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. After all, there are melodic figures, why can’t there be figures of motion?
– Len Lye
Until fairly recently, New Zealand-born sculptor, film-maker and conceptual artist Len Lye (1901–80) was little known outside the art world, but his work is now earning well-deserved recognition. Born in Christchurch, Lye developed a fascination with movement, which expressed itself in his late teens in early experiments in kinetic sculpture. His interest in Maori art encouraged him to travel more widely, studying both Australian Aboriginal and Samoan dance. Adapting indigenous art to the precepts of the Futurist and Surrealist movements coming out of Europe, he experimented with sculpture, batik, painting, photography and animated “cameraless” films (he painstakingly stencilled, scratched and drew on the actual film). Lye spent time working on his films in London, but towards the end of World War II he joined the European artistic exodus and ended up in New York. Here he returned to sculpture, finding that he could exploit the flexibility of stainless-steel rods, loops and strips to create abstract “tangible motion sculptures” designed to “make movement real”. The erratic movements of these motor-driven sculptures give them an air of anarchy, which is most evident in his best-known work, 1977’s Trilogy (more commonly referred to as Flip and Two Twisters), three motorized metal sheets that wildly shake and contort until winding down to a final convulsion.
Lye envisaged his works as being monumental and set outdoors, but was always aware of the technical limitations of his era and considered his projects to be works of the twenty-first century. Just before his death in New York in 1980, friend, patron and New Plymouth resident, John Matthews, helped set up the Len Lye Foundation, which brought most of Lye’s scattered work to New Plymouth’s Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. The foundation has been instrumental in furthering Lye’s work. The Wind Wand is the most visible and largest product of their work though the foundation has also been instrumental in creating Lye’s Water Whirler on the Wellington waterfront.