Len Lye at HKS

This year started with me co-curating together with Anne Szefer Karlsen an exhibition about Len Lye at HKS in Bergen, Norway. Lye has interested me for a while. I discovered him the first time in the eighties when MTV screened his experimental films between music videos (yes, they still showed music videos back then). I then rediscovered Lye through his kinetic sculptures a few years back when I was doing research on motion. I became particular fond of Lye´s “figures of motion”, he described his raw material as not being film or steel, but motion.

HKS, which has never presented the work of a non-living artist before, was eager to do an exhibition on Lye, based on my enthusiasm for his work. We ended up showing six of his films in the gallery, presented one at a time on three screens of different size, thus forcing the audience to move around and relate to his work at different scale. In this way the presentation of his films became a choreography of the movement between the screens. It was great to see his films in high quality digital copies which really brought forward the textures from the paint strokes and scratches in the original film. Presenting Lye´s films by showing restored digital files projected by video-projectors onto custom-built screens obviously influences how the films are perceived (Maybe not even Lye has ever seen them in such a good quality). We were intent on focusing on the relation between colour,texture, movement, rhythm, sound and scale instead of making a historical pristine presentation.

The films we showed in the exhibition were A Colour Box (1935), Trade Tattoo (1937), Swinging the Lambeth Walk (1939), Rhythm (1957), Free Radicals (1958, re-edited 1979) and Particles in Space (1957, finished in 1979). We also had several side programs during the exhibition period, including the lecture The Musicality of Modernism by Per Kvist, a screening of the documentary A flip and two twisters, as well as a live evening, Len Live, where we invited three sound artists, Lasse Marhaug, Maia Urstad and Espen Sommer Eide,  to create three different soundtracks to Lye´s film Tusalava (1929).

For those interested in checking out Lye´s films in a quality better than the pixelated youtube copies circulating I would recommend the DVD release.

As part of the preparation for the exhibition we got the chance to go twice to the IKON gallery in Birmingham which had a Len Lye retrospective from november 2010 to february 2011. This gave me the rare opportunity to see some of Lye´s kinetic sculptures, which I made a small documentation from.

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Composing motion

I have known New Zealand artist Len Lye´s films for a long time, but was unaware of his kinetic sculptures until recently. I found the Universe sculpture from 1976 especially interesting. The Len Lye foundation did a remake of it in 1998, completely silent except for the sound made by the steel.

City of Sound did a nice post on Lye some years ago, and I will requote their Lye quote: “One of my art teachers put me onto trying to find my own art theory. After many morning walks an idea hit me that seemed like a complete revelation. It was to compose motion, just as musicians compose sound. [The idea] was to lead me far, far away from wanting to excel in traditional art.”

You can find several of Lye´s films by doing a search on youtube (although the quality isn´t very good), Free Radicals and Swinging the Lambeth Walk are two good examples of his work. What makes them really stand out today is the combination of the experimental nature of the visual side with the soundtracks of african drums and happy jazz.

There are two documentaries made on Lye, Doodlin´: Impressions of Len Lye, and A Flip and Two Twisters.

Addendum: There is also a third documentary about Lye (thanks Pip Chodorov)

Here is a an excerpt from the first one where you can see the Universe sculpture in action:

Roger Horrocks has written a biography on Lye, but it seems to be available only as a collector´s item at the moment. Horrocks has written a new book, Len Lye – ART THAT MOVES – which will be published by Auckland University Press in November 2009.

Here is a website which gives a good overview of the work of Lye.

Re-voir has a collection of Lye´s films on VHS (thanks again to Pip Chodorov).

And check out my quite extensive post on kinetic art.