Len Lye’s sparkling new temple
Virginia Winder investigates the ongoing efforts to upscale Len Lye’s kinetic sculptures, taking them to a scale the mercurial artist dreamed of, but wasn’t able to achieve in his lifetime.
Len Lye was a man with his eyes on the future. And one can imagine the exhilaration and “zizz” he would have felt had he been alive to see the opening of the $11.5 million Len Lye Centre in New Plymouth, the first art gallery in Australasia dedicated to a single artist. A sculpture in its own right and a stunning example of destination architecture, the building, which opened on 25 July, mirrors Lye’s work, especially his fascination with the reflective and kinetic properties of steel.
“My work, I think, is going to be pretty good for the 21st Century, why the 21st, simply that there won’t be the means till then to have what I want, which is enlarged versions of my works and big scale jobs which will have to be housed in their own temples,” wrote the Christchurch-born artist. He was speaking of his kinetic sculptures, which he designed to be made on a huge scale, like the 45-metre Wind Wand that sways on New Plymouth’s foreshore and the 12-metre Water Whirler, which dances on Wellington’s waterfront.
Along with being a designer of kinetic sculpture, Lye was an experimental filmmaker, whose “direct films” were made by painstakingly painting and scratching on celluloid, plus he painted, drew and danced. This story is about Lye’s works of the past, present and future; works that now have their own temple – and sculptures being researched and made at the University of Canterbury. Behind its soaring, shiny-metal, fun-mirror façade are three exhibitions featuring his artworks. Four Fountains and Len Lye’s Jam Session are dedicated entirely to his works, while there are plans to include one of his most formidable works – an upgraded version of the highly sexual Trilogy: Flip and Two Twisters – in the Our Hearts of Darkness exhibition in the adjoining Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. “It’s absolutely one of the most thrilling artworks you can experience,” says Len Lye curator Paul Brobbel.
Four Fountains was inspired by the 2007–2008 exhibition Five Fountains and a Firebush. But the new show, which is built around the new fountain created by the Len Lye Foundation, is able to present Lye’s vision of size. “It’s eight metres tall and it’s the biggest fountain so far produced. It was always intended that it would be the opening work in the Large Works gallery,” Brobbel says.
The fountain shape was Lye’s most well known work in his lifetime. “The full story hasn’t been told because the scale wasn’t realised,” Brobbel continues. “He had ambitions for monumental sculpture. Fountain didn’t get to that before Lye died in 1980.
The idea is that a lot of the work in the Len Lye Foundation collection is a model for something bigger. Only a handful of works have got to that,” Brobbel says. “The Wind Wand has got to that – it’s something you can stand next to and feel it in your bones.”
Now, with the Large Works gallery, it’s possible to continue those experiments with scale. Brobbel hopes people will turn the corner into the gallery and get a thrill and a sense of wonder when they see something they didn’t expect or haven’t seen before. “The sense of beauty was there with the earlier fountains but not the sense of wonder.”
Four Fountains also refers to the archives. Lye’s notes on a 1961 evening performance at New York’s Museum of Modern Art tell how he presented his sculptures and they all performed differently – some with music, some with light. “It was theatre more than sculpture,” Brobbel says. “We’re looking at the lighting and the music to make it more of an experience than an exhibition.”
Lye’s works are all about movement. “As I was looking at those clouds I was thinking, wasn’t it Constable the English painter who sketched clouds to try to convey their motions? Well, I thought, why clouds, why not just motion? Why pretend they are moving, why not just move something? All of a sudden it hit me – if there was such a thing as composing music, there could be such a thing as composing motion,” Lye wrote.
In the centre’s main exhibition gallery is Len Lye’s Jam Session, which takes inspiration from the musical elements of his work. “I wanted to put together a survey of Lye’s work with things people expect, the things that new visitors need to see and a few lesser known, never-before-seen pieces,” Brobbel says. The show includes about 35 works, including kinetic sculptures – the delicate-waving Grass (1961-1965) and the bounding steel of Universe (1976), named by a boy who saw it working and thought it sounded like the universe. Then there are paintings, drawings and film, like the flashing energy of Free Radicals (1958) and Brobbel’s favourite, Swinging the Lambeth Walk (1939). “It clearly demonstrates the way Len could synchronise his abstract images on film with a musical sound track. The instruments perform with big wavy lines for the bass, there are thinner lines for the violin and the piano has its own identity.”
