Top: Len Lye, Tusalava (1929)
The Visions of Len Lye, 9th September 2008. BFI Southbank.
I went to the BFI's Len Lye screening tired, wanting an hour of brightly colored dots and squiggles and some Latin Jazz. Maybe I hadn't read the program, but it was actually a lecture by Tyler Cann, Curator of the Len Lye Collection at the Govett-Brewster Gallery in New Zealand, followed by screening of the six minute black and white Tusalava, accompanied by a new score from pianist Alcyona. It was an interesting talk, and a subtle, atmospheric performance, but I could never quite get passed my longing just to have some kind of synesthesic bath.
Cann's talk traced Lye's career, the images and film clips leaving more to the imagination than originally planned as the sound in BFI 2 wasn't working. He sought to connect the different aspects of Lye's career- sculpture, films, drawing - through an interest in motion. He was also anecdotal, hinting at a biographical, psychoanalytic source for Lye's work: his early years as the son of a lighthouse keeper in New Zealand, living with the lighthouse pulse that he termed, somewhat stupidly, the "great flasher."
Cann also stressed Lye's time in Samoa, with slides of his notebook showing his copying of the patterns found in local crafts and art works. Most fascinating were twenty six pages of Freud, copied straight out into his notebook, with his own drawings alongside. Cann was keen to draw attention to the sexual aspects of Lye's imagery, the tension he worked with and sought to overcome between male and female, organic and mechanistic, modern and primitive. In the later films he observed this translated into a simultaneous flow of imagery and a strong, "male" pulse.
After all this it was hard not to see Tusalava (1929) as anything other than an enactment of these ideas. Its six minutes comprise dots and circles that form an endlessly mutating series of shapes and rhythms that at one point, as if enacting some evolutionary story, create a totemic figure, that is itself then replaced by spirals and dots.
What came back to me whilst watching Tusalava were Cann's comments about Lye's debate with the nature of photography as a record of what has been, and how his techniques could be read as introducing a sense of how that was also related to the moving body and its systems of perception and understanding. These ideas seem to be in vogue at the moment, a primary method of engagement within avant-garde histories. In the bookshop before the screening I noted P.Adams Sitney kicking off his new book - Eyes Upside Down: Visionary Filmmakers and the Legacy of Emerson - with an exploration of Marie Mencken's "somatic camera."
What most emerged from the evening was a sense of uncertainty, and I wasn't sure if this was me, the evening, or something about Lye himself. Lye emerged as both an avant garde artist and not. Many of the audience questions, for example, involved questions about Lye's awareness or not of various contemporary developments: had Lye seen Leger's Le Ballet Mechanique? Had he read the Surrealist Manifesto? X seemed uncertain about this but stressed Lye had hung out with Humphrey Jennings and exhibited in the Surrealist Show of 1936 in London. Lye's alignment with different strands of modernism was shown in slides of a bookwork resulting from his trip to Mallorca to stay with Robert Graves and Laura Riding.
Lye, then, emerged from the evening as an artist whose identity was embedded in notions of the new, the modern and the future - Cann stressed repeatedly Lye's sense of himself as a 21st century artist - but who, through personality and geography, had only partial engagements with particular artistic movements or peer groups of similar artists. The clips of Lye's films left open whether this act of positioning was productive or detrimental to his development as an artist. Certainly, such artists can become difficult for future generations to read, as they adopt techniques and methods but fuse them with their own idiosyncratic philosophical assumptions.
Len Lye, A Color Box (1935)
Thankfully, Lye's work has avoided what often happens in these cases - the work disappears or vanishes. Before his death he signed all his work over to a foundation, which continues both to organize events such as this one, and instigate the construction of his kinetic sculptures, both at exhibitions - such as the current Sydney Biennale - and in public places in New Zealand.
There were also lots of suggestive threads to come out of the evening. One was the image of a strip of film - painted or scratched - and the tension between its individual frames and the whole strips illusion of continuity. Cann traced a shifting sense of this - noting similarities in pattern between the Samoan ceramics Lye drew in his notebook, the strips of scratched and painted film that ignored frame divisions, and the patterns of water and light made in the environment by his recently constructed kinetic sculpture.
Nor was art the only reference point for Lye. Cann noted how he took great pleasure in developments in biological sciences such as the double helix, finding in it a theory and a justification for the many similar forms that appeared earlier in his films.