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Figures in Motion

Len Lye, Universe, 1963-1966 (1998 reconstruction) Len Lye Foundation Collection, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery Len Lye, Fountain II, 1960 (1995 reconstruction) Len Lye Foundation Collection, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery Photo credit: Trevor Read
Len Lye Bell Wand, 1965 (2011 reconstruction) Len Lye Foundation Collection, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery Photo credit: Bryan James
Len Lye Fountain I, 1960 Courtesy of Benjamin Lindenhahn, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery Len Lye Fountain III, 1976 Govett-Brewster Art Gallery Collection Photo credit Trevor Read
Len Lye Sky Cave 1946, oil on board. Len Lye Foundation Collection, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. Gift of Richard De Rochemont
Len Lye Storm King, 1964 (1997 reconstruction) Len Lye Foundation Collection, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery Photo credit: Bryan James
Mark Amery visits New Plymouth for the Len Lye All Souls Carnival; the first time Lye's kinetic steel sculpture, films and painting have filled Govett Brewster since 1977.

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Mark Amery visits New Plymouth for the Festival of Lights and Len Lye: All Souls Carnival.

"A choreographer with light, sound and movement, Lye was one of our greatest artists. He reaches for us beyond just an experience of wonderment."

* * *

The waterfall in New Plymouth’s Pukekura Park, with its carefully calibrated cascades, began performing with light on Saturday night as part of the park’s magical Festival of Lights. With coloured fluorescents planted under each rock ledge, highlighting the shimmer, filigree and shadowplay of water and ferns, the experience of wonder here is akin to that with the work of artist Len Lye. It seems natural that they share the same city home.

Saturday night saw the opening of the largest Lye show yet to be mounted; the first time his kinetic steel sculpture, films and painting have filled the Govett Brewster since 1977.

A choreographer with light, sound and movement Lye was one of our greatest artists. He reaches for us beyond just an experience of wonderment. Like waterspouts, it is as if Lye’s work is connecting bodily such earthly displays as a waterfall with the crackle of energy in the skies above. Dancing like whirling dervishes, his ‘figures in motion’ bring together the life of indigenous cultural traditions and modern abstract art to call out to universal forces beyond us.

There is a bevy of rarely or never seen work here. Centrestage is the recently restored 1957 film All Souls Carnival. This has all the textural richness of other films combined, seeming to throw every abstract idea Lye has into its painterly soup. It lacks the structure of other films for not having been composed to music. Yet it revels in being a riotous carnival of fabrics, washing over one another like ribbons of water. It is a glorious thing.

There are four kinetic sculptures reconstructed recently by the Len Lye Foundation few have previously witnessed. Completed this year, Bell Wand is a revelation. A small dangling bell rings gently against the middle of a tall slender rotating stem of steel, like a trinket on the waist of a bellydancer sounding off a ritualistic chime. Two testicle-like bells adorn the top of the rod and, as the rod’s rotation gains speed, a metal plate at its base starts to pound against it loudly, sounding like old-fashioned fire engine bells as it reaches a climax. Any doubts Lye’s work sometimes models the experience of sex will be banished.

It’s a joy to experience work in different media interacting in concert with each other. They could mingle even more. The sculptures become more akin to the ribbons of celluloid he painted, and this is nodded to by the retaining in the gallery of Anton Parson’s Jamb, a curtain of red plastic strips hanging over a doorway. The nearby positioning of the bouncing belt Universe emphasises its relationship to cinema, but also curator Tyler Cann’s interest in Lye’s works’ direct bodily effect on the viewer. Placed against a hot-red painted wall, a ribbon of dancing white light is projected across the floor.

Govett Brewster’s past life as a cinema comes into nice effect. It physically provides us with height over multiple odd viewing platforms - even a porthole - to consider works whose ambitions make even this space seem too cramped. With strong lighting design, shadows shimmer through the space. The projection of fronds from one of Lye’s Fountains plays on a wall above fall-like sculpture Storm King, dramatically whacking and crashing away like a tempest squall. Far above, a fan vent in the roof occasionally opens and whirls, allowing light to dance over the ominously still giant Trilogy. Moments like these make you feel like you could be in the bowels of some awe-inspiring temple of Lye’s devising.

The space enables the shape of works to be considered from a distance. I was reminded that Lye’s professional training was as a graphic designer. The sculptures show an understanding of the grace of forms in space. Trilogy, in particular, feels like a charged sexual conversation played out in giant punctuation marks. A masterwork of a cosmic altarpiece, this enormous work is rarely seen, and unleashes a phenomenal rippling, lashing physical and poetic power. Due to the strain of wear and tear it plays only twice a day.

Cann has sequenced the performance of the works in different combinations, so our experience is full of surprises akin to a theatrical performance. I think however he’s been overly reverent in the pauses provided between the different component’s performances. I found it frustrating waiting for work to start. I longed to see more in orchestrated concert. There’s film of Lye in studio with his sculptures battling it out, and I wanted more of this kind of mad reproductive fission, which itself marks out visually much of Lye’s work. With films like Free Radicals and Colour Box playing close to one another I longed to hear the tribal drums of one segue into the leaping clarinet of the other, with flourishes of timpani and cymbal from Storm King kicking in nearby. In other words: to experience a carnival.

This exhibition emphasises the opportunity the Len Lye Centre, due to open in 2014 offers us. It is a chance to play with the choreography of these works together, and for the public to experience why the centre is worth every fundraising dollar ($5.5 of 10 million has been raised to date).

Just up from the Pukekura Park waterfall is the picturesque Poet’s Bridge. Amusingly, it wasn’t named for poetry but a racehorse called Poet. The winnings from a bet on the horse funded it. New Plymouth is now better known for visual poetry of a more abstract kind. One hopes there’s a horse out there somewhere with the Len Lye Centre’s name on it.

  • Len Lye: All Souls Carnival, Govett Brewster Contemporary Arts Museum, New Plymouth, until 27 November

Written by

Mark Amery

15 Sep 2011

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.