Andrew Paul Wood
Zizz! The life and art of Len Lye, in His Own Words, by Len Lye with Roger Horrocks (Awa Press, 2015), 208 pp., $30
The Len Lye phenomenon has become almost cult-like in recent years, culminating in July 2015 with the launch of the mirror-finish, fingerprint-prone $11.5 million Len Lye Centre in New Plymouth (and entered through the gift shop). There have been documentaries, even an opera, and from the official mythology you could be forgiven for failing to grasp that with the exception of a handful of believers – Hamish Keith, Peter Tomory and Bob Ballard, the sometime director of the Govett-Brewster – in the 1960s and 1970s Lye was largely ignored.
Roger Horrocks, Lye’s biographer and also his assistant for the artist’s final year before his death in 1980, has put together a stylish, compact little book. Zizz! The Life and Art of Len Lye in His Own Words is lighter and more bouncy than Horrocks’ 2001 biography. The title, ‘Zizz’ was Lye’s nonsense word for dynamism and vitality, and the content here brings together the artist’s wit and wisdom with plenty of carefully gathered personal anecdotes. One of the nice things about this publication is the way it showcases Lye’s rather unique prose style. It conveys a poetic, impressionistic and mercurial stream of thought that, while capturing a sense of the man and his life, also endeavours to get as much zizz in as possible. The book records, for example, Len’s belief that:
Studying motion is not an intellectual game. There is not a moment in our waking life or dream life that’s empty of kinetic experience. It is present when our heart beats, when our eardrums resonate, our pulse runs, our breathing inhales and exhales.
Len Lye was born in Christchurch in 1901. Even as a child he was obsessed with movement and the flow of energy. Finding New Zealand a little constraining for his artistic ambitions, he moved to Sydney and then London. This was of course, in the early twentieth century, a uncommon trajectory for non-conformist creatives from Aotearoa. Lye’s magnetic charm got him in with the right people, exhibiting with Frances Hodgkins (another cultural refugee) and Henry Moore. He dabbled with Surrealism in Europe, then sailed for New York, a place that thrived on novelty and energy, where Lye became known as a film-maker – one who pioneered painting directly onto celluloid – and as a kinetic sculptor. His work is held in New York in the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and Centre Pompidou in Paris – though it should be noted that these institutions have vast and diverse collections.
With the encouragement of the loyal faithful, Lye returned to the archipelago of his birth in 1977 for the first New Zealand exhibition of his work at the Govett-Brewster and, shortly before his death three years later, the Len Lye Foundation was established, to which he bequeathed his work. Or rather, he bequeathed some work and many drawings and ideas that remained unrealised until the ingenious engineer John Matthews of New Plymouth set about trying to make them real. The flexible totem Wind Wand, bowing and bending down near the New Plymouth foreshore, was first erected in 1999 only to be taken down a few weeks later, then repaired and reinstalled in 2001.
The Zizz book is a welcome antidote to the recent tsunami of Lye-related books, events and merchandise getting in the way of the artist, which seem to be rather too enthusiastically trying to cash in. I can think of no other New Zealand artist who has been the centre of a similar circus, not even McCahon, and the McCahon industry is very well developed.
Picking up Zizz one can settle in with what the man (described as ‘The least boring person who ever existed’) actually said, rather than with the latter-day hagiography and art-historical hype. There is his childhood in colonial New Zealand and memories of kicking around an old tin can and being infatuated with its movement. There is his experimentation with combining Polynesian and Modernist aesthetics a good twenty or so years before Theo Schoon and Gordon Walters. There is also the idealogical activism: Lye’s concern in the 1930s in Britain that the British government wasn’t doing enough to counter Nazi propaganda, and his anarchic plunge into political philosophy – summed up by the slogan ‘Individual happiness now’. Understandably, a man infatuated with life, love and freedom could only be appalled at the soulless National Socialists, and his solution was typical Lye polemics:
The favourite word ‘Democracy’ has been blunted by use in the party politics of various countries. What else are we fighting for, then, as individuals? What, for example, is the prime minister personally fighting for? He would probably answer, ‘For the right to read what I like, write what I like, live where I like, travel where I like, and wear whatever hats I like.’ In short, the right to individual happiness now.
The final section is the most poignant, when Lye faces death with characteristically undaunted energy, generosity and warmth. In the short prose poem ‘Imagining my last day’, he writes: ‘What shall I say except it’s a complete love-nut to be alive, no matter how chilly the water. Tell me, what would you most feel your life to be if it were your last day?’ I find this direct interaction with the artist preferable to what I see as the bubbly ‘Len Lye Industry’ and its province-linked marketing campaigns. Even if this volume, at times, reads more like a modish self-help book (artist as therapy – perhaps the pernicious influence of Alain de Botton?) than an art text. Indeed, any prospecting art historians out there should be cautious of using it as an absolutely verbatim source. In the ‘About this book’ section at the end Roger Horrocks notes:
This account of the life, art and ideas of Len Lye is based on the artist’s own words, mostly from his essays but supplemented now and then by his letters, poems and interviews. By ‘based on’ I mean that I have edited his work with a degree of freedom. A scholarly edition of Lye’s writings where every text is given in full and any omission signalled with punctuation would be a valuable work to have. It would also be huge, a row of volumes.
An understandable necessity, then; but one that leaves the reader uncertain as to exactly how much trust to place in Horrocks’ role as an amanuensis: what derives from where? I would have settled for a date at the bottom of each passage. Yet, given Lye’s mana, undoubtedly someone somewhere is working on the multivolume Collected Works, even as I type these words.
ANDREW PAUL WOOD is a writer, translator, independent art historian and curator based in Christchurch. He has a doctorate in art history from the University of Canterbury.
Roger Horrocks says
My thanks to Andrew Paul Wood for a thoughtful and generous review of this book. I just want to clarify one point: Wood suggests that there is a “Lye industry” cashing in on his art. If anyone is doing that, it is certainly not the Len Lye Foundation, whose trustees have never been paid for their hundreds of hours of work for this non-profit organization. Building kinetic sculptures and keeping them in working order is an extremely expensive business and the Foundation has always been short of cash. One person – John Matthews – has donated a huge amount of money to fund this work, to make it possible for New Zealanders to be able to enjoy the sculptures in good condition. Lye bequeathed his collection to the people of this country, the Foundation has donated its time and money, and the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery does not charge admission. As for the books I have written on Lye, any royalties I have received have not covered the costs of my research or the need to buy rights so I can include some photos of other relevant art. I do not receive funding from any university, Creative NZ, or other funding body for my research. Like other Foundation trustees, I have persevered because of my enthusiasm for Lye’s work. It is important that New Zealanders should understand the financial difficulties faced by an organization such as the Lye Foundation. To imply that there is an industry making money out of Lye is a sad misunderstanding. As an ‘independent art historian,’ Mr. Wood should be well aware of the scarcity of funding.
If Govett-Brewster is selling a few Lye-related notebooks and bags, and New Plymouth tourism is gaining some benefit, what’s the problem? It’s good that there is public interest in art. It would be even better if there was some way to fund our on-going maintenance work on Lye’s sculptures, since that is a problem that the Foundation has not yet been able to solve. Does Mr. Wood have any ideas?
Roger Horrocks says
I meant to answer one more of Mr Wood’s questions. He asks “What derives from where? I would have settled for a date at the bottom of each passage.” If he turns to the end of the book he will find ten pages of “Endnotes” which give the source of every one of Lye’s comments. There are also quite a few dates, and I gave the date whenever it was known.