Art That Moves: The Work of Len Lye
Auckland University Press, $60.00,
Last September I visited the blockbuster Salvador Dali exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. Glamorous and edifying though it was, I was disappointed. There is a suffocating, 19th century prissiness to Dali that is ultimately unwholesome, like the sickly scent of violets masking the unwashed skin of an eccentric maiden aunt. How invigorating it was then to stumble upon the much less hyped show of Dali’s almost exact contemporary, Len Lye, at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI).
Kinetic sculptures whirred, flashed, boinged and shimmied, while in the film projection rooms, exuberant splashes of vibrating colour and line danced to infectious jazz and African drumbeats.
Such vivacious, muscular, sexy and unabashed modernism had me doing a double-take at the biographical material – was Lye really creating these amazing hand-crafted abstract films in the late 1930s, in London, 10 or 15 years ahead of the emergence of Abstract Expressionism in New York? Indeed he was. In fact, having moved to New York from London in 1944, in Lye’s own quirky idiom, “[He] met all the abstract expressionist boys before they expressionisted.”
With this book, Roger Horrocks has fulfilled the promise made in the introduction to his popular 2001 biography of the artist – to discuss the oeuvre more analytically in a “later, more technical book”. The 2001 biography was an accessible, chronological overview of the ages and stages of Lye’s long career, particularly strong in its evocation of personalities and social milieux – working-class New Zealand, colonial Samoa, bohemian Sydney, literary London, corporate New York.
Inevitably, there are overlaps between the 2001 and 2009 books – Lye’s life and artistic practice are inextricable, and many of the quotes, photographs and anecdotes are just too good, too essential not to be re-used. For instance, Lye’s irrepressible torrent of technical and experimental innovation lavished on every new film commission, to the bemusement and sometimes alarm of his various employers, is an enormously entertaining story well worth exposition in both situations.
But the new book sets itself a loftier task, and both style and structure are adjusted accordingly. Horrocks aims to redefine Lye’s reputation from that of an idiosyncratic maverick on the margins of conventional art history, to the serious instigator of a new art form.
In chapter one, he examines artistic, technical and theoretical precedents for an “art of motion”, stretching back to Michelangelo’s struggling Rebellious Slave. Chapter two is an abbreviated biographical overview – a skeletal version of the 2001 book. The core of the book is chapter three: a detailed examination of the two primary interwoven threads of Lye’s aesthetics: on the one hand, the tapping of what he considered the “old brain” – primeval or Jungian archetypal forms he believed were rooted in the ancient cerebellum; and on the other, his preoccupation with the composition of precise “figures of motion”, which he viewed as analogous to musical composition.
Linking these threads is Lye’s notion of “empathy”: perception experienced not as merely visual but as a visceral, body-centred, movement-based mirroring – “feel[ing] myself into the shoes of anything that moved”. Horrocks ably demonstrates how every aspect of Lye’s practice – the paintings, drawings, photograms, writings, films and kinetic sculptures – has been underpinned by this theoretical framework. Chapters four and five are dedicated to detailed consideration of the films and the kinetic sculptures respectively. Finally, Horrocks tackles some of the contentious issues raised by Lye’s legacy to New Zealand – including the thorny question of “authenticity”. One drawback of this structure is unavoidable repetition – for instance, Lye’s 1957 direct-scratch masterpiece, Free Radicals, is discussed in slightly different contexts in chapter two’s life, chapter three’s theory and chapter four’s films – but that didn’t bother me.
The text is enlivened by frequent illustrations. There are many terrific photos of Lye: his elfin features and palpable, bubbling vitality make him a most photogenic subject, who effortlessly upstages any sculpture he happens to share the frame with. The sculptures themselves present problems for still photographers – shot either as a series of successive time-lapse images or as a long-exposure still, or some combination thereof, they never quite work. But the best of them form pleasing abstract images that “describe” his beloved “figures of motion” by obscuring the underlying mechanism altogether.
Also included is a generous smattering of stills from the films. Many of these frames with their “exuberance, bright colours, [and] painterly textures”, not to mention their strong sense of formal structure, would make credible abstract paintings – indeed Horrocks describes how Lye’s friends would be frustrated as a film whizzed onwards, allowing no time for the savouring of any single frame.
But these films, with their exhilarating soundtracks, need to be experienced as movies, and here Auckland University Press has done us proud: the DVD tucked into the back cover is the perfect adjunct to a book about the art of motion. Now you too can have your very own copy of Swinging the Lambeth Walk (1939), Trade Tattoo (1937), Colour Cry (1953) and Free Radicals (1958) – how cool is that?
The DVD also includes a short dramatised film, written and directed by the author, showing a youthful Lye evolving his personal aesthetic of movement. Despite impressive home-grown talent on the credits, frankly this is gauche and staid. The best bits are the clips from Lye’s own films, which include tantalising glimpses of works sadly not included in the compilation in their own right.
