Lita Albuquerque’s “Liquid Light” Lands in L.A.

After a devastating fire, multimedia artist Lita Albuquerque and her daughter, Jasmine, made a film about a future female astronaut’s rise from the ashes
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The evening of November 7, 2018, Lita Albuquerque had plans to see a performance of Philip Glass’s “Satyagraha” at the L.A. Opera with her husband, Carey Peck. He offered to make a night of it with a downtown staycation. “We never do that,” Albuquerque says. “At first, I said, ‘Oh, no, I’m too busy.’ But then I thought, ‘I’m being a real ass.’ ”

Asleep in the hotel room the next morning, the Santa Monica-born, Tunisian-raised multimedia artist received an unexpected 5:45 a.m. call from her son, Christopher Peck, who said there was a fire on the north side of the 101 freeway, near the family compound in Malibu. Albuquerque immediately called her daughter and longtime artistic collaborator Jasmine Albuquerque, a dancer and choreographer who was eight months pregnant and living at the house.

Despite spotty reception due to the fire, Jasmine, the younger of two daughters from Lita’s first marriage (her sister is sculptor Isabelle Albuquerque), remembers the conversation vividly. “Mom said, ‘Grab the hard drives. Grab as much of my writing as you can,’ so I just started scooping stuff,” Jasmine recalls. She loaded her mother’s work, her own journals, and, finally, a 130-pound blind German shepherd named P.J. into her car before driving to safety.

At the compound, Lita had stored more than 1,000 archived works, some of which were destined for the Smithsonian. While a large portion of her oeuvre of photographs, paintings, sculptures, drawings, films, performance documentation, and writings was destroyed in the Woolsey Fire, what remained became one of her most preeminent projects to date.

The hard drives Jasmine was able to save contained an unedited film, Liquid Light, which the mother-daughter duo had recently shot in Bolivia. In the film, Jasmine portrays a 25th-century female astronaut who arrives on Earth looking to share her light and extraterrestrial knowledge as she wanders the spiritually rich South American landscape, from the salt flats of Salar de Uyuni to the open-air markets of La Paz.

Like the Incan creation myth of humanity rising from the depths of Lake Titicaca, where part of the movie was shot, this phoenix of an artwork rose from the ashes of Lita’s archive and took on a life of its own this summer; it premiered at the 59th Venice Biennale as one of its collateral events and runs through November. There, the film is presented as part of an installation, projected on multiple screens in a brick-vaulted building where gondolas were once constructed. Glass orbs filled with honey from local beekeepers (used because bees pollinate with the rising of certain stars) are scattered around the room and surrounded by sprays of gold leaf, a material Lita has long employed in the concave disks of her beloved Auric Field paintings.

One late morning at the office of Kohn Gallery in Hollywood this past summer, Jasmine, 39, is seated opposite her mother, 76. Lita is wearing a silver jacket and her favorite red-framed glasses. The two are meeting about upcoming activities in L.A. that will center on Lita’s film, which debuted at the gallery to a packed house in June. Following another screening in September, a corresponding exhibition will run this month and feature Lita’s most recent work, The New Human paintings, a series depicting golden rings emerging from shrouds of “deep-space” black and ultramarine backgrounds.

While Jasmine’s son negotiates some play sand, the two women also share memories of shooting Liquid Light. “It was an amazing experience, but I was really raw,” Jasmine says of processing her then-recent divorce while wearing reflective garb, dancing on the salt flats at a high elevation with a limitless-horizon backdrop, and attempting to offer a golden orb to any passing locals, who, to use her words, received her “like an alien.” “We would just start bursting into tears sometimes,” says Jasmine. “You have a lot of external vibrations going on, on top of creating a film, on top of being a mom and daughter, on top of all the layers of emotions we were experiencing before we even got there. And the landscape contributed to that.”

Lita started her career as a prominent figure in L.A.’s Light and Space movement and, for decades, she has made iconic performative land-art works all over the globe, from the Washington Monument to Antarctica. She started working on the astronaut in Liquid Light—the second part of an ongoing trilogy—in 2003, the year she says she first received “a visitation” from the film’s otherworldly being. But her narrative journey into the interstellar axis, which she captured in a work that was later stolen, titled Abhasa: image-bearing light, began when she was pregnant with Jasmine in 1983. “The story really started then, with a cosmic couple in space,” she says of her initial vision, which became her inspiration. “There was a projection of my pregnant belly in the star system and, from there, it just goes on to destruction.” 

At the end of the film, Lita herself appears on-screen as a maternal ghost figure to the astronaut embodied by her real-life daughter. She notes that Liquid Light premiered stateside the day after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and believes this uncanny timing adds another dimension to her heroine from the future, an empathetic time traveler who arrives on Earth looking to bring the language of light to a sacred landscape. “It’s about the need for her,” she says. Her daughter agrees. “It’s a mother-daughter story about femininity, womanhood, and motherhood—all the things that are crumbling as we wage this war on women,” Jasmine says. “At this precarious moment,” Lita adds, channeling her own inner astronaut, “we need to shift and uplift.”

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This story is featured in the September 2022 issue of Los Angeles