Len Lye: New Zealand’s most international artist?   30 May 2012

Anna Blair

Experimental filmmaker Len Lye is probably the New Zealander who pops up most frequently in exhibitions overseas. He’s had a retrospective in Birmingham and his work appeared in last year’s animation exhibition at the Barbican. British audiences often aren’t aware that Lye was from New Zealand, while New Zealanders are sometimes surprised to find out he worked in London for almost twenty years.

Len Lye was born in Christchurch in 1901. In his early years, he expressed great interest in motion in art, experimenting with kinetic sculpture and aspiring to be a filmmaker. He had great appreciation for Maori art, long before widespread recognition from New Zealand’s pakeha community. In the 1920s, Lye was expelled from Samoa by the colonial administration for living with locals.

Len Lye’s Film Work in London

 It was in London, however, that Lye made his debut as an important artist. He made his way to the UK in 1926, where he became friends with prominent modern artists including Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. He joined and exhibited with the Seven and Five Society, but became frustrated with static visual mediums. In 1929 he made his first film, Tusalava, influenced by the imagery of the South Pacific.

In 1935 Lye began to work for the British General Post Office, where he made his name and some of his best-known work. These films, like most of the work for which Lye is known, are abstract and experimental, colourful and often painstakingly multilayered, and set to chirpy jazz soundtracks.

Lye’s first film for the GPO, 1935’s ‘A Colour Box’ is not just an advertisement for “cheaper parcel post,” but a manifesto on the potential of film itself. Lye painted bright dots and lines directly onto film, the result being that they appeared to dance when screened. The short is largely abstract and showcases the energy of the cinematic medium in which Lye so firmly believed. The joy of ‘A Colour Box’ is contagious; when on loop, it’s hard to stop watching.

While working for the GPO was a job for Lye, he also firmly believed in it as a public service. Consequently, his shorts are far from the overt propaganda that one often finds in advertisements today, but read as genuine celebrations of British life.

This is particularly obvious in ‘Trade Tattoo,’ a playful assemblage of images and text. The film moves in five minutes from images of industrious workers, overlaid with bright colours and patterns, to an urging to post letters before 2pm. Lye cleverly aligns the rhythm of music with the rhythm of working class life, in turn suggesting that to post early was to “keep in time”.

Even in the 1930s, Lye’s work for the British postal service was seen and appreciated internationally, particularly by film societies. An American journalist estimated ‘Trade Tattoo’ had cost a million pounds, impressed by its intricacy. Lye’s short had, in fact, cost only several thousand; he had not done any filming, but drew his images entirely from leftovers from earlier GPO films.

Move to New York, and Kinetic Sculpture

 Lye moved to New York in 1944, where he continued to work on film pieces and taught at NYU. The most notable of Lye’s pieces from this time is ‘Free Radicals,’ begun in 1958. ‘Free Radicals’ took Lye over twenty years to complete, created by scratching the film stock with various kinds of needles. Set to music by the Bagirmi tribe of Africa, the creeping, swaying and flashing lines capture the rhythms perfectly. The forms expand, contract and seem almost to take on personalities.

Lye also worked on kinetic sculpture during this period. The element of movement drew Lye to this, as with film. His sculptures, however, differ from his film work in their relationship to the viewer, who occupies the same physical space as the object. Lye created only a small number of kinetic sculptures. This was enough that he became significant in the field, with work exhibited at MoMA in New York.

Lye’s return to New Zealand

 Like other artists from New Zealand, Lye’s upbringing gave him inspiration that was particularly dynamic when exposed to modern, experimental circles elsewhere in the world. Ultimately, having secured both his own success and seen the recognition of film’s potential as a medium for art, he chose to return to New Zealand in 1968.

It’s in New Zealand that much of Lye’s work, including his best-known kinetic sculpture, remains. ‘Wind Wand,’ on the waterfront in New Plymouth, moves in response to the weather’s impact. While plans were made before Lye’s death in 1980, ‘Wind Wand’ was installed as recently as 2008.

The joy and immediacy that can be found in Lye’s work, both film and sculpture, is perhaps best captured by his own slogan, Individual Happiness Now! These words initially struck Lye when trying to articulate what it was the allied forces were fighting for in World War II, but can also be taken as a broader expression of his values.

If you can’t wait to stumble upon Lye’s cheerful work in a gallery, some films can be accessed, for free, at the British Film Institute’s Mediatheque, under Waterloo Bridge. For those outside London, most of Lye’s work can be found on YouTube.

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