Filmmaker, sculptor, poet, essayist and doodler Len Lye was born in New Zealand in 1901. He was always searching, always experimenting with the relationship between our physical and sensorial experience and the epic trip-out of “art.” One time, he got kicked out of Australia for living in an indigenous community as a white person. He set his work to music, like Don Baretto and His Cuban Orchestra. He worked his way to London trimming coal on a steam ship, and started making experimental films by painting onto the film itself and scratching into black emulsion to make dancing sky shapes and aura explosions – this is his Swinging the Lambeth Walk. He was a quiet and dexterous master of his arts, and we salute him.
This page from Drawing Papers 115 features Untitled
(Sea), a pencil on paper drawing created by Len Lye in the 1930s.
The 2014 exhibitionLen Lye: Motion Sketchhighlighted Lye’s lifelong
fascination with movement and his desire to compose it. Lye, primarily
known for his animated experimental films, began in the 1920s to make what he
termed “motion sketches”; abstract drawings that attempted to render the
movement of his subjects, rather than their appearance. His motion sketches
captured the wing beats of seagulls, curling waves on the ocean, wind-swept
ponds of water, creases and folds in people’s clothing, and other kinetic
Papers are a series of publications documenting The Drawing
Center’s exhibitions and public programs and providing a forum for the study of
drawing. For more information about Drawing Papers 115, click here.
There’s a huge difference between hypothetically thinking about having kids when you know it’s not a possibility, and then actually thinking about having kids when you know it is. When there was a possibility I might be pregnant in the month after the wedding (I’m not), I was terrified. “Are you sure you want to have a baby when there is an 70% chance that baby will be mentally ill?” my mother said to me on the phone one day, not realizing that Caleb and I had tried.
“Are the chances really that high that I pass on mental illness to my children?” I asked doubtfully.
“At least 70,” my mother, who is not an expert, confirmed. “Maybe even 80.”
It struck me, in that scary month, that having a baby is in fact the most selfish thing I could ever do. Around the same time, I knew someone who had an abortion. For most of my life, I’ve felt morally, if not practically or politically, opposed to abortion. “It’s so selfish,” I always thought, like a good Catholic girl. But when faced with the juxtaposition of my own potential pregnancy with this person’s decision to terminate theirs, I realized that choosing not to have the baby was in fact the more un-selfish act. There is no need for more humans on the planet. All of the practical reasons that people had children in the past — to propagate the species, to birth political heirs, to have extra hands to work on the field — literally apply not at all in the modern world.
Len Lye stated that he approached every film project trying to do ‘something not previously done in film technique’; with a focus on physical sensation and non-rational experience he strove to create a new language of the medium. His sense of movement was always kinaesthetic and physical. He was not interested in moving objects or in visual patterns, but in what he called 'pure figures of motion’.
Free Radicals (1958) and Particles in Space (1966) are maybe the films in which he comes closest to this idea. In making them Lye reduced the medium to its most basic elements, scratching marks onto the black film using a variety of scribers ranging from dental tools to an ancient Native American arrowhead. In Free Radicals the result is a dancing pattern of flashing lines and zigzags, creating equal associations to microscopic movements and gigantic lightning bolts in the night sky. Synchronised with the sounds of rhythmic drumming and singing by the African Bagirmi tribe, these pure figures of motion become hypnotic. [+]
Len Lye - Free Radicals (1958) is the first selection of “The Weird and the Banned,” a new regular column by Creative Time’s Director of Global Initiatives, Laura Raicovich. Featuring works in film and video that are notable for being odd, censored or both, the series highlights the provocative impact culture makers can have on society.