. How does this inform your approach to new projects?
The practice of meditation is fundamental to my way of life and to my practice as an artist. Frankly, I would have been dead years ago had I not been able to find peace within, and much of my inspiration is now born out of stillness. In particular I’m looking to develop work in the field of sound and vision and AR to bring about a healing meditative state in the audience.
You include light and sound frequently in your work. Can you talk a bit about the central role they occupy in your work?
Light and sound are both forms of energy and as human beings we exist and function as a complex energy system. Mind, body, and spirit are all interconnected through different octaves of electromagnetic energies. By putting our attention onto the purity of laser light and certain solfeggio sound frequencies at the same time, a meditative state can be induced in the audience. I would like my art to operate at that level, whereby the work can literally change your state of being, in a positive way.
Which artist or thinker has had a large impact on your work or thinking who we might not guess from the final state?
James Turrell for his use of light, Takis for exploring magnetism, and Tesla for his profound understanding of the way the universe works. I’m inspired by these individuals and their work has informed my vision of where I want to take my work into the future.
Can you talk about what you are currently working on? Any forthcoming projects or exhibitions we can look forward to?
I’m developing the work I showed at Houghton Hall last year, “528hz Love Frequency,” for a museum show and I am working on a survey exhibition of Lightness of Being accompanied by a monograph catalogue of that series. I’m also looking at a major project at Stonehenge, which is a dream come true. By tapping into Earth’s energies and ancient wisdom and using advanced technology my art can literally make you feel good. In these crazy times, we need that.
You can find Chris Levine’s work in Artnet Auction “Modern and Contemporary Editions,” now live through November 22, 2022.
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