The Emotional Pull of Len Lye’s Motion Sculptures

An exhibition at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery demonstrates how Lye strove to evoke concrete feelings through fleeting motion.

Len Lye, “Moon Bead” (1968) (all photos and GIFs by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

NEW PLYMOUTH, New Zealand — “Tangible motion sculptures.” That’s how Len Lye, the innovative New Zealand artist, described his motorized kinetic works, which he deftly shaped from stainless steel. Creating evocative forms when set in motion, they are perceptible not just by sight and touch but by hearing; each one is designed to emit sound, so that they present viewers with a multisensory experience.

Five of the works are currently on view at Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in Len Lye: Experimental Moves, a small but illuminating exhibition curated by Sarah Wall that explores Lye’s shift from film to sculpture in the 1950s and ’60s. Some are elegant and others comical, but all are mesmerizing, easily standing as the centerpiece of the show, which also features screenings of Lye’s short, dynamic films and a trove of his personal correspondence and notes. The exhibition is not Govett-Brewster’s only tribute to the artist: the gallery opened its Len Lye Center in 2015, its exterior resembles his shiny sculptures, and the building holds his entire archive, which he wanted to ensure remained in his home country.

“Rotating Harmonic” (1959, 2010 reconstruction)

Displayed in one room and organized to surround viewers, the tangible motion sculptures don’t all move at once — that would cause sensory overload. Rather, each does its own thing, starting and stopping one after another. The employees watching over this lineup refer to their movements as “performing.” The term is fitting: entering the room makes you not just a viewer but a member of an audience, standing among other visitors as your attention is focused on work after work, with a spotlight illuminating them in turn, like ballerinas dancing solos in succession. It’s a display that demands time if you want to view every piece, thoughtfully speaking to Lye’s particular intertwining of motion and emotion — how he strove to make you develop very concrete feelings through moments that were fleeting but carefully composed.

The five works exemplify this, presenting a range of emotion in their cumulative 30 minutes of performance. I felt joy when watching a reconstruction of “Moon Bead” (originally made in 1968), a single curved, steel wand fitted with a small silver bead that dances freely, twisting to create shapely, delicate forms. “Roundhead” (1980, 1998 reconstruction) breeds serenity, comprising four steel rings that evoke orbital planes; they spin and stop according to precise calculations while notes chime, whirr, and hum from the base like a music box. “Storm King” is a totem of spirals extending from a steel sheet that shudders violently to clatter and clang — inducing, in me, slight panic and nervousness. It’s difficult to not giggle, though, when gazing upon “Witch Dance” (c. 1965, 2016 reconstruction), composed of six upright rods that shake and sway on a circular base. Each is fitted with a small bell so that the entire work jingles with persistence, resembling a curious gathering of shamanistic figures quivering in sync.

Len Lye’s “Witch Dance” sculpture going crazy ?

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Interested in visualizing the rhythms of music, Lye was particularly drawn to African drumming. His sculptures, with their various oscillating metal elements, experiment with percussive sounds, but he explored motion through his films first, forming textures and energetic lines by scratching marks onto celluloid film that he then animated. One gallery shows three such films: two are set to African drumming and one to the jazz notes of Tal Farlow; all send freeform marks streaking, pulsing, squiggling, and zigzagging across the screen in perfect tandem with their soundtracks, representing early forms of the five sculptures next door.

Len Lye, film still from “Prime Time” (c. 1958), from material made available by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and preserved by Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision (image courtesy Govett-Brewster Art Gallery/Len Lye Centre)

The work that perhaps best captures Lye’s careful composition of motion is “Flip and Two Twisters (Trilogy).” A version of the 1977 behemoth work was reconstructed just last year and performs only at scheduled times. Attached to the ceiling, it consists of two nearly 20-foot-long metal strips flanking an equally long loop that resembles a giant steel rubber band. As the “twisters” coil and spin, they fill the cavernous space with gentle whooshing sounds, while the large band slowly crumples in on itself, buckling towards the ceiling and straining against gravity before it finally releases, sending out a deafening crash. These convulsions continue for eight minutes. It’s an epic sight to witness, utterly thrilling as you feel the immense energy and awesome weight of the metal with your entire being.

It’s easy to be consumed by this visual poetry and overlook the complex engineering behind Lye’s superficially minimalist work, but the archival papers on view emphasize how he carefully developed each one. A series of documents recounts how Lye also envisioned creating large, multistory versions of his tangible motion sculptures for public spaces.

One such work is “Wind Wand,” designed as a tall rod that moves gently with the wind. Lye tested a few versions around the United States, but a permanent one now stands about a five-minute walk away from Govett-Brewster, installed posthumously in 1999. At over 150 feet high, its bright red fiberglass tube towers over the New Plymouth coastline, topped by a sphere that lights up at night. It’s an odd, comical sight, with the slender beam bending lazily over the natural landscape. Although it lacks the sound component of Lye’s steel works, it captures his affinity for experimentation on a grand scale, yielding all control of movement to visualize the unexpected energies and wonders of nature.

Len Lye, “Trilogy (Flip and Two Twisters)” (1977, 2016 reconstruction) (photo by Bryan James, courtesy Govett-Brewster Art Gallery/Len Lye Centre)
Len Lye, “Wind Wand” (1999), a posthumous sculpture made by the Len Lye Foundation and installed along New Plymouth’s Coastal Walkway
Len Lye, “Roundhead” (1980, 1998 reconstruction) (photo courtesy of Govett-Brewster Art Gallery/Len Lye Centre)
Tools used by Len Lye to produce his scratch films
Notes for “Rotating Harmonic” (1960–61)
Examples of Len Lye’s notes on display
Len Lye, “Roundhead” (1980, 1998 reconstruction)
Len Lye, “Witch Dance” (c. 1965, 2016 reconstruction)
Installation view of Len Lye: Experimental Moves at Govett-Brewster Art Gallery/Len Lye Centre
Installation view of Len Lye: Experimental Moves at Govett-Brewster Art Gallery/Len Lye Centre
Len Lye, “Moon Bead” (1968)
Len Lye, c. 1974 (image courtesy of the Len Lye Foundation Collection, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery/Len Lye Centre)

Len Lye: Experimental Moves continues at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery (Queen St, New Plymouth 4310, New Zealand) through March 26.

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