Lilli Muller: The Mandala Project Has Heart, Soul, and Bones
The Joshua Tree Retreat Center
By Genie Davis
An outgrowth of Lilli Muller’s full body sculptures, The Mandala Project is both sculptural art work and a spiritual quest for an artist who views her previous body cast work as her canvas.
The new direction in which the project took her work came from a profound need for change, she says. “I had to rearrange my own life, reinvent myself – shifts happen.”
With the refugee crisis, political division, and extremism confronting her, these elements filtered into her own life. “As artists we become more aware that we have a huge responsibility. We can see things coming, we need to relate that to the general public.”
The result was a radical change in her body cast work. “I started to analyze my own body, how I do things. My head space changed as the whole world is shifting, really.”
Muller says she began cutting her cast body sculptures into pieces for her own use that were “almost forensic. When I had all the parts laid out, one day I thought that they looked a mandala. I realized I could use them to place art on a public plane.”
Muller did a test run in the Los Angeles Arts District in 2016. “My idea was to create a collective meditation on humanity within the community, one that would ultimately disappear in different ways. I decided I would willingly give pieces away, or let them disappear into the environment.”
Following this initial installation, she focused on the global refugee crisis, and thought about what she could do to bring that situation to the public in an impactful way.
Her venue was a church at the Venice Biennial, where she cast over 400 arms on site, and built them into the shape of a life-sized boat inside the church. “People would just look at it, and then at the end, people could pick up their own pieces or I just gave others away. As sculpture, as an installation, and as an art piece, I just wanted it to live on,” she relates.
Muller notes that when she started to create body parts, she didn’t want a finished sculpture to stand alone. She wanted a piece of art that morphs over time, she says. “I wanted it to stay valid, not sit on a pedestal. I wanted it to be both timeless and timely. That’s my challenge for my work.”
Currently, Muller is working to get funding and the interest of international curators with to travel her exhibitions worldwide. She’s looking at a return to Venice next year with a new installation. “It will be called How Do You Pray? The idea is to put all religions under one roof, unifying spirituality.”
Recently, she created a 120-foot wide, 8-foot tall art wall in Pershing Square, titled The Mandala Project Los Angeles: The Wall – A Collective Meditation on Humanity.
“I cast hands for ten days, mounted and zip-tied them to fencing. The idea was to have a dialogue about unifying people. Art is a good tool for people to get them physically involved and more attached to a subject matter,” she stresses.
Her recent work, Mandala Project Desert: Collateral Damage, grew from a longing to create a project in the landscape around Joshua Tree National Park.
The installation’s location is a 400-acre retreat center, with a ridge that allows viewers to both walk around the 60-foot diameter work and view it from the ridge as well as walking through it.
“I’d read an article about people dying in the desert crossing the border from Mexico to the U.S.,” she says, “so many lives lost and not even identified except by finding bones in the desert. We won’t even know what their lives were. I wanted to give them dignity and identity with this installation. I would love to travel it along the border,” Muller adds.
Visiting the vast installation, viewers feel as if they are witnessing art that literally grew from the desert; stark, graceful, and as lonely as the lost lives she commemorates. It’s a remarkable vision that shifts in look and feel with the shadows of the day.
“On the last day, I’ll give some of these pieces away, but also keep some for another sculpture at the same location. I want to put them into a sphere, tied with rope, and hang the sphere in the retreat area to see what happens to a small installation like that over time.”