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Mover & shaker

A new book tells the story of expat artist Len Lye in his own words.

Len Lye circa 1979 with Land and Sea.

One of the most interesting things about the life of artist Len Lye (1901-80) is that it seems to have never been uninteresting. Evidently he was a charming and garrulous itinerant artist who travelled in many different circles, and his constant activity nearly upstages how magnificent and path-breaking his artworks are. At least that’s the impression I had while reading Roger Horrocks’ fine compendium of Lye’s scattered prose, poetry, letters and textual ephemera, selections from which the editor has ably stitched into an informal posthumous memoir entitled Zizz! (In the book’s epigraph, Lye states: “I’m interested in the business of energy and getting a feeling of zizz.”)

Having been a careful biographer and historian of Lye’s work for many years, Horrocks is exactly the right person to take on this project. The timing of this publication coincides with the opening this month of a new centre devoted to Lye’s work at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth, where the artist bequeathed his archive in 1977.

Lye, a son of Christchurch who spent most of his adult years far from New Zealand, has taken some time to be properly inducted into the artistic canon of his home country. This, of course, is now changing, and it’s remarkable to learn how much Lye was involved with cutting-edge international Modernist developments.

The book parcels out Lye’s life according to the widely dispersed geographic locations where he worked but also in relation to the major creative developments in his practice, including direct film and kinetic sculpture. What emerges most successfully is the fact that his voice remains so utterly vibrant and rich in perceptivity.

Lye was clearly very observant from an early age, as he was inspired by the landscape, most famously the shifting winds of the capital city, which spurred his interest in capturing kinetic movement in his art, but also in everyday phenomena. “If I’d just heard someone clanking a nice bit of metal outside my bedroom window, it would be a sound day: I’d focus on sounds all day.”

ZizzCoverThe young iconoclast was also one of the first Pakeha artists to seriously engage with Maori carvings and the Samoan tapa design. When he arrived in London, he presented himself to local artists and gained a surprising amount of attention and patronage and a welcome place amid a burgeoning Modernist scene. Within a few years he was selling his handmade films and short animations as commercials; Time magazine dubbed him “England’s answer to Walt Disney”. He also befriended poets including Dylan Thomas: “We’d wake up with a verbal hangover, brain reeling with thoughts and words.”

Lye spoke to politicians and philosophers about his notion of “individual happiness now”. And his experimentation also reached into other sectors: “What I saw on mescaline wasn’t that different from what I see normally, and it’s better when I see it normally because then I can at least remember it.”

Zizz! serves as a concise and lively vehicle to access the thoughts and ruminations of this thoroughly memorable New Zealand artist.

Zizz! The Life and Art of Len Lye, with Roger Horrocks (Awa Press, $30).

Martin Patrick is a senior lecturer at the School of Art at Massey University, Wellington.

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