Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Len Lye problem

Anyone who visited the exhibition Len Lye: All Souls Carnival at the Govett-Brewster knowing nothing about the artist could be forgiven for imagining him a Mies van der Rohe figure - all dark suits, carefully poised cigar and sharp pocket handkerchief - rather than say the a restless comic genius like Spike Milligan. Although the exhibition was beautifully displayed and well executed, it sucked the antic spirit right out of the New Zealand-born, New York-based sculptor. 

If you want to know what a prankster and wild mind Lye was, just read some of his letters. They crackle with ideas careening against one another, some completed, others left to their own devices. Indeed you get the impression that Lye wasn’t after creating order out of chaos as most artists aspire to do, as much as giving chaos a chance to emerge in patterns of its own. This spirit is what is repressed by the tastefully modernist, black and silver world that Lye’s sculptures have come to inhabit under the auspices of the Len Lye Foundation. More solemn beauty than carnival.

Where did this darkened room thing come from anyway? Not the studio. Certainly Len Lye was tickled when black curtains were first used behind Fountain to throw its silver wands into relief but that's hardly ordering up a black box. Of course this melodramatic darkened display style is most often used (ok, almost exclusively used) to display ‘primitive’ cultural artefacts. Although this approach is slowly retreating from the museum repertoire, if the new Lye building plans are anything to go by (big windowless box and stainless steel exterior), it ain’t going to be leaving New Plymouth in a hurry.

These thoughts were prompted by reading letters Lye had sent to Hamish Keith in the seventies (Hamish Keith’s papers are in the Te Papa Archive). At the bottom of one of them was a quick sketch by Lye of the kind of room that might display some of his work. Like other Lye-imagined spaces, the walls are curved, no mention of black-out and, given the cacophony of sound and movement he anticipated, if you wanted to get out of there alive, you’d probably be happier with the lights on. 

If the Govett-Brewster is going to attract crowds of repeat visitors to the planned new Len Lye Centre (and that’s a big ask) how about leaving the lights on full beam to illuminate the joy of Lye in action rather than keeping him on the dark side.
Image: Detail of a letter from Len Lye to Hamish Keith, 26 February 1970. Te Papa Archives