In our digital, MTV, Photoshop world, it takes a mental gear-change and maybe a couple of readings to grasp how radically avant-garde Lye was. It wasn’t only the direct films (images painted, scratched or stencilled, with eye-crossing concentration, directly onto thousands of tiny frames), but also those utilising live action. Without technical overkill, Horrocks lucidly explains the extraordinary leap of lateral-thinking that led to Lye’s colour-separation method being applied to conventional camera-shot footage, as shown to such funky effect in Rainbow Dance and Trade Tattoo.
But even as a “conventional” film-maker he sought to escape the despised “D W Griffith technique” of standard narrative-oriented editing. (Here Dali and Lye meet as Surrealist blood-brothers.) In N or NW (1937), for instance, under the aegis of the legendary John Grierson, then of the British General Post Office Film Unit, Lye “took a simple GPO cautionary tale about addressing letters correctly and turned it into a radical attack on the narrative language of film.” The result was a series of “conflicted interior monologues … [depicted as] a jumpy succession of thoughts, perceptions and memories.” And this was for the GPO in pre-war Britain!
Horrocks has done a splendid job of harnessing both films and kinetic sculptures into a single coherent framework. But for me these wings of Lye’s work make uncomfortable bedfellows, and the astute reader may have noticed that I’m keener on Lye’s films than his sculptures, not least because his personal indexical gesture is literally inscribed in every frame of those direct films, whereas with the sculptures … hmm. Certainly their glittering performances exert a hypnotic fascination; but, despite being “art that moves”, it somehow fails to move me.
Kinetic sculpture, at least the motorised sort, prompts the question of what it is when it’s switched off (which is, let’s face it, most of the time). Just a mechanism, that’s what. In contrast, a sculpture such as Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913), which Horrocks invokes in chapter one, is a work that passionately engages with the idea of motion: it explores, analyses, embraces, caresses and celebrates human movement in space, without ever merely, literally, moving. As such it is always “on”, always profoundly beautiful and stimulating to behold.
Art that needs a team of skilled engineers to construct and maintain it makes me uneasy, and not just because of the authenticity problem. In addressing this, Horrocks, like Lye, employs the plausible but not entirely convincing analogy of music: the artwork is not the score but the ensemble performance. Lye himself also often referred to his activity as “choreography”.
This further raises the question of what, then, kinetic sculpture has over dance. Lye saw his mechanised figures of motion as superseding the limits of the human body: “Kinetic art has freed us from the restricted anatomical range of dance movements.” This is paradoxical considering how wholly body-centred his art is. Moreover, these machines have some severe limits themselves – they need mounting onto floors or ceilings; plugging into a fuel supply; and their stressed and groaning motorised components demand constant maintenance.
Dancers, on the other hand, are fully-mobile free-standing units – bolting them onto concrete footings is not only counter-productive but considered bad form; their fuel consumption happens off-stage prior to the show (and is in any case negligible, at least for the female ones); and on-stage breakdown is remarkably rare. Their range of motions may be finite, but the restricted syntax of classical ballet has surely been thrown wide open with the advent of modern dance.
Perhaps the inability to “scale up” human dancers to achieve the sublime effects of Lye’s dreams represents a real limit, but then scaling up Lye’s prototypes (as he insisted on calling them) to gallery-shaking size has also proven a tad tricky. Indeed some of Horrocks’ most enthralling stories are of how engineers John Matthews, Evan Webb, Stuart Robb and others have heroically wrestled with mind-numbingly complex challenges. There can’t be too many artists whose work has inspired a PhD in mechanical engineering, or caused so many earnest research articles to be published in prestigious international engineering journals.
But Horrocks also acknowledges a downside to Lye’s magnanimous legacy to New Plymouth and the establishment of the Len Lye Foundation – the potential irony of his effective re-marginalisation into parochialism. And so the foundation has been especially busy lately.
The ACMI show, curated by foundation trustee Tyler Cann, was the biggest yet and the first to really explore the evolution of Lye’s aesthetics; Auckland’s Gus Fisher gallery is also currently staging an exhibition to accompany the publication both of this book and a luxury limited edition of Lye’s writings, Body English, edited by foundation trustee Roger Horrocks (again). An essay collection edited by Tyler Cann and foundation trustee Wystan Curnow, Len Lye, has also appeared. This team is on a mission both to promote Lye’s international profile and to refocus scholarly attention on the primal place of movement in art history.
Fair enough; it’s an intriguing debate, and I’m awed by their dedication. But is there anyone out there writing about Lye independently of the foundation? For the sake of critical balance, I hope so.
Stella Ramage is a Wellington reviewer.