LYE, Len, 1901-1980
Steel, gold-plated copper and nylon thread with motor
655 x 275 x 275mm

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.

Read more

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.

The Artist

Born in Christchurch and largely self-educated, Lye’s training included evening classes at Wellington Technical College (1915), a brief attendance at Canterbury School of Art (1919), and the study of film animation in Sydney (1921-22). Throughout his life, Lye possessed a passion for motion, energy and for the possibility of organising them as a form of art. He subsequently became an experimental filmmaker, painter and writer residing in numerous places, including Samoa and London before settling in New York in 1944. There he began creating kinetic sculpture and his works are held in the collection of several major art museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Major repositories of Lye’s film work include the New Zealand Film Archive and the British Film Institute. Shortly before his death in 1980, Lye and his supporters established the Len Lye Foundation centred at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth, New Zealand and which now houses much of Lye’s notebooks and remaining plans.

Related Items