Len Lye at the Govett-Brewster

WYSTAN CURNOW 

You can have no idea, she said to the attendant, what this means to me. I'm seventy years of age and this is a whole new world. Len Lye's world, his 'tangible motion sculptures', now her's also. Lye, at seventy-six, having that to say to a contemporary. To an interviewer once he said: 'Rube Goldberg... he's fun and games. I'm forever. No messing around.' I'll say! In New Plymouth, small town with a big mountain. At the Govett-Brewster, small art gallery with a big show. For Len Lye was the world's first kinetic sculptor and he remains arguably the best. 

He's said: 'Perhaps I'm for magic carpets over flying saucers and would rather be heir to the Australian aboriginal with his boomerang and bull-roarer than an heir to constructivism and mechanics'. These last being fun and games. He's forever, because his works stand by him, stand by his insistent recollecting of Wellington's clouds windblown fifty years ago, of Cape Campbell lighthouse seas longer ago, of Polynesian art at the Auckland Museum. Because they stand for early experiences more than late, myth more than technology, body more than brain, temple more than factory. . . 

Of course these sculptures are machine made. They stand. Also, they move, machine driven. Going in, there, on the right: Fountain. Curtained around on three sides in black it stands in the middle of its space. And you go in there so as to be under and so as to look up (15 feet) into what is a great spray of (165) thin steel rods. From time to time, it twists at the root just enough to sustain a play of light and a sway and thus the sound, of rod on rod and not a tinkling nor a clanging but something in between. From time to time, you move around a bit and so step up the movement of line and light. Fountain has a stillness. There's the imaged energy of water pressure, of water jetted through a nozzle, but that ends up a display all but snap-shot or caught in steel. Fountain is rooted to the spot. Fern, flax, grass, there's the strength of that, of those small twisting movements where the rods bunch tight at the root. Up above, where they're loose, splayed out, there's the play of light, of water, of winds maybe. 

LEN LYE Fountain
c. 4.6 x c 4.6 metres (diameter) (collection of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery)

Going in, Fountain to the right, cinema for Lye's movies to the left, straight ahead there are stairs, two long flights. What is up there? There may be this sound: a sort of whoomph, whoomph, WHOMPH. Blade is up there. The smallest of the works, it is also when still and when seen out of this context, the one with the least presence. But at the top of the stairs and pedastalled on a large grey box and on the move, it takes its scale from the entire interior. Bending; then, whipping. Whoomph, wup, wup. You climb the stairs. And makes the viewer a votary to an idol of energy. Now its elliptical blur broadens, reaches a yellow ball, knocking it back on its stem with a light gong-like sound, and sets off another blur. Whips it back. Gong. Gong-GONG. Gong. like a summons. Then like a paroxysm. At the height of which it remains lithely erect, casting a ring, a chorus, of shadows around three white walls, flinging out reflections. Then the repercussions decrease, the whoomph returns, and the wobble. And the coming to rest is different, you want to hang around until it starts again. 

But no. Trilogy (A Flip and Two Twisters) is timed to follow Blade. So you turn away and move onto a balcony slung midway in a space some two storeys high and draped in black. Trilogy's there, suspended in that space. The Govett-Brewster is a converted cinema (Lye must have liked that) and something very theatrical is about to happen. Two strips of high tensile stainless steel twenty feet long hang there. Between them a thirty foot band of steel seven inches wide and a mere three thirty-secondths of an inch thick hangs in a great loop. The twisters begin to turn, to curve into scimitars, scythes, twirling and slicing the dark air and flicking lights across the curtains. This time the whoomph-whoomph starts deep and slow. You don't want to be where I was, down in the pit for a photograph giving the scale of the thing, but up on the balcony where your head won't get sliced off when those blades break loose from their moorings and cut up kingdom come like they surely will. For the twisters keep picking up speed, bending S-wise, the noise disappearing (which is somehow worse) until, unexpectedly, the brakes are applied and they come crashing down in a shower of light and with a sound that'd make the dead turn in their graves and made, it's said, at least one foetus turn in its womb. Len Lye is forever, no messing around. 

LEN LYE Blade
2.06 x 0.91 metres (diameter) (collection of the artist)

This will happen again. With the twisters now coiling up in a double-s to half their height and crashing from there. In the aftermath of that, the loop will begin to twist from the top. It is not loud, it is not wild, but slow. In silence it strains, bends, buck1es some, pushes out and up like it would open itself wider and wider. And when the flip comes it puts a stop to nothing, this crash being a release and some kind of shout for ecstasy and breakthrough. This too will happen again. Twisters and flip, each have soloed, now they will move together. Trilogy is at its most awesome. The mechanics of the thing are quite forgotten as the twisters express directly the force of that urge in the loop, opening, mouth, whatever, between them to satisfy itself and/or flip out in the attempt.

Personally, I have no aptitude for mechanics, no knowledge of motors . . .' says Lye. Engineers are called in, for these works require sophisticated know-how. But as kinetic works go, they are uncommonly simple in conception and effect. Compare Len Lye with say, Jean Tinguely or Nicolas Schoeffer. Hence his 'Standing about with a hand saw and thinking of it in terms of kinetic art'. In the age of mind-tools, the machine remains for Len Lye a hand-tool once removed. To where? To the body for one place. To that dark cave, its muscles, its energy, its know-how. To some icon improvised from a faith in what is moved by desire and grace. To an art that makes all this present with the best of machines. Len Lye is forever. 

Phases in the kinetic development of Trilogy (A Flip and Two Twisters) stainless steel strip
Measurements: Flip c 4.57 x c 2.7 across; Twisters each c 7.6; strip 180 x 2.3 mm. (collection of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery

This exhibition has been a long time coming. All three works at the Govett-Brewster are variants of pieces made more than ten years back. I saw smaller versions of Trilogy and Fountain in New York in the mid-sixties. Around that time Hamish Keith, Ray Thorburn and Peter McLeavey began to correspond with Len Lye and the question of an exhibition in the land of his birth was broached. The National Gallery and the Auckland City Gallery both toyed with the idea. But it wasn't until this decade that New Zealand boasted a gallery with the nerve to take it up. Since it opened the Govett-Brewster has been in the business of putting its fellow institutions to shame, and it is fitting that its present and past directors all had a hand in putting this, its best exhibition to date, together. Bob Ballard proposed it, John Maynard designed it (and brilliantly) and Ron O'Reilly administered it. New Plymouth also had an engineer, John Matthews, who, as a devotee of Lye's work, flew twice to New York and supervised the construction and fine tuning of Trilogy and Fountain, the Govett-Brewster's two permanent acquisitions. They will be there forever.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 5 April/May 1977