Fizz with zip, Wystan Curnow

Zizz! The Life and Art of Len Lye
In his own words with Roger Horrocks
Awa Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9781927249215

Back in 1965, aged 26, I walked into the Howard Wise Gallery in New York and saw the best kinetic sculptures I’d ever seen. Kinetic and Op art were in vogue then, and Wise’s gallery was one of the places to see it. A few months earlier I’d visited a “Zero Group” show at the newly established Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, so I considered myself up to speed with European art involving movement and light. Wise’s show was called “Len Lye’s Bounding Steel Sculptures”. I had no idea who this alliteratively named artist was, let alone that he was a New Zealander; no idea of his fast growing international reputation as a sculptor, or his history as an experimental film-maker. Until I read the catalogue, that is. Nor had New Zealand. Lye had left it a long time ago, in 1921, aged 20.

Twelve years later and back in New Zealand, I proposed to the Auckland University Press (AUP) that it republish Lye’s book of prose poems, No Trouble. Printed in 1930, in an edition of 200, this was a deluxe handcrafted hardback boasting a sumptuous Lye-designed cover. Published by Robert Graves’s and Laura Riding’s Seizin Press, it had, along with books by Gertrude Stein, Graves and others, become a collector’s item with few readers. AUP’s then director, Dennis McEldowney, wrote about the Press Committee’s discussion of the proposal in his memoir, Then and There: A 1970’s Diary:

In his letter Wystan Curnow called Lye the most widely known and best regarded New Zealand born artist after Katherine Mansfield. Keith Sinclair had never heard of him and therefore did not believe he could be well known. The Committee divided into those who had heard of Len Lye — Roger Horrocks, Karl Stead and me (by virtue of indoctrination over Senior Common Room lunches by Tony Green) — and the rest who had not. Discussion was heated … Roger Horrocks suggested we ask Hamish Keith for his opinion … a proposal accepted with relief. This, if it got out, would no doubt go down in the Len Lye legend as an example of how the prophet was honoured in his country.

Fast forward to 2015 and the opening of the Len Lye Centre in New Plymouth. Here, cheek to cheek with the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, was New Zealand’s first and only single-artist museum. A seriously eye-popping building designed by Auckland’s Patterson Associates, it has so far attracted 73,000 visitors. See it on Air New Zealand television adverts. Who, now, hasn’t heard of Len Lye? Among those who have, who wants to find out more about him? As plans for the Centre were being developed and an opening date was being discussed, Roger Horrocks kept making the point that there would be many such people. There was a need for a short, highly readable, snazzy looking introduction to Lye’s life and art. Horrocks’s biography had been published in 2001 and was out of print and, anyway, at 400 pages it wasn’t fit for purpose. He knew how compelling Lye’s life story was, was more familiar with the Centre’s immense archive than almost anyone, and if no one else was ready to write it, he was happy to. The time had come: having successfully put the case to Awa Press, he set to work. Zizz! was published, made a brief appearance on the best-seller lists, sold out and was promptly reprinted.

Zizz! is more than equal to its tasks, and unlikely to be replaced for years to come. In one respect it is unquestionably irreplaceable and unique: according to the cover, this is an introduction to Lye’s life and art “in his own words”. Indeed, Zizz! possesses all the presence and authority of an autobiography, even though, structurally speaking, it isn’t one. As a Lye introduction, or handbook, this is what makes it special. The cover says, “in his own words / with Roger Horrocks”, not “edited and introduced by” Roger Horrocks (my italics), as you might expect.

Zizz! is actually an intricate patchwork of quotations, drawn from a wide range of sources and organised into 20 brief chapters, each headed by a paragraph or two from Horrocks. He admits further along (“About this Book”) that it is “based on the artist’s own words” and that organising Lye’s words into a story of his life meant taking some liberties with them. Although his editing, and cutting and pasting, is extensive, it is nevertheless largely unobtrusive, and we are never in doubt as to whose is the voice we are hearing, or that Lye is an eloquent writer who can make words his own. If the narrative flow is a constructed thing, and if the splices sometimes show, what is also largely irreplaceable is the quality of Horrocks’s editing. If you know anything of his sources, you’ll know it’s a virtuoso performance. Lye has had two extraordinary editors, one at the outset of his career – Laura Riding, who edited No Trouble – and Horrocks at the end; both were also, at crucial times, discreet collaborators.

