Monday, October 5, 2009
Best Lye book ever
Edited by Tyler Cann and Wystan Curnow
Essays by Guy Brett, Tyler Cann, Wystan Curnow, Roger Horrocks, Tessa Laird, and Evan Webb
Designed by Kalee Jackson
184 pp, b/w and colour illustrations, paperback
Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and Len Lye Foundation 2009
It has taken a little over thirty years but it has been well worth the wait: here at last is the first Len Lye coffee table book, with decently sized colour illustrations and substantial discussions on individual themes. Something to go alongside Roger Horrocks’ wonderful biography and Figures of Motion, Curnow and Horrocks’ exuberant anthology of the artist’s writings. Three decades have lapsed between Lye’s first show at the Govett-Brewster and the large exhibition currently on the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne, and there have been one or two remarkable publications in between (like Horrocks’ and Jean-Michel Bouhours’ 2000 Pompidou anthology), but this attractive and highly informative, yellow tome is very striking. It should really do something to spread the Lye 'gospel' overseas. Especially in the northern hemisphere.
Most of the six essays are superb. Accompanied often by images of recently made works they offer new perspectives on hitherto undiscussed areas, or fresh overviews.
Wystan Curnow’s contribution skilfully intertwines the series of fifty photograms Lye made in New York in 1947 with a writing project he was obsessed with: Individual Happiness Now – a postwar thesis about correcting the ills of the world. With the group of artists, musicians, tradesmen, friends and intellectuals that Lye asked to pose in profile for ‘portraits’ on sheets of light sensitive paper, Curnow speculates briefly but most interestingly about a group of baby images and the portrait of Nina Bull. Bull was a research associate in psychiatry at Columbia University whom Lye met through Louise Bates Ames, a curator at the Yale Clinic of Child Development. Ames he met when doing Life with Baby a March of Time newsreel assignment.
Lye was interested in human biological development and Bull’s published article Attitudes: Conscious and Unconscious, an account of how unconscious inclinations deep within the central nervous system, transmute via a particular three stage neuromuscular sequence into a certain kind of physiological orientation and positioning. This then through visceral feeling becomes a conscious act. He was intrigued by the origins of bodily dispositions and their relationship to language use and images that the subject might empathise with. Such an interest was obvious in the emotional and bodily properties of his films, and in the fifties it was to extend into kinetic sculpture.
On another tack, Evan Webb takes a brilliant observation made by the French film curator Jean-Michel Bouhours in 2000 and develops it into an elucidation of how the materiality of film and the mechanics of film projectors influenced Lye’s kinetic sculpture. Webb discusses Bouhours’ unusual installation of Lye’s work in Le Fresnoy where he placed projectors running with films alongside kinetic sculptures in a large exhibition hall, and how the projectors seemed to become kinetic ‘tangibles’. He points out Bouhours’ enthusiasm for the very early (1930) photogram Self Planting At Night which has an image of a blindly stumbling light-house, walking with a beam projecting from its head. It is also a tree ‘planting’ itself, a theme resurrected seventeen years later with Bull and the derivation of individual ‘attitudes’ - as discussed above.
Webb then goes on to describe the processes of posthumously contructing works like Water Whirler and Ribbon Snake, highlighting their projector-like properties: one using rollers (Ribbon Snake), the other an undulating, spinning wand emitting horizontal jets of water like a convulsing vertical filmstrip or writhing lighthouse (Water Whirler).
Lye’s fraught and highly ambivalent relationship with Surrealism is examined in depth by Tyler Cann, the curator of the Len Lye Collection and Archives. Lye participated in several Surrealist exhibitions and mixed in their milieu, but was often offended whenever he was classified as one. He felt that Surrealism excessively emphasised a literary dimension with an interpretative or narrative dimension that blocked the immediacy of the visceral sensations he was striving to achieve. This conflict Cann then elaborates on (possibly with unintended irony), discussing Lessing’s famous treatise on Laocoön where he champions poetry and text over the visual arts, seeing the serpents in Greek statues as improperly mixing symbolic language into sculpture. Quoting the art historian W.J.Mitchell’s use of William Blake to repudiate Lessing’s purity of genres, Cann then says Lye works like Ribbon Snake deliberately blur over such distinctions.
In another shorter essay Cann looks at Lye’s use of scale, coloured light, sound and motion within five versions of Fountain, the well known cluster of splayed rods on a turning disc, how the Len Lye Foundation came to be formed and the activities of himself, Evan Webb and John Matthews. Cann’s and Webb’s writings about processes behind the current posthumous creation of Lye’s art are an excellent introduction for those unfamiliar with the aims of the Foundation.
Roger Horrocks’ contribution goes back in Lye's career to 1939, presenting a detailed account of his use of direct painting and synchronised music in his film Swinging the Lambeth Walk. It discusses his use of music from Le Quintette du Hot Club (with Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli) and the Milt Herth Trio. The records of these two jazz bands provided most of the soundtrack for its three minutes twenty second duration. Horrocks analyses how Lye pulled together solos from different recordings, put them into eight bar blocks, and sometimes repeated them. He would match certain repeated alignments of coloured shape or line with specific instruments, and plan the co-ordination (helped in sound editing by Ernest Meyer, a German composer friend) by listing in sequence descriptions of solos in instrument-coded, coloured pencil.
Guy Brett, the English curator who did a residency at the Adam Art Gallery last year, a well-known enthusiast for Brazilian art and seventies kinetics, has an essay that provides an international context for Lye’s sculpture, looking at his practice alongside others such as Vantongerloo, Takis, Soto and Tinguely. While it’s informative, there’s nothing revelatory that you can’t already get from the Horrocks bio or Brett’s own brilliant Force Fields publication - though it is a successful condensation.
Similarly Tessa Laird’s contribution is a little limited. She unfortunately focuses solely on film and colour, and perhaps this is what the editors asked her to do. What she says about younger Lye-influenced New Zealand film-makers like Lisa Reihana, Nova Paul, and Veronica Vaevae is accurate and a good read, but this publication should have also included some discussion of related contemporary New Zealand kinetic sculptors (like Andrew Drummond, Marcus Moore, Evan Webb and Tony Nicholls) and other artists influenced by his concept of ‘doodle’ – like Paul Hartigan. Lye’s influence has travelled through younger generations of artists in this country on several levels, and this book should have been able to tap that.
The only other quibble I have is that, although there is a good biographical chronology, there is no index. You can always use the Horrocks book for many such queries but here, with new research being showcased, easy accessibility to fresh information is important. However overall, this publication is clearly a huge success. It’s gorgeous and it’s thrilling. The sexiest Lye publication yet.