Len Lye, 'Free Radicals'
19.3.11 - 21.4.11
Len Lye (1901 - 1980) pursued a passion for experimentation and for creating new form throughout his whole career. His multifaceted practice included kinetic sculpture, photography, painting and poetry in addition to film making with and without a camera. He was one of the first non-Maori (Pākehā) artists from New Zealand to appreciate the art of Maori, Australian Aboriginal, Pacific Island and African cultures, which he incorporated into his own expression.
In the 1930s Lye was commissioned by the visionary film unit at the General Post Office in London and made a number of commercials that are now seen as seminal in the history of moving images. He made his first 'direct' (camera less) film, A Colour Box by painting directly onto the film in 1935, and from then on continued to develop the technique by interfering with the film stock in various ways.
Happiness was important to Lye and fundamental to his work. When he developed his political / philosophical concept of 'Individual Happiness Now' in 1941 at the height of the 2nd World War, he was hopeful that he could use his work to share 'the best in human experience' with others. He connected the making and seeing of art directly to our gene pattern containing information of ourselves and our evolutionary history, which he referred to as the 'essential selfness'. He believed that if art resonated with this information, the experience of aesthetic value could translate into happiness.
Lye stated that he approached every film project trying to do 'something not previously done in film technique'; with a focus on physical sensation and non-rational experience he strove to create a new language of the medium. His sense of movement was always kinaesthetic and physical. He was not interested in moving objects or in visual patterns, but in what he called 'pure figures of motion'.
Free Radicals (1958) and Particles in Space (1966) are maybe the films in which he comes closest to this idea. In making them Lye reduced the medium to its most basic elements, scratching marks onto the black film using a variety of scribers ranging from dental tools to an ancient Native American arrowhead. In Free Radicals the result is a dancing pattern of flashing lines and zigzags, creating equal associations to microscopic movements and gigantic lightning bolts in the night sky. Synchronised with the sounds of rhythmic drumming and singing by the African Bagirmi tribe, these pure figures of motion become hypnotic.
Particles in Space captures a sense of being at the beginning of time or on a journey into infinity. With a soundtrack combining Jumping Dance Drums from the Bahamas with drum music by the Yoruba of Nigeria and the sounds of Lye's own metal kinetic sculptures, the film embodies both his interest in our evolutionary beginnings and the experience of the atomic age in which it was created.