“Zizz” is British for forty winks, but Zizz! won’t send you to sleep. No way. It’s American for fizz with zip, get up and go. Lye left school at 13 and, while he often struggled, he became a dedicated, skilled and versatile writer. Horrocks notes that Lye “had a range of writing styles. At one extreme was the ‘free form word-doodling’ he used in his poems, but he also had a plainer prose style.” So Zizz! is a sampler as well as an introduction, its narrative interrupted by short texts in blue with red titles. Like verbal snapshots, they include short poems, or speak to specific topics or occasions, not readily pigeonholed. Lye had a healthy disrespect for genre. Much, maybe most, of Lye’s writing is about his art — describing, explaining, theorising it — but the best is also a demonstration of it, specially of the kinetics that distinguish his art, whatever the medium.

Lye prefers his writing to sound like speech, like there was a person present. He taps into the energy of the lingo of the day. Lye is less loyal to the dictionary than to the living language, and was so from the start when the printed word was far more formal than it has since become. Zizz! is, in part, a museum of slang, old and not so old: “boneshaker”, “turfed out”, “spiffing”, “really a gang of energy”. Recalling dancing at parties – this was in the 70s – he says: “To be in one’s twenties during the 20s was to hear a continuous roar made by some sort of ozone fallout that affected everyone into feeling loose planks in their shanks.” Loose planks in your shanks?? 

Lye likes words for their sound, their music, which for him may be as much a source of their sense as is their “meaning”. Which is why “Ozone” crops up elsewhere: the “snazzy ozone of New Zealand”. (Are you listening, Air New Zealand?) He’s always on the lookout for alliteration. And he likes onomatopoeia; tell me, have you ever heard of “twong”? Google lists “#twongedhashtag on Twitter. See Tweets about #twong on Twitter.” Elsewhere, Lye said of a drawing “it twonged Totem and Taboo right out the window”: which is to say, in a boring understated way, it completely outdid Freud. Did you see those “big yellow and black pinto lizards slooking off”? There’s some nice syntactical morphing, like: “fast little scuddy clouds”, and this description of Coogee beach: “a crescent … snugged in by hunky rocks at both ends.” And, speaking of his film Trade Tattoo: “It looked rhythmic and vervy.”

Lye’s linguistic ebullience is not unconstrained. He had an instinctive grasp of the performative dynamics of phrases, sentences and paragraphs. The quirky words are not just that: they’re doing their stuff in contexts in which shifting registers, incongruous connotations and changing soundscapes are the name of the game. Here are some of my favourite passages:

The art dealer Howard Wise busted himself to get my sculptures into the mainstream. Critics gave my work pats galore, but what does a museum do with a maverick bit of metal that demands as much maintenance as an Otis elevator? And what does an architect do with a large shiny eggbeater? Architects of the ilk of Philip Johnson no-diced them.

I would sally forth to Canal Street looking for metals and springs and motors and mechanical tools and gadgets galore, which were stalled out on the pavement for all the young Einsteins and Edisons to pick and choose, putting two and two together to make a wonderful press-button affair out of scraps and rejects.

Back to Coogee beach:

One day there was this glass-clear twenty-five-foot high walking wave of green sea. Twenty-five-foot! Alive and swimming straight along its curling middle was a huge shark. What’s the frantic magic? Simply feeling, hey, that’s a mighty rising mass of energy, forever gathering, never stopping, preserving a fish in amber. That big slow curling wave never comes down.

Zizz!’s title is there in its epigraph: “I’m interested in the business of energy and getting a feeling of zizz.” This book lives up to its name; don’t go to New Plymouth without it. 

Wystan Curnow is professor emeritus of English, University of Auckland.

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Posted in Art, Non-fiction and Review
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