Len Lye

About Len Lye

The New Zealand-born filmmaker, painter, kinetic sculptor, writer and genetic and experimental theorist Len Lye became a leading avant-garde artist in London and New York, bridging pre- and post-World War II movements and trends. Associated with many groundbreaking art groups, beginning with London’s modernist Seven and Five Society in the 1920s, the International Surrealist Movement in the 1930s, and the Kinetic Art Movement in the 1960s, Lye is best remembered for his contributions to the development of hand-crafted abstract cinema. In the early 1930s he experimented with new colour processes such as Dufaycolor and Gasparcolor while pioneering “direct animation”, a method of painting, scratching and stencilling directly onto motion picture celluloid. Aided by commissions from the British General Post Office (GPO), the Imperial Tobacco Company, Shell Motor Oil and Imperial Airways, his whimsical animated films of the mid- to late-1930s included original camera-less techniques, advertising slogans and dynamic musical rhythms. A fierce individualist and anarchistic thinker, Lye claimed that, “There has never been a great film unless it was created in the spirit of the experimental filmmaker.” When applied to his seldom seen but formally inventive war effort films, this statement illuminates Lye’s under-recognised contribution to the British documentary movement.

It was also in London where Lye began doodling with the possibility of film. As Horrocks points out, “The idea that the revolution in modern art had still scarcely influenced the medium of film-making was very much in Lye’s thoughts when he arrived in London in 1926.” Tusalava was completed a few years thereafter with the aid of a London Film Society grant. Shot with a 35mm animation camera, Tusalava was inspired by the indigenous art of Australian, Polynesian and Maori cultures.

The film, extremely cryptic, about “the beginnings of organic life,” develops slowly over 9 minutes. Throughout its duration, over 4000 drawings of cellular forms continuously generate new shapes that grow and interact with one another across two distinct vertically formatted panels (one black, one white), evoking themes of birth, death, sex, and transformation. Tusalava (a Samoan word meaning “just the same”) concludes with a pulsating spirographic pattern that, upon penetration by the tongue of an animal-like figure, elicits bolts of electricity before advancing upwards (towards the viewer) and consuming both halves of the frame.

The film’s fascination with biological, genetic and symbolic imagery presages Lye’s 1968 lecture “The Absolute Truth of the Happiness Acid”. According to Arthur Cantrill, this “complex three-hour presentation was in two parts: ‘Art and the Body’ and ‘Art and the Genes.’ It used films, slides and audio tapes, and needed the aid of three assistants. It was a performance as much as a talk.”

The main focus of the lecture-screening was Lye’s idiosyncratic theory of DNA, which he saw as the wellspring and pattern of artistic creation. In his formulation, quoting the art critic Clive Bell, “art lies in the genes”. Aesthetic ideas are generated by our genetic make-up, which Lye illustrated by comparing images of Le Corbusier and Henry Moore’s work with their respective facial structures. This indexical relationship between the essence of “selfness” and our corporeal reality accounts for Lye’s creation of imagery and forms that represent bodily feelings and motion, as well as his keen interests in music (especially jazz) and dance. Lye’s sense of movement was rooted in the physical, “the kinetic of the body’s rhythms”, not purely a matter of visual patterns. 

Akin to Oskar Fischinger’s fine art advertising films, Lye’s cinematic “figures of motion” sublimated their commercial purpose by emphasising geometric and all-over abstraction and direct authorial inscription. As Tess Takahashi notes, filmmakers like Lye, McLaren and Harry Smith saw direct animation as “a way for the artist to imbue film with the imprint of the filmmaker’s essential self… [This] self, represented for Lye by the then-new discovery of DNA, was transmitted in the process of direct animation.” Characterised by an obsessive fascination with colour, pattern, texture and movement these films elude textual analysis and descriptive language, preferring the non-verbal register of synaesthesic perception. Like Stan Brakhage’s hand-paintedoeuvre, Lye’s films strive toward a condition of pure cinema. This focus on medium-specificity and formal concerns limits the range of possible (literal) interpretations, and has been described as “cold rationalism” by the avant-garde film diarist, Jonas Mekas.

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