The Len Lye Centre also has a 62-seat cinema, which will show other films by Lye, along with those by local and international artists. Projection Series 1 features Lye’s A Colour Box (1935), Rainbow Dance (1936), Trade Tattoo (1937), Color Cry (1952) and All Souls Carnival (1957).
While the centre has opened to fanfare and criticism (locally, it has been a hugely contentious move by the New Plymouth District Council, despite being an $11.5 million gift to the city), work for future sculptures still goes on in the background. At the University of Canterbury, mechanical engineering PhD candidate Alex O’Keefe has worked with spring stainless steel to create sea serpents, goddesses, gods and lightning. His thesis presents an engineering study to determine the feasibility of creating Len Lye’s proposed kinetic artwork Sun, Land, and Sea at its full size. To do this, O’Keefe has created another art work, Snake God and the Snake Goddess, which is one-fifth the size of the larger work and also a simplified version. Sun, Land, and Sea isn’t destined for a gallery, but for the great outdoors. Lye planned for it to be 50 metres long, with seven undulating sea serpents, one of which rises up 30 metres high and shoots a massive lightning bolt through a Flip (Cave Goddess) to hit an enormous golden sphere (Sun God). “That’s Len’s grand plan,” O’Keefe says.
Meanwhile the precursor, which Lye designed towards his monumental work, has been realised and is likely to be shown at the Len Lye Centre next year. It involves a single 9-metre-long serpent, which ripples like a snake, lifts up and rears back ready to strike, releasing a 3-metre-long lightning bolt, which whip cracks through a flipping curl of metal and strikes a gold sphere that appears to glow as it reflects the light. “It’s like you’re up close with a lightning bolt. You get full retina retention and are able to feel the crack of the lightning in your chest.” O’Keefe says.
O’Keefe’s thesis concludes that it is feasible to create the work. But at this time the materials to build the grand sculpture are not available. “Yes, it’s possible, but it can’t be made with the same material Lye used in his works. We know we can, we’re just waiting for the means to be present,” O’Keefe says.
Len Lye Foundation director Evan Webb says the sculpture Blade has been successfully made to the scale Lye dreamt it could be. Dr Shayne Gooch completed his doctoral thesis on upscaling Blade from the original and looking at what happens to a large piece of steel when it’s subjected to vibration. “That’s the academic side and the thrilling side is the artistic side – making Len Lye’s works,” Webb says.
The research led to Gooch making Blade nearly twice the size of the original 2.9-metre sculpture (overall). The total sculpture is now 4.6 metres high, but it has been created in titanium rather than in the steel Lye used. This dramatic work, in the collection of New Plymouth engineer John Matthews and wife Lynda, was shown in New Plymouth’s Pukekura Park during summer. “When you’re increasing size sometimes conventional materials can’t be used any more,” Webb says. “For example the Wind Wand can only be made to 12 metres because the aluminium or steel won’t support anything larger. To make a larger wind wand you need to use different materials – in this case fibreglass and carbon fibre, which are used on sailing boats.”
This use of materials has also been researched by students at the University of Canterbury who are making a full scale version of Harmonic. The sculpture is a 12-metre-high, free-standing wand, which, when excited by a motor, forms a harmonic wave shape that transforms into a rotating three-dimensional ovoid shape.
Sun, Land, and Sea is a component of a much bigger dream, Webb says. “It would be part of the Temple of Lightning that would be like a grand sculpture park.” People would travel by boat to the temple in the middle of a lake, passing a huge Wind Wand, Fountain and other large works. “We’re planning a schedule of work at the university, hoping to realise some of these large works.”
This work is greatly supported by scholarships from John Matthews, who owns Technix Group and whose relationship with Lye is integral to everything. Webb says Matthews is undaunted by the scale of these sculptures. “John just gets on and works towards them. Works of this scale can only be achieved by those with vision and ambition and the partnership between Len and John proved formidable. That began in the 1970s when John Matthews went to visit Len Lye.” Matthews made a medium-sized version of Trilogy and shared his results with Lye, who asked: “Now can we have a big one?”
That was a pivotal moment in the relationship between the artist and the engineer, which led to a full-scale Trilogy, the making of more kinetic sculptures, Lye’s works being entrusted to the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, the formation of the Len Lye Foundation, the relationship with the University of Canterbury and now the opening of the Len Lye Centre. But the dreams continue. “You don’t know if something can be achieved unless you start nibbling away at it and that’s what we’re doing at the university,” Webb says.