Len Lye: Same Old Story?

The ghost of Lye, like an eternal grinning Cheshire cat, is still tempting and daring us to do him justice.

Adrian Martin

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Film still from Colour Flight 1938

Len Lye
Colour Flight 1938 (film still)
courtesy the Len Lye Foundation, Govett Brewster Art Gallery
and New Zealand Film Archive

Back in 2002, I saw a wonderful Len Lye show at the Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA). It was not a vast exhibition, but rather a well-selected showcase of a few different facets in the extraordinarily prolific œvre of this protean, New Zealand-born artist (1901-1980). There were samples of his photographic works, his kinetic sculpture, and a small room set aside for continuous screening of a selection of his film works.

16mm Projection of Rainbow Dance at ACMI Len Lye exhibition 2009

16mm Projection of Rainbow Dance at ACMI Len Lye exhibition 2009
installation view Mark Ashkanasy
courtesy the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI)

One of these films has never left me. N. or N.W. 1937 is one of several short pieces Lye was commissioned to make for the UK postal service. Lye, who never lost any opportunity for formal, technological or lyrical experimentation, merrily played with many techniques in these works: animation, graphic design (printed words and overlaid shapes) in motion, the rhythmic fusion of image and music (often an eclectic mix of popular musical styles), and the vibrant exploration of colour. All this we know from Lye’s more famous films, such as A Colour Box 1935 and Swinging the Lambeth Walk 1939. But N. or N.W. tackles something different and rare in Lye’s career: narrative. And its ‘narration’ (in the fullest sense) is wonderfully scattershot: all the codes of character exchange, cross-cutting, scene-setting and so forth are exposed as Lye tries to briskly whip them into shape and into service. In fact, the piece is, today, strikingly modern: a forerunner, for instance, to Jean-Luc Godard’s dazzling fantasia on modern communications systems for France Telecom in the short video Puissance de la parole 1988 – for Godard, as for Lye, the media of ‘connection’ inspire a barrage of cinematic disconnection.

Film still from Rainbow Dance 1936

Len Lye
Rainbow Dance 1936 (film still)
courtesy the Len Lye Foundation, Govett Brewster Art Gallery
and New Zealand Film Archive

Perhaps Lye himself, at the time and ever after, regarded N. or N.W. as something of a failed experiment. Posterity has (hélas!) tended to treat it that way, too. Nonetheless, the film seems today like a tantalising ‘path not taken’ in his career.

Seven years after the Monash experience comes the ACMI spectacular, an exhaustive and exhausting survey show drawn (as all Lye events great and small are) from the archives held by the Len Lye Foundation in New Zealand. And, for me, a curious detail: N. or N.W. is overlooked. It’s a small but emblematic omission: what this film prophesised of a certain avant-garde style of narrative tinkering is glossed over for the sake of, on the one hand, a certain ‘fine art’ vision of Lye – as the marriage of abstraction and technics, magic and science, expressionism and information-pedagogy – and, on the other hand, a very clean, distinct, chronological-biographical lay-out of Lye’s achievement. In other words, a very conventional narrative account. It’s a terrific show for what it imparts and represents, but not such a great enactment or performance of the mind and matter of Lye, of the kind we might have dreamt.

 Len Lye's Grass at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image 2009

Grass 1961 at ACMI Len Lye exhibition 2009
installation view Mark Ashkanasy
courtesy the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI)


Lye’s work was a remarkable example of unity in diversity. All his various researches and experiments led back to his bedrock interests in the ‘engineering’ of states of bliss, happiness, ecstasy and, in this, he was surprisingly close to Sergei Eisenstein. Every blast of light, colour and sound in Lye, in whatever medium (from batik to film, via painting and doodling), led back to this conceptual matrix of sense-experience heading ultimately (he hoped) for a better, more joyous world. The vision is infectious, and few could leave this exhibition without a suitably engineered smile tingling throughout their entire body – especially after experiencing the kinetic sculptures which were the most vital and successful part of the exhibition (assembled crowds, including many children, were even spontaneously applauding them as they performed their spectacular and noisy ‘turns’!).

Len Lye on set of Fountain Hope 1959

Len Lye on the set of Fountain Hope 1959
courtesy of Len Lye Foundation, Govett Brewster Art Gallery

At the Time Performance Transcendence conference held in October, Monash Art and Design lecturer Vince Dziekan gave an illuminating presentation about the ACMI Lye exhibition in the context of current curatorial practice – and specifically about the ‘refiguring’ of Lye as, in a certain sense, a key prophet of digital media culture. But to carry through with the full weight of this conviction would have required a more full-blooded style of curatorial gesture: less ‘museological’ and more dramatic, mixing the works up and connecting them in relation to their motifs and intensities, rather than neat divisions of medium, genre or mode. The ghost of Lye, like an eternal grinning Cheshire cat, is still tempting and daring us to do him justice.

Len Lye: An Artist in Perpetual Motion
Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), Melbourne
16 July – 11 October 2009

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One Comment

  1. Roger Horrocks commented on December 25, 2009 | Permalink

    I agree very much with your main point, Adrian — Len certainly had (and continues to have) a Cheshire grin. I have just made my own attempt to do justice - via the book ART THAT MOVES: THE WORK OF LEN LYE, just published by Auckland University Press. In the book I try to bring together Lye’s many ideas on movement; and to illustrate his practice, I have added a DVD which contains four of his films, footage of five of his sculptures, and a film I’ve made about him. ART THAT MOVES is a companion to the biography I wrote 8 years ago — this one is a survey of his work and theories. Not that it’s going to dispel all his Cheshire mystery. (I chose exactly that kind of image of a laughing Lye for the cover.) I’ve also curated an exhibition on the theme of Lye’s art of movement, now on show at the Gus Fisher Gallery in Auckland. A lot smaller than the ACMI show but more selective. Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful comments in your post. -Roger Horrocks

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