By Insider – Jock Phillips
The sea was roaring, the wind was howling, the flax bushes were quivering and rattling, and every so often the rain would pitter-patter on the pavement. It was a symphony of sound and movement.
I was walking along New Plymouth’s dramatic coastal pavement on my way to the Len Lye Exhibition at the Govett-Brewster Gallery. But it felt and sounded as if I was already there, and indeed Lye’s ‘Wind Wand’, leaning dramatically in the south-westerlies, was a beckoning vantage point, as it has become for many New Plymouth residents.
So who, if you are a visitor to this country, is Len Lye? Thanks to that fine scholar Roger Horrocks, his story is now well-told. Born of working class origins in Christchurch in 1901, he spent time at the Cape Campbell lighthouse where he developed a life-long interest in the sea, and then Wellington. In the 1920s he travelled in Australia and the Pacific and began another life-long interest in ‘primitive’ art. In 1926 he reached London. Then began a period of extraordinary creativity in many media – oils, photographs, photograms (photographs created without a camera) and above all films. He pioneered a technique for painting or scratching direct onto celluloid. In 1944 he went to New York and from the 1950s explored kinetic sculptures – figures of motion using industrial materials like steel rods, bands or saw blades. For his exploration of saw blades see this little clip on Te Ara.
His connection with the Govett-Brewster Gallery began in 1977, over fifty years after he had left the country. He got to know a New Plymouth engineer John Matthews, who solved the engineering problems of how to execute his kinetic works and the gallery offered to build and display them. Lye was so impressed that he bequeathed his papers and major works to the gallery.
Periodically, the Govett-Brewster exhibits its Len Lye pieces. This time they have turned the whole gallery over to his work again for the REAL New Zealand Festival and Rugby World Cup 2011. It is the largest Len Lye exhibition ever held in this country, and the largest display of his kinetic sculptures ever. The gallery has done a magnificent job. The lighting is superb, and creates a delicate play of shadows around each sculpture. The four gallery spaces are each digitally controlled so that the works come to life in logical sequence and don’t fight with one another. It is as much a theatrical experience as a purely artistic one.
More remarkably, there is almost no clashing of sounds from one gallery to another. And this is important because I had never realised before how much Lye was interested in making music through his art. Lye’s work is well-known for his exploration of motion, but he liked to associate movement with sounds. His films were consciously designed to be played to music. ‘Free radicals‘ was scratched in shapes to correspond to the beat of African drums. And his kinetic sculptures make the most remarkable sounds once they go off. In his masterwork ‘Trilogy – a flip and two twists’ there is the whipping of steel. In ‘Universe’ we watch and hear a coiled band hitting a cork ball. It is theatre, it is art, but it is also a concert. But the eyes get their fill too. ‘Moon Bead’, with a pearl in the middle of a steel rod, makes the most beautiful shapes as it warms up and gets frantic. When I visited, the place was full of American cup visitors, and we all stood transfixed watching it in admiration. Many of the works have been on display before, but new ones have been added; and I can’t believe that the lay-out of the works has ever been so superb.
The Govett-Brewster is far from finished with promoting Len Lye. I met Andrew Patterson, who is just beginning the working drawings of a major extension to the gallery, which will allow a permanent display of his works, not to mention a cinema and a research centre for those scholars who will come to New Plymouth from around the world. The exterior of the new building will look like a Frank Gehry work in stainless steel – a building in continual movement as the light changes. What could be more appropriate?
Len Lye is one of New Zealand’s few artists of true international standing and originality. If you are visiting New Zealand from overseas or a Kiwi who wants some consolation when Australia beats New Zealand in the cup final (just kidding!), make sure you get to New Plymouth to see the exhibition. You will not be disappointed. And if you can’t make it there, at least take a look at the water whirler on Wellington’s waterfront.
I left the Govett-Brewster and walked back along the coast. The seas had calmed down, the wind had died. Then I heard the sounds of engines and saw above me three Russian jets carving vapour trails in the sky as they cavorted and looped the loop. Once more there was the drama of movement and sound. Wherever you go in New Plymouth it is hard to escape the exciting world of Len Lye.
A local: I asked a clothing retailer if the cup had been good for business. The answer came: ‘Yes there have been plenty of people from many places. But the really good thing is the mood they are in – and they say such nice things about New Plymouth.’
A visitor: A rugby fan from Britain who had been to three previous world cups told me that the country was so small he had had trouble with finding transport and accommodation. But it had not mattered, because the locals kept offering him rides or a bed. He was staying in New Plymouth in the home of a woman who worked at the i-SITE. The best cup yet, he added.