By Briony Wright
Len Lye was born at the turn of the last century on New Zealand’s then-mind-numbingly isolated South Island. Consequently, the likelihood that Len would eventually have a creative impact on the world was about as slim as him winning the lottery without a ticket. Luckily, thanks to a crafty combination of talent, vision and relocation to London, Len’s work was able to divide audiences on a global scale. Len Lye’s fascination with movement and his experiments with film and celluloid were like nothing that had ever been seen before in the early 1900s and it’s a little known fact that he produced the very first ever music video.
Len Lye died an old man in 1980 but his long-time collaborator, Roger Horrocks, was obliging enough to speak to us on his behalf.
Vice: What was New Zealand like in the 20s when Len Lye started experimenting with film and art?
New Zealand was a small colony at the end of the world, dominated by the practical concerns of farmers and land speculators. There was some art, but it was mostly derivative, hand-me-down stuff, imitating the London art of earlier years. When Len started experimenting, he seemed to be the only artist in New Zealand with a knowledge of Cubism, Futurism, and any of the other modern ‘isms’. He tried to talk about his work and his ideas but people thought he was “potty” (his word), so he mostly kept things to himself.
So he was a bit of a creative anomaly?
He was a one-man modern art movement. Luckily, he was also incredibly self-motivated, which seems to have been a legacy of the fact that his father had died when he was three, at which point he was shunted off to a series of foster homes. So he learned to look after himself, and grew up like a tough little street kid. As a young man he was contemptuous of the establishment, including the art scene, and he developed fiercely independent ideas about everything. Len’s philosophy centred on the idea of individuality, and his slogan was “Individual Happiness Now.”
A still from Rainbow Dance (1936)
That sounds like a great, hedonistic mantra. Did he go to art school?
Len had to leave school at the age of 13 and he couldn’t afford to go to high school. He made extraordinary use of free public libraries and knew how crucial it was for kids who grew up poor to have access to them. Len used them so well that by the time he was in his early 20s, he knew more about new trends in art than any artist or art teacher in New Zealand.
You recently made a film about a “breakthrough” moment that Len had. Can you tell us about that?
When he was a teenager, Len was out delivering papers on a very windy day in Wellington (which is famous for its wind). Watching the clouds blowing around, he suddenly had two ideas—first, that movement could be the basis for a completely new approach to art, and second, that the way to think about movement was in terms of music. He called this “a figure of motion”. This was a big discovery for Len, and he spent the rest of his life as an artist developing it, both in film and in kinetic sculpture.
Frame enlargement from Peanut Vendor (1933)
What were some of the techniques he pioneered?
In the 1930s he had invented a new way of making films—doing so without a camera by painting and scratching images directly onto the celluloid. The results were brilliantly coloured and had a funky look, with lines and blobs bouncing around with lots of physical energy.
Oh yeah, those films look amazing—like they’re alive almost.
Yeah, but he needed a way to fund his films so he could get them screened in cinemas. So he came up with the idea of combining them with popular dance music. He loved Cuban music, which had recently become trendy in Paris, and was just starting to be heard in London. He described his images as his “vicarious form of dance to the music”. These four-minute films had a huge impact all over England. It also helped him to find sponsors. I guess they were definitely some of, if not the first music videos.
Six frames from Tusalava (1929)
That’s a pretty big claim to fame for a guy from Christchurch.
Some European experimental film-makers such as Oskar Fischinger had already been making little music films for cinemas, but they had mostly used classical music, whereas Len preferred popular music. He valued it for being more rhythmic and sexy. Len’s films have influenced many music videos since then. They are still screened today on MTV in Europe.
What were some of the other films that Len made?
He tried to do something new with each film he made in terms of imagery or editing. His music films included
A Colour Box, Kaleidoscope
he came up with highly original ways of using colour film, transforming black and white camera footage into amazing, re-coloured, Cubist-like images. He made
Particles in Space
by scratching black film. His scratches are incredibly alive, like flashes of lighting, or high-speed graffiti.
A still from Birth of the Robot (1935).All photos courtesy of the Len Lye Foundation and the New Zealand Film Archive.
I’ve read something about Len taking mescalin with his wife and friend and while they were tripping balls, Len was just fine. Was this a regular thing?
Len’s friends felt that he was one person who truly had a natural high. He almost never took drugs, but when he did, his friends could not see any difference in him. He was wild enough without chemical assistance. Even when Len was in his 60s he was celebrated by papers, such as the
East Village Other
, for being a great counter-culture role model. He had an extraordinary visual imagination and was totally independent and rebellious, and he and his wife Ann had for years practised a happy open marriage. Who needs drugs when you have all that?
What were some of the negative reactions to Len’s work?
One of his films was
Swinging the Lambeth Walk
, which he based on a popular new dance of the period. It was sponsored by the government’s fund to promote tourism and although today it would be perfectly normal to promote ‘swinging London’, in 1939 it was a really controversial idea. Some politicians were appalled.
That’s hard to imagine now.
In the cinemas, Len’s films also polarised the audience. Half the audience was horrified and booed and stamped their feet. Modern art with pop music was too much for them. But the other half of the audience would cheer and clap in delight. The films created so much controversy that every film reviewer was expected to offer an opinion, and Len gained both fame and notoriety. Most people shy away from controversy but Len embraced it and that’s what really made him such a special artist.