Len Lye at Ikon by Edwin Rostron
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Len Lye at Ikon by Edwin Rostron

Len Lye - Free Radicals, 1958

The Body Electric runs until 13th February 2011 at Ikon.

“Some nights I’d have a dream that my five senses were taken out of my skull, rinsed in a country stream, then stretched out to dry so that when I woke up they’d be as crisp as viola strings. But if they were put back wrongly I’d wake up seeing with my ears and hearing with my eyes – well, it has happened!” - Len Lye

Len Lye - Rainbow Dance, 1936, Courtesy the British Post Office, Len Lye Foundation Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and New Zealand Film Archive

As soon as Len Lye’s Trade Tattoo (1937) begins it takes hold of you in a rush of heightened sensation. You can almost taste and hear its joyful colours; its rhythm pulsates inside you, in your blood and in your bones. It is as if Lye’s own irrepressible energy had lain dormant in the celluloid just waiting to be activated by your presence. The colours, patterns and shapes are possessed by his crazy yet graceful spirit. Lye made work to experience; it is not ‘about’ something, it just ‘is’.

Trade Tattoo is currently being shown as part of Britain’s first comprehensive retrospective of Len Lye’s work; The Body Electric at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery. A selection of the pioneering animated films he is most known for are on display, along with some incredible kinetic sculptures, paintings, marble sculpture and photograms. Lye was a man with a drive and clarity of vision that might seem almost unnatural, and yet he made work that speaks to our most primal selves, to the senses and the body. His work deals with the vast unknown forces inside and outside us, but with such a lightness of touch, with such wit and charm, that it never seems heavy-handed or pompous.

Lye’s playful, doodling approach to making art was as natural and vital to him as breathing. His work came from what he referred to as ‘the old brain – the deepest level of intuitive awareness’, and he wanted to connect to the shared ancient memory embedded into our cells. Groundbreaking films like Tusalava (1929) and Free Radicals (1958-1979) might be taking place at the beginning of time or on a microscopic scale; on the wall of a cave or the surface of your skin. Creation and evolution are living forces here, growing, mutating and dancing.

The kinetic sculptures which take up much of the second floor of the exhibition are elegant and supernatural. Lye used energy like it was just another material, and like with all his materials he pushed it to its limits. In Universe (1963-1976), Storm King (1965) and the almighty Blade (1959-1976) vast strips of steel are animated by hidden forces, transforming the space around you and within you. In Zebra (1965) a solid object with its own shifting volume and weight is created by a whizzing single strip of fibreglass. As with his film work, the sculptures speak to something beyond words or rational thought, something instinctive and deep within ‘the old brain’. That some of these were merely maquettes for scaled-up, colossal versions to be set into the countryside is testament to the scope of Lye’s imagination and ambition. Lye’s more tender and gentle side can be seen in Roundhead (1961), an exquisite series of circular metal rings which slowly rotate, the innermost of which is his wife’s wedding ring.

Lye was obsessed by movement, and his work outside of film and kinetic sculpture also conveys great energies, trapped or captured in time. Unit (c.1924), a marble sculpture of two figures locked in an embrace, seems ready to unfurl at any moment into some stone age robot, such is the tangible sense of potential energy locked into its simple form. One of Lye’s photograms, Marks and Spencer in a Japanese Garden (Pond People) (1930), depicts organic, hieroglyphic shapes suspended in air like smoke; traces of the artist’s thought process left hanging.

My personal high point of the exhibition is the film Free Radicals, which Lye began in 1958 and completed in 1979. Consisting solely of rough lines scratched into the black film emulsion with a variety of implements including dental tools and Native American arrowheads, it really is, as Stan Brakhage put it, ‘an almost unbelievably immense masterpiece’. These scratches become tangible, mysterious objects rotating in the darkness before you. They dance and turn with the wild, hypnotic drumming of the soundtrack. Ultimately the effect of the film, like much of the work in this exhibition, cannot be conveyed very well verbally, but it is a singularly powerful experience.

About the Author: Edwin Rostron is an artist currently based in London. He was born in Doncaster in 1977 and grew up in Newcastle Upon Tyne. He studied Fine Art at Sheffield Hallam University and Animation at the Royal College of Art. His work is an attempt to visualise the realms of the unconscious and takes inspiration from a myriad of sources including alternative comics, ‘Neo Romantic’ painters such as Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland, and the post-industrial landscape of North-East England, where he grew up. His animations have been shown at festivals such as onedotzero, Pictoplasma and the Australian International Animation Festival, and his comics can be found in shops and online at edwinrostron.com. Edwin was commissioned by Animate Projects in 2010 to make Of Unknown Origin.

  1. Roger Horrocks says:

    Hi Edwin, I very much enjoyed your comments on Len Lye. If you are interested in Lye’s writings (and you quote his piece about his senses getting mixed up), let me have an email address and I’d be happy to send you some more. I have edited several collections of Lye’s writings (prose poems). -Roger Horrocks

  2. Edwin Rostron says:

    Hi Roger

    Thanks! Ive just sent you a reply via email.


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