TEXTS FORCE FIELD AND SONIC WAVE
To accompany the exhibition Len Lye we re-publish Guy Brett's text Force Field and Sonic Wave. This text first appeared in the book Len Lye, edited by Tyler Cann and Wystan Curnow, published by the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and Len Lye Foundation on the occasion of the 2009 retrospective exhibition of Lye’s work at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne.
It is customary to hear Len Lye described as a ‘maverick’ artist. Indeed Lye went one better than the popular cliché and called himself a ‘maverick’s maverick’! 
The London artist Julian Trevelyan who met Lye soon after Lye’s arrival in the British capital in 1927, saw him as ‘a man from Mars’.  And there were reasons for placing Lye outside the norm, even of the artistic avant-garde: the perception of his origins in a remote country, his improvisatory, do-it-yourself approach to material making (which Roger Horrocks has identified with ‘pioneer’ cultures like that of New Zealand in the early 20th century ), his ebullient individualism and down-to-earth way of talking about intellectual and aesthetic matters, and the polymathic range of his work: experimental film, batik work, painting, drawing, kinetic sculpture.
The Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica once coined the phrase ‘the experimentalised day-to-day’ to describe his wanderings and encounters and inspirations in the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Lye was equally experimental in his daily life. Numerous anecdotes in Roger Horrocks’ biography of Lye attest to this, proving, incidentally, how illuminating the biographical form, as practised with Horrocks’ verve and perceptiveness, can be in charting the practice of someone to whom art and life were so interconnected. For example, Lye had the idea in his youth of ‘feeling days’. If you woke up in the morning and you heard someone ‘clanking a nice piece of metal outside your window’, then it was a sound day: ‘You pay attention to sound above everything else, the sound aspect of things’. There could also be taste days, smell days, weight days, distance days and other variations.  The poet Alastair Read remembers Len Lye in London around 1930, excited but impoverished: ‘On a winter’s night when Len would light a fire it would be like a huge celebration, it would be like the first fire anybody had ever lit, and we just had to watch it’.  Perhaps it was a combination of all these factors that led to this extraordinarily creative man being relegated to the margins of canonical histories of 20th century art, at least until recently.
Yet if we consider some of the great drives of 20th century art, Len Lye is right there in the centre. He is a brilliant example of the way in which innovation and experiment in the arts, a position of radical modernity, was so often allied in the work of the avant-garde with a passionate identification with very ancient or ancestral forms of culture. Even in the technically experimental field that came to be called Kinetic Art it is this tension between modern and ancient that underlies some of the best work, viz: Takis’s electromagnetic sculpture inspired by his admiration for archaic Greek statuary, Tinguely’s Meta-matic machines hinting at carnival abandon and the Dance of Death, Soto’s childhood memories of Venezuela and the way the Indians of the Orinoco river caught fish by shooting their arrows, not at the target, but in a large arc into the sky—‘In a flash you saw the fish pierced by the arrow …’  And in Lye’s case, his personal exposure by book and by direct life-experience to the Polynesian cultures of the Pacific. He lived for about a year in 1924-25 when he was in his early 20s in a Samoan village, where a house was built for him at a cost of £5. Samoa was at that time controlled under a New Zealand mandate, and the British-born administrator objected to Lye mixing with Samoans. The threat of deportation for this kind of conduct, plus his own longing to live in one of the centres of modernism, eventually compelled him to leave Samoa and a little while later to head for London.
Another great drive Lye personifies is, indeed, kineticism—the re-conceptualisation of the visual not in terms of static form but of ‘figures of motion’, something that he embarked on completely off his own bat and held in front of him as a goal from his early days. He was searching for a quality of energy, the pulse of life, something he could not easily name. He experimented with animated film and he came to make machine-sculptures, but he insisted his experience of motion was rooted in his ‘bodily sense of self’ , bringing us back again to the particular tenor of his modern-ancient consciousness:
Personally I have no aptitude for mechanics, no knowledge of motors, relay systems or servo devices. Perhaps I am for magic carpets over flying saucers, and would rather be heir to the Australian aboriginal with his boomerang and bullroarer than an heir to constructivism and mechanics. 
That may be so, but Lye produced some extremely detailed, respectful and precise drawings of pieces of industrial equipment and machinery when he was a young artist (these are preserved in the Len Lye Archive in New Plymouth). And the remarkable fact is that he was drawing tribal artefacts from Africa and New Guinea at exactly the same period and with the same intensity and admiration. There is a third element in this synergetic fusion: the biological fantasies, amoebic improvisations, chromosomic diversions and proliferating nerve cells of what he called his ‘doodles’, drawings made over many years which are a fascinating and still largely unknown component of his work. All these graphic experiments seem to converge in the formation of a kind of energising matrix.
In the record of the 20th century -isms, the tendency known as kinetic art has always suffered from being principally associated with the mechanical, with literal movement, whereas the word ‘kinetic’ should have been interpreted in a much broader sense, as a philosophical or even cosmological enquiry. The enquiry might have recourse to any medium, including the ostensibly ‘static’, like drawing. Such an approach would also have allowed the links between kinetic art and other contemporaneous movements to be made clear, and would have prevented the isolation of the phenomenon in a special category, as a sort of sideshow to the serious business of 20th century modernism.
Kineticism arises from an essential paradox of our perceptions. For what we perceive as in motion, or as static, tells us more about the bounded nature of our senses than about reality. It is not movement in itself which is important but the intensity with which a work can reveal space, time and energy. As Georges Vantongerloo wrote in 1957:
When we believe we see something as existing, this thing, before being transformed into another state, corresponds to the speed of our senses. That is to say, its position at a given moment is maintained long enough to allow our senses to perceive it, or register its presence ... Through our senses we are unable to perceive the infinite, for our senses are themselves limited. This does not affect the existence of the infinite, and we are subject to it. 
Indeed, far from a sideshow, taking this enlarged view of the phenomenon of kineticism enables us to reconsider or recast the general notion of the abstract in 20th century art. For Lye, the basic element of abstract expression in the 20th century was the kinetic, and this allows us to see abstraction not so much in terms of forms as of energies, replacing the traditional static idea of form with the dynamic model of a force-field. The evolution of Vantongerloo’s work, for example, which for a long time seemed so strange and unclassifiable and led to his being underestimated in the history of 20th century art, shows exactly this process. He moved from geometric abstraction, with its confident application of spatial measurement and the rationalisation of form, to the pursuit of invisible and intangible energies. After World War II he began to produce a series of modest little objects — wire nuclei, plexiglass and prism models — and paintings, seeking a sort of aesthetic equivalent of cosmic phenomena: radiation, radioactivity, fission, electromagnetism, attraction-repulsion, nebulosity. Such words were common in his titles. In his work from the 1940s to the mid-1960s, the physical and biological are reconciled in plasma-like fluxes which seem extraordinarily contemporary and in key with scientific knowledge of the cosmos.
In the exhibition Force Fields: Phases of the Kinetic (Barcelona and London, 2000) an attempt was made to trace this expanded notion of the abstract, and the phenomenon of the representation of energy, through the art of the 20th century. It was presented as an international tendency, embracing works by 44 artists with origins in 17 countries, and was broad in its treatment of media, including experimental film, drawing and etching, paintings, sculptures and many hybridised forms. On the one hand there was a dissolution of the borders between media and genres in the creation of a particular kind of ‘vibration’, which seemed to run, with infinite inflections, throughout the exhibition; on the other hand constant cross-references were made between a position of absolute contemporaneity and influences of the most remote past, expressed in the ‘minute particulars’ of the different cultural backgrounds and artistic journeys of each individual artist. Force Fields therefore gave an opportunity to compare Len Lye’s relationship with kineticism to that of other artists, and to enfold him in the multi-layered pursuit of what Ana Mendieta called the ‘One … energy which runs through everything from insect to man, from man to spectre, from spectre to plant, from plant to galaxy’. 
For example, Lye made his first animated film, Tusalava, 1929, Roger Horrocks tells us, ‘trying to imagine the kind of film that might have been conceived by an ancient [Australian] Aboriginