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Origins of His Art

Zizz! The life and art of Len Lye in his own words
with Roger Horrocks (Awa Press, $30)
Reviewed by Max Rashbrooke

Zizz High Res

‘Zizz’ was one of Len Lye’s favourite expressions, a word that captured his immense love of motion and energy. Even as a child he had a remarkable attentiveness to movement and other sensations. Every night he would go over the day’s doings, becoming so good at this that eventually he could recall everything that had happened since the morning with complete precision: “I remembered whether I had first looked out the window at the weather, or guessed it with closed eyes from the feel of the light and air in the plain room; and how I had laid the fire in the morning and how it had caught.”

Sensations became his structuring force in life. The first thing his senses picked up each morning – seeing the sun rise, or feeling bare feet on linoleum floor – determined the focus for the day: “If I’d just heard someone clanking a nice bit of metal outside my bedroom window, it would be a sound day: I’d focus on sounds all day. Colour days, weight days, sound days, motion days – these helped to sharpen my various senses.”

Insights like these are scattered through this tidy, square, image-laden book. The great strength of this snappy arrangement of excerpts from Lye’s letters and essays is that it allows him to explain in his own words the origins of his art, including the eureka moment when the sight of scudding clouds made him realise that “if there was such a thing as composing music, there could be such a thing as composing motion”.

The rest of the book traces Lye’s attempts to make that dream a reality, the journey through which he made the art works – the kinetic sculptures and the films painted directly onto celluloid – that later brought him fame, if not fortune. (He had a knack for choosing expensive and poorly remunerated art forms.)

The great advantage of letting Lye speak his own words is that one comes to know him intensely, thanks in part to a prose style almost as distinctive and outrageous as his art works: he described it as “zigzag, back-to-front verbalising”. One also hears direct his excitement about creating art that conveyed his love of motion: “If I can make something wiggle in a way that is fascinating to me, I’ll spend months messing around with it. If I succeed, those are the big kicks.”

The downside is that Lye had a strong streak of anti-intellectualism, and his writing does little to explain where his art fitted into the wider intellectual context of the time, what other artistic movements were emerging, or even why he did what he did, beyond that basic enjoyment of motion. Elsewhere, his obsession with individualism, and his apparent inability to see any value in collectives or to live outside the present moment, are all a bit grating. ‘Individual happiness now’, the slogan with which he ventured into political polemicism, is a good example of why artists shouldn’t be put in charge of the world. (What about doing things together? What about planning for the future?)

Fortunately, he spent vastly more time on art than on politics, and one of the beauties of this book is that almost every page of lovingly laid-out text is partnered with an image of one of Lye’s paintings, sculptures or film stills. His love of colour, his restless ingenuity, his grand visions – such as Universe Walk, an unfulfilled plan to install a series of giant kinetic sculptures in the mountains – are all evident.

Lye knew, though, that to “get a kick” from one of his kinetic sculptures, those edifices of steel that are probably now his most-loved works, one had to “see and hear the real thing. [Their] qualities can’t be conveyed by a photograph or a description in words.” The same is true of his vigorous, zizz-filled films. There’s an element of frustration, then, in reading this book and always wanting to see something that isn’t actually there. But that’s just one more reason to peruse his back catalogue on YouTube or, better still, at the newly opened Len Lye centre in New Plymouth – which one imagines is precisely what Roger Horrocks, who lovingly put together this “sampler and introduction”, would have wanted.