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Len Lye’s largest exhibition to date in New Zealand opened on the weekend that Rugby World Cup fever gripped the country, generated by the Cup’s 2011 opening match there. It also coincided with the Govett-Brewster Gallery’s (GBG’s) announcement that a further sizable donation meant that 80% of the required funds had been pledged for a Len Lye Centre to be built in New Plymouth, planned to open in 2014. Intended to nudge up against the gallery spaces and service areas of the existing GBG, Patterson Associates have already come up with an eye-catching architectural design for the new Centre, which will double the size of the art complex as a whole. Under the Directorship of Australian Rhana Devenport, the contemporary art mandate for the GBG means that New Plymouth increasingly attracts attention for its vital exhibition programming of both New Zealand and international artists. The Len Lye Centre will certainly reinforce this.
‘Len Lye: All Souls Carnival’ was launched, therefore, with tremendous optimism and anticipation for the future. The exhibition was selected by curator Tyler Cann, who, during his tenure of six years at the Len Lye Foundation (housed at GBG), conceived a number of insightful shows and associated events. Notably, these include the exhibition ‘LEN LYE’ (2009) at the Australian Centre of the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne, and production of an associated book edited by Cann together with Wystan Curnow. For ‘All Souls Carnival’, Cann selected work that covered the breadth of Lye’s career, from when he left New Zealand as a young maverick artist testing himself first in Sydney, followed by London and finally, from the mid-1940s, in New York, where he remained until his death in 1980. To focus the selection, the stress in this exhibition was clearly on the aesthetics of movement, on body awareness, and sound as an energising force.
To this end, the premier of the recently restored 1957 Lye film All Souls Carnival (from where the show’s title derived) was given a prime position at GBG. Time will tell, however, whether this optically challenging kaleidoscopic work, with its musical score by Henry Brant, enters the imagination as forcefully as other direct hand-painted films by the artist have done. This and other films in the show (including A Colour Box and Rainbow Dance of 1935- 36, and Free Radicals and Particles in Space 1958- 1979) were programmed with Lye’s kinetic sculptures (including, Rotating Harmonic of 1959, Grass, 1961-65, and Universe, 1963-66), to activate in a set sequence rather than all at once. Therefore, the audience was urged to move around the gallery spaces to where the film and sculpture sound occurred and, in the process, come across wall-based imagery, such as the artist’s photogram portraits of friends and intimates (including Le Corbusier, Ann Lye and Georgia O’Keeffe) and small biomorphic paintings that he periodically produced.
Only Trilogy (A Flip and Two Twisters), Lye’s monumental kinetic statement from 1976, with its swirling blades, gyrating and flipping forms, was activated at set times during the day. Viewers from New Plymouth know well that this masterpiece alone is worth their visit to the GBG. Like the attention paid to intelligently and elegantly install this important Len Lye show, a thoughtful illustrated essay by Cann, in an easily affordable catalogue, accompanied ‘Len Lye: All Souls Carnival’.