Artist Len Lye may have never visited The
University of Auckland in his lifetime, but his
dynamic presence now leaves a powerful
impression on our campus.
A pioneer of experimental cinema techniques
and kinetic sculpture, with a life-long interest in
movement, Lye was born in Christchurch in 1901
and lived most of his life in London and New York.
Compared to his large steel sculptures that violently whirl and crash, Roundhead is one of
Lye’s most delicate pieces, comprising four
concentric circles that spin in space. It embodies
big ideas of both massive and minute
proportions. Initially named Rings, then
temporarily titled Orrery, it became Roundhead
in reference to the “Y” chromosome it resembled.
It is driven like a torsion pendulum with the outer
ring connected to a motor and the subsequent
inner rings connected by nylon, swinging in
alternate directions as they wind and unwind – a
combination of engineering ingenuity and cosmic
forces that typify Lye’s work.
Accompanying Roundhead’s syncopated
motion is a modified music box that adds a
sparse, ambient soundtrack due to pins being
removed from the cylinder in a standard box. Lye
had always intended Roundhead to be produced
in an edition, even getting as far as numbering a
set of bases. But when it came to recreating the
music box, the Len Lye Foundation was faced with
a mystery and needed to identify the original
tune in the hope of locating additional boxes.
Foundation Director Evan Webb mapped the
remaining and missing pins along a chart, much
like dots of music along a stave. In consultation
with a musical colleague, he established that the
original piece of music (Silent Night) was not
exactly obscure so further music boxes would not
be hard to source.
The final component of Roundhead is the gold
ring at the centre of the sculpture. Lye’s wife Ann
recalls leaving their home to go shopping when Lye
yelled from the window that he needed something
of hers for a work and asked for her wedding ring.She agreed, replacing it with a $2.98 ring from
Woolworths. Their wedding ring remains at the
heart of the Roundhead prototype to this day.
Fortunately, subsequent versions, including the one
purchased for the University Collection last year, do
not require a wedding band.
After 45 years away from New Zealand, Lye
visited in 1968, and again in 1977 for an
exhibition at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. By
then diagnosed with leukaemia, he established
the Len Lye Foundation so his work could remain
in New Zealand. Meanwhile, Wystan Curnow and
Roger Horrocks had begun compiling a collection
of Lye’s writings. Horrocks, after meeting Lye in
New York in 1980, soon found himself working as
his full-time assistant.
Horrocks and Curnow’s collection, Figures of
Motion, was published by Auckland University
Press in 1984, with subsequent collections of the
artist’s writings edited by Horrocks and published
by Holloway Press in 2002 and 2009. Horrocks,
founder of the Department of Film Television and
Media Studies, also wrote Len Lye: A Biography,
which remains a benchmark and reference point
for all Lye scholarship.
Lye was an innovator who continues to
fascinate researchers, as evidenced by last
December’s International Symposium on
Performance Science, which was entertained by
Art That Moves: The work of Len Lye currently at
the Gus Fisher Gallery until 13 February, and by
the Business School’s enthusiastic sponsorship of
that exhibition in recognition that Lye is an
exemplar of Kiwi ingenuity.