Paul Brobbel

Movement as Medium: A New Paradigm in the Archiving and Exhibiting of Len Lye

Over thirty years after his death, Len Lye (1901-1980) remains an enigmatic figure in his homeland of New Zealand; considered to be among the nation’s most internationally acclaimed artists – a bona fide modernist working in an idiom unknown to his local contemporaries. Migrating to London in his mid-twenties, essentially abandoning his homeland in search of an avant-garde world he had glimpsed in magazines and antipodean libraries, Lye carried with himself a piece of advice which would influence his entire career and define his ambitions as an artist. Inspired by the art school lesson that a bad idea of his own is better than good idea borrowed, Lye embarked on a career working with a vast range of seemingly disparate media, all unified by a unique and encompassing understanding of movement.

As a member of Britain’s Seven and Five Society, and later on the fringes of Surrealism, Lye built a reputation as a pioneering experimental filmmaker. Films such as the surrealist tinged Tusalava (1929), the direct animated A Colour Box (1935), and the innovative live action techniques of Rainbow Dance (1936) are touchstones of cinematic history, all exemplifying Lye’s interest in movement. In a 1935 essay titled ‘Film-making’, Lye stated ‘the language of the cinema is movement’ and more broadly that ‘[movement] is the uncritical expression of life’.

Lye’s mid-career migration to the United States in 1944 heralded an eventual shift away from filmmaking, onto the fringes of a new avant-garde scene, and ultimately into the field of kinetic art. Fashioning the term ‘Tangible Motion Sculpture’, Lye produced some of the most critically acclaimed artworks of the short-lived kinetic movement, exploiting the sculptural medium to explore the literal qualities of ‘figures of motion’. Lye’s explorations of movement through his ‘tangibles’ ultimately led to theories beyond aesthetic perception, into pseudo-scientific understandings of proprioception and bodily empathy.

Lye’s return to his homeland in 1977 for a retrospective exhibition resulted in the bequeathing of his estate to the Len Lye Foundation with the collection to be held by the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth. Since Lye’s death in 1980 the Len Lye Foundation and the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery have embarked on a tireless effort to promote Lye’s achievements, both in his homeland, where his almost career long absence has earn Lye scant place in the national art historical discourse, and internationally, where limited access and knowledge of Lye’s works has limited his posthumous recognition.

Of particular concern is the need to ensure the full sweep of Lye’s artistic endeavour is available for modern audiences. With the inherent conservation issues surrounding kinetic sculpture and the adaptability of film based media for widespread dissemination via online digital formats, there is a growing risk that parts of Lye’s oeuvre will continue to slide from view and others will dominate. Given the theories that absorbed Lye throughout his career, it is becoming increasingly important that these are at the heart of promoting Lye as an artist – that movement itself is the medium.

This study will explore the growing consideration of Lye as a thinker and theoretician of movement, his artworks the embodiment of a career long intellectual endeavour. A consideration of recent curatorial work at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery will highlight the degree to which object based exposition has been adjusted to accommodate a greater emphasis on the theoretical structure behind the artist’s achievements, and, in particular, how a growing appreciation and reliance on Lye’s archive of working notes, research materials, and manuscripts is informing new insights into Lye’s unique and inimitable vision.


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