Len Lye had charisma. The British poet, Alistair Reid dubbed him “the least boring person who ever existed,” and everyone who knew him seems to have fallen under his spell. Not bad for a working class boy from New Zealand who arrived in London in 1926 with no contacts and no money, sustained only by his ingenuity and his gift for friendship. By the time he left for New York in 1945, Lye knew everybody and had made his name as one of the most original artists on the British scene. In the United States he carried right on, producing films, paintings and kinetic sculptures.
Lye achieved that elusive goal to which so many of his antipodean peers have aspired: he became a successful American artist. Back in his native New Zealand he was the subject of a 1973 documentary called Len Who? This would 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.
This foundation is the main source of the works shown at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne, in the largest survey of Len Lye’s work to be held in Australia. The Art Gallery of NSW hosted a touring show in 2001, while Lye’s films and sculptures have been making frequent appearances in international exhibitions over the past two decades – most recently in the 2008 Sydney Biennale. There was even a solo show at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2000 – an honour yet to be bestowed on any Australian artist.
So why is it that Lye remains a subliminal presence in world art? One suspects it is partly a matter of promotion. Roger Horrocks’s excellent biography of the artist was published in 2001, but has long been out-of-print. The same goes for a collection of Lye’s writings and the major exhibition catalogues. The small population of New Zealand ensures that most publications are restricted to equally small print runs.
Another, more fundamental reason for Lye’s comparatively low profile lies in 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, with Lye’s large Water Whirler installed as a public sculpture in Wellington in 2006, and other pieces having been constructed posthumously.
It may sound like a cliché, but as an artist Lye was always ahead of his time. He was a lifelong innovator who made movies without a camera by painting directly onto film. He pioneered those forms that we now associate with music video and different types of animation. He made earthworks in Mallorca in 1930 and photographed the results to use as book cover designs for his poet friends, Robert Graves and Laura Riding. Even his writing style, with its fractured syntax and rhythmic repetitions, anticipates the poetry that the Beats would declaim in San Francisco coffee shops.
Lye had many interests. He was fascinated by tribal cultures, and borrowed ideas from Polynesian, African and Australian Aboriginal art. His first animated film, Tusalava (1929), takes its title from a Samoan word meaning “just the same”, and its major motif from the witchetty grub. He was equally promiscuous in his borrowings from biology, psychology and other disciplines. While he required specialised help with many of his projects, he had an instinctive feel for the mechanisms he used and the effects he aimed to produce. This culminated in the “tangible motion” sculptures of his later years, which bring the ACMI show to a startling conclusion. These motorized contraptions have a surprisingly organic feeling. Universe (1963-66) consists of a large metal band that wobbles like a jelly on a wooden base. Every so often the top of the band touches a suspended weight, making a clanging sound. In Zebra (1965) a single metal rod revolves in such a way that it creates a striped effect.
All Lye’s works bear testimony to a single overriding preoccupation: movement. By his own account it started with an epiphany from a hilltop in Wellington as he looked at clouds scudding through the sky. “After all, there are melodic figures,” he told himself, “why can’t there be figures of motion?” Lye was still an art student, working his way through a very conventional course, but from that point he began making experimental drawings, trying to find a visual language for portraying motion.
This obsession with movement would lead to an interest in film, and eventually to a philosophy of life. Lye was never capable of brooding or sulking. When his plans went astray he simply moved on to the next idea. Some of his best pieces found their origins in his lack of funds, such as the practice of painting directly onto film. In 1941 as the world plunged into war Lye wrote down a manifesto called Individual Happiness Now, which he saw as the key to peaceful co-existence. He outlined three interrelated goals: “to become a more distinct individual, to develop a greater capacity for happiness, and to live more fully in the present.” It was an appealing philosophy and Lye took every opportunity to promote it, but the war rolled on regardless.
It seems that ACMI have taken their cue from Len Lye’s love of motion in their new permanent display, Screen Worlds, launched last week by Cate Blanchett wrapped in a crocheted quilt, in the presence of a who’s who of Australian film and television. Screen Worlds is the most energetic collection of audio-visual displays to be found anywhere in the country. It is like entering a mammoth video game parlour, except that the displays hail from the early days of the cinema and the history of the local industry. The final section contains a series of large-scale audio-visual artworks that invite audience participation.
The press release describing this electronic wünderkammer is twenty-four pages, and barely manages to convey any sense of the experience that awaits the visitor. It is the permanent display that ACMI should have had from the day it opened, seven years ago. For much of that time the museum has been a strange rudderless affair, with a desultory exhibitions program, some enterprising film screenings, and the most confusing layout imaginable. With Screen Worlds, ACMI has abandoned the austere, minimal approach and embraced excess. It should succeed in attracting a large popular audience – at least until everyone has paid a ritual visit. As Australian museums know only too well, the hardest of all feats is to get audiences to come back on a regular basis.
An improved study centre ensures that at least those who are studying film will make repeat visits. This is the serious complement to the razzle-dazzle of Screen Worlds. The complete package is an impressive one, bearing the hallmarks of intensive planning. Short of offering cash incentives it’s hard to know what else ACMI could do to attract the audiences it needs.
Despite the time and energy that has gone into Screen Worlds, it may be that the most gripping audio-visual experiences currently to be had in Melbourne are the films in the Dalí show at the National Gallery of Victoria, and a 3-D animation of the destruction of Pompeii at the Melbourne Museum. The crowds that keep pouring through A Day in Pompeii suggest that visitors feel they are getting value for money from this compact display of artifacts and educational material. With the possible exception of the ashen figures of people and animals engulfed by the eruption, it is the ten-minute animation that leaves the strongest impression. The film shows how quickly events unfolded, and why two thousand people had no chance to escape the great toxic cloud that buried the city in 79 AD.
Pompeii entered the western imagination with archaeological digs in the eighteenth century, and has been held in place by Victorian novels and Hollywood potboilers. Yet the vagueness of most people’s knowledge makes it irresistible to go and fill in the outlines. This does not, however, ensure a foolproof educational experience. Half way through the show, in a room full of bronze ornaments, I heard someone asking: “Have they figured out where the city’s buried yet?” At such moments one begins to think that perhaps it really has been all downhill since the Romans.
Len Lye: Australian Centre for the Moving Image, July 16 – October 11, 2009
Screen Worlds: Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Permanent Display
A Day in Pompeii: Melbourne Museum, June 26-October 25, 2009
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, September 26, 2009