Len Lye, one of the most innovative artists of the last century, once remarked that the 21st century would be a good time for his work. He expected the means would then become available to fulfil the potential of his planned projects, allowing the world to catch up with his extraordinary vision.
Certainly, the first decade of this century has treated Lye well: on the eve of the new millennium, a 48m-high carbon-fibre version of his Wind Wand was produced on the New Plymouth waterfront, followed by Wellington’s 12m Water Whirler in 2006; in July 2000, a retrospective opened at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, while work was also featuring in Force Fields, critic and curator Guy Brett’s kinetic art survey in Spain and London; and the Art Gallery of New South Wales presented a retrospective the following year that later toured New Zealand. A $10 million Len Lye centre proposed for New Plymouth is still on the drawing board, but meanwhile his films and sculptures are proliferating on YouTube, a development even Lye could not have expected.
Lye, who was born in Christchurch in 1901 and died in 1980, now has a growing reputation in Australia, with the biggest exhibition of his work to date opening last month at Melbourne’s Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI).
This seems geographically surprising, considering most of his film experiments were undertaken in pre-World War II London, before he moved to New York in 1946 and began making kinetic sculpture. In the last years of his life, he re-
established ties with New Zealand, forming a strong relationship with the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth, which has become the epicentre of all things Lye-related.
But Australia played a pivotal role in Lye’s early career, and as Melbourne paper the Age pointed out on the day the exhibition opened, this is not new material for Australian audiences: generations of the country’s artists have already been influenced by his work.
Growing up in New Zealand with few like-minded peers, even when attending art classes in Wellington, Lye was eager to find out what was happening in the international art centres he was reading about. In 1922, Sydney was the stepping stone that whetted his appetite for travelling further afield.
While there, he scoured local libraries and museums, a practice established in New Zealand, continuing his study of Maori, Pacific, Papuan and Aboriginal material and other radical inspirations – sketchbooks from this period are included in the exhibition. He later travelled through the Pacific, staying for a period in Samoa, then returned to Sydney and established a life-long friendship with composer Jack Ellitt.
From here, he found passage to London, working on a steamship under a deserter sailor’s papers, and quickly became embedded in avant-garde life. But the tribal images and rhythms he absorbed before arriving in Europe would inform much of his future work and, arguably, are a key influence that set him apart from other artists in the Northern Hemisphere. And it should not be forgotten that his first experiment with “direct film”, scratching directly on to celluloid off-cuts, took place at a Sydney advertising firm where he worked briefly. It was a technique he would return to in the 1950s and again at the very end of his career for films such as Free Radicals (1957-1979) and Particles in Space (1979).
Despite Lye’s historical significance and recent resurgence in international profile, there has been surprisingly little in the way of published material available to support his many achievements. In 2001, Roger Horrocks published a comprehensive biography that quickly became a standard reference point for all subsequent Lye scholarship, but even this is long out of print. So the arrival of a new Lye book, produced by the Govett-Brewster and timed to coincide with the ACMI exhibition, is something to celebrate, as are two more publications promised by Horrocks before the year is over.
The Govett-Brewster book fills an obvious hole in Lye literature. Printed as a full-colour, large-format volume, it expands considerably the range of images available of Lye’s work, which had been a very finite resource, but now encompasses hundreds of new photos, scans and stills. Included are a number of recently restored sculptures and films, and new images of drawings, notebooks and other ephemera.
Co-edited by the Govett-Brewster’s resident Lye curator (and co-curator of the ACMI exhibition), Tyler Cann, with Wystan Curnow, who probably boasts the longest acquaintance with Lye’s work, the book presents essays detailing different aspects of Lye. Two of the essays reassert his position in an international context: Cann explores his association with the British surrealist movement and Guy Brett revisits the Force Fields exhibition to place him among other kinetic artists. Appropriately, these writers themselves are part of that international context, perhaps explaining the lack of Kiwi cringe that occasionally allowed a hint of defensiveness to creep into Horrocks’ biography.
From a local perspective, Tessa Laird contrasts Lye’s ebullient colours with the gothic, monochromatic tendencies of art and film in New Zealand typified by Colin McCahon, Gordon Walters and Ralph Hotere, all working long after Lye’s colour film experiments concluded. A similarly revisionist argument could be made, relating Lye to the mythical harsh clear light of nationalist painters such as Rita Angus and Don Binney, or the cut-up abstract colourings of Milan Mrkusich, Don Driver, Gretchen Albrecht or Richard Killen, all also appearing long after Lye’s brightest works. But Laird, rightly, has her sights set on a new generation of artists working more directly under the influence of Lye’s flamboyant media explorations, including Judy Darragh, Lisa Reihana, Veronica Vaevae and Nova Paul – it is in new voices such as these, including Laird, that Lye’s legacy will find fresh energy.
As well as jumping between continents, Lye’s diverse career made distinct leaps from one field to another, which may also help explain his relative obscurity. With that in mind, even though ACMI is a film-focused institution, it is refreshing to see a comprehensive exhibition that covers all aspects of his career, demonstrating recurring interests and a more singular vision than is often evident. Virtually all extant sculptures, except the fearsome Trilogy (1977) and a few recent restorations, are present, as are a large selection of paintings, batiks, photograms and archival material. Fountain I (1960) sparkles gently in the entrance between back-lit celluloid strips and dancing vertical ribbons of coloured light in the two early film works Colour Box (1935) and Colour Flight (1938). That Lye produced these radical modernist experiments (with a jazz soundtrack) as commercial advertisements is testament to the conservatism of today’s media industry.
This interaction between objects, images and screenings brings ACMI’s sometimes awkward exhibition corridors to life. But it is the generous display of archival material that really illuminates the artist behind the work. On display are Lye’s sketchbooks, notebooks, clippings, prints, manuscripts and photographs. There are also tools, stencils, strips and stills that remind us of the physicality of the film medium, usually experienced as projections of light, and highlight the small scale he worked in to produce his riotous big-screen productions. Compare these with his large paintings and batiks, or even bigger sculptures, and you will still find a similar dynamism, which can evoke both molecular forces and cosmological scenes. It is this peculiar fusion of tapa patterns, huhu bugs, jazz rhythms, African dances, amoebic rituals and tribal machines that could only have come from Lye’s “old brain”, the repository of ancient memories he believed held the secrets of the universe itself.
Spend any time in the exhibition and you will see people drift through in the usual manner, pausing to watch films and scanning the paintings and wall labels, but almost without exception they end up gathered around his “crackerjacks”, the tangible motion sculptures at the end, transfixed by the glistening steel and hypnotic movements. Of these, Rotating Harmonic (1959), Zebra (1965) and Moon Bead (1968) have been especially restored or reconstructed, and probably haven’t been seen since they were first exhibited.
Based on a spinning rod, these are precursors to the Wind Wand, producing the illusion of a Brâncu?i-like vertical form once they are pirouetting at enough speed for their linear form to blur into planar and then volumetric shapes. Moon Bead, as its name suggests, is enhanced with a single bead that seems to weightlessly drift up and down the shaft in counterpoint to the lateral spinning of the rod, and Zebra similarly traces sinuous cylindrical shapes in the light with its horizontal stripes, which are still present from their original application by the artist.
Many of Lye’s more familiar works are also in the exhibition, including two of the more than five variants of Fountain, Grass (1961-1965), Universe (1963-1976) and Blade (1959-1976). Fountain gracefully drifts and bobs in a circular motion, while its funky cousin, Firebush (1961), also recently reconstructed, violently gyrates like an upturned mechanical hula dancer, its red-lit rods whipping around like arcing electricity.
It is Blade’s dramatic crashing that impressed first-day audiences most, shaking up a sonic whirlwind that threatens to escape its distinctive plinth. The floor rumbles, possibly from the trains running below the building, a reminder of the Force Fields exhibition when Blade’s image appeared on posters throughout London’s underground. It is a shame Storm King (1964) or the fearsome Trilogy are not here also, but a more definitive selection is probably possible only in the sort of purpose-built park-sized temples Lye imagined in drawings and models. A dedicated Len Lye centre is planned but it will be impressive if this century sees the full extent of Lye’s vision realised.