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Len Lye

The Body Electric

24 November 2010 — 13 February 2011

Ikon presents the first retrospective exhibition in the UK of work by New Zealand artist Len Lye (1901–1980). Comprising film, sculpture, painting and drawing, often influenced by indigenous Antipodean traditions, it reveals the optimism and emphasis on invention central to Lye’s outlook on life.

Lye travelled in the South Pacific as a young man, living for extended periods in Samoa and Australia, before sailing for London in 1926. There he settled into an artistic community that included Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Christopher Wood. During the 1930s Lye’s main interest lay in film-making and he was commissioned by the visionary film unit of the General Post Office to make a number of commercials, now seen as seminal in the history of moving imagery. Lye’s distinct style and experimental technique of ‘direct’ film-making saw him paint colour directly onto celluloid film. Several of these films are exhibited at Ikon including A Colour Box (1935) and Rainbow Dance (1936), plus Lye’s more avant-garde films such as Free Radicals (1958), made after his move to New York.

In the late 1950s Lye began making kinetic sculpture which he referred to as ‘tangible motion sculptures’ or ‘Tangibles’. These works embodied the same spirit as his films and reiterated his belief that motion and physical empathy were even more fundamental than medium.

Lye’s ‘Tangibles’ are essentially a motor and strips of metal; Blade (1959) was one of the first and consists of a two metre high shiny strip of cold rolled steel with a rod and cork ball at the top. Its base, fixed into a clamp, is vibrated to make the whole quiver whilst making sounds like a knife swishing through air, before a climax of S-shapes that causes the ball to rebound in a frenzy. Fountain III (1976) are quieter, meant to evoke the “spray in a fountain” by the rotation of hundreds of vertical steel rods, up to two metres high, clasped together at the base, and bending under their own weight.

Lye’s philosophy of ‘Individual Happiness Now’ – a belief in the possibility of ‘the best in human experience’ for all – is embodied by this exhibition; a testament to the simple joys that inspired him.

A publication accompanies the exhibition priced £3, including an essay by Tyler Cann. This exhibition is co-curated by Cann, Curator of the Len Lye collection at Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Zealand.

The Len Lye exhibition The Body Electric is supported by the Henry Moore Foundation, the Len Lye Foundation, Creative New Zealand and the New Zealand High Commission United Kingdom. With thanks to the New Zealand Film Archive and the British Film Institute.

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