Len Lye, Self Portrait (With Night Tree), 1947
A new gallery devoted to showing the works of the artist Len Lye has received the final go-ahead after a decade of planning.
An experimental film-maker, poet, painters, kinetic sculptor, eccentric and ebullient personality, Len Lye is one of New Zealand’s most important modernist artists. Best known internationally as a filmmaker Len Lye is most prominent as a kinetic sculptor in New Zealand. Len Lye was one of the few filmmakers working in inter-war Britain to have established an international reputation in experimental film making. Lye gained a permanent place in film history as the pioneer of the direct method, making films without a camera by painting or scratching directly on celluloid. In Free Radicals he used black film stock and scratched designs into the emulsion. The result was a dancing pattern of flashing lines and marks, as dramatic as lightning in the night sky. Abstract film making was the area that most interested Lye and he has sometimes been viewed as the only genuine avant-garde filmmaker of this period. So why is it that Lye remains a subliminal presence in world art?
Born in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1901, Lye began to develop a style of art based on ‘doodling’ from an early age, which stirred his interest in the ‘pre-rational’. As a student, Lye became convinced that motion could be part of the language of art, leading him to early (and now lost) experiments with kinetic sculpture, as well as a desire to make film. Inevitably moving to London, the avant-garde culture of 1926 was small but lively as shown by the speed with which the newcomer was invited to join group exhibitions. Before long, he was exhibiting with a modernist group the Seven and Five Society, but he was dissatisfied with static visual mediums and began to make experiments in animated film, which more closely fitted his interest in movement.
So what kind of reputation did Lye develop during his lifetime? In the 1930’s Lye developed a reputation throughout Europe as a film innovator, with his work screened frequently by film societies and festivals as well as commercial cinemas. Though his British oeuvre was by no means limited to the making of abstract films, this was the area that most interested Lye and he has sometimes been viewed as the only genuine avant-garde filmmaker of this period. This is undoubtedly an overstated case, but Lye earned his reputation through a sustained and idiosyncratic body of films that were often brilliantly inventive and technically accomplished. Its bright colours and jazz music appealed to general as well as avant-garde viewers.
So Lye gained a permanent place in film history as the pioneer of the direct method, making films without a camera by painting or scratching directly on celluloid. Time magazine ran a long story about this ‘film painter’ on 12 December 1939 describing him as England’s answer to the production-line methods of Walt Disney. Nevertheless his films appear not to have reached New Zealand. While there was some film society activity in the 1930s the country lacked a tradition of art-related experimental film.
Len Lye, Blade (1959)
But Lye was also an important kinetic sculptor. In the late 1950’s Lye began again making kinetic sculpture which he referred to as ‘tangible motion sculptures’ or ‘Tangibles’. These works embodied the same spirit as his films and reiterated his belief that motion and physical empathy were even more fundamental than medium. He saw film and kinetic sculpture as aspects of the same “art of motion”, which he theorised in a highly original way in his essays (collected in the book Figures of Motion).
Lye’s ‘Tangibles’ are essentially a motor and strips of metal; Blade (1959) was one of the first and consists of a two metre high shiny strip of cold rolled steel with a rod and cork ball at the top. Its base, fixed into a clamp, is vibrated to make the whole quiver whilst making sounds like a knife swishing through air, before a climax of S-shapes that causes the ball to rebound in a frenzy. Fountain III (1976) are quieter, meant to evoke the “spray in a fountain” by the rotation of hundreds of vertical steel rods, up to two metres high, clasped together at the base, and bending under their own weight.
Back in his native New Zealand he was the subject of a 1973 documentary called Len Who? Thing began to change as a stream of disciples made their way to New York to meet this legendary figure who had carved a highly idiosyncratic path through the age of Modernism. Neither had Lye forgotten about his native country. Following his death in 1980, at the age of 78, Lye’s studio was packed up and shipped to the small city of New Plymouth, where a foundation had been established to care for his archive and his legacy.
Today Len Lye’s exact place in the canon of art still remains a matter of debate. Major works continue to be built according to the plans and instructions he left at his death. Controversy has always rippled round him – from his days as a bad boy in London, the ‘Futurist New Zealander’ whose work ’caused a sensation’ (in the words of The Sun, 19 May 1928), to the more than 200 newspaper and television items that debated the practicability and authenticity of the newly recreated 45-metre Wind Wand. One suspects it is partly a matter of promotion. Another, more fundamental reason for Lye’s comparatively low profile lies the fact that he is known as a film maker in Europe but as a sculptor in his country of birth. But mostly Lye was a maverick, never fitting any of the usual art historical labels. Although he did not become a household name, his work was familiar to many film-makers and kinetic sculptors – he was something of an “artist’s artist”, and his innovations have had an international influence.
The new Len Lye Centre in New Zealand will unite both elements of his practice as well as the protean nature of his creations. He once said: “My work, I think, is going to be pretty good for the twenty-first century.” He meant that his ideas had outstripped the available technology, and could only be realised in the future. To a limited extent this has begun to happen. The Len Lye Centre will be a dedicated space providing permanent access to Len Lye’s art and ideas while assuring the preservation of the Len Lye Collection and Archive for future generations. The project will embrace the full potential of the Len Lye Collection and Archive as a valuable community asset that is fragile and in urgent need of a dedicated home for its care and display. The Len Lye Centre will consolidate New Zealand as the home of Len Lye’s work and ideas and reflect the community’s regard for the innovative use of technology, creative expression and experimentation. The centre will provide new exhibition spaces, an education suite, information hubs and a cinema. The Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and the Len Lye Centre will operate as a combined facility.
Len Lye, Fountain, 1976
The Centre will feature Lye’s work in kinetic sculpture, film, painting, drawing, photography, batik and writing, as well as related work by contemporary and historical artists. Plans include reconstructed kinetic sculptures developed by the Len Lye Foundation based on Lye’s designs and wishes, while a cinema will offer Lye’s films as well as selected independent and art films from around the world. The centre will feature a strong and innovative educational component providing access to Len Lye’s art and ideas for audiences of all ages and from all walks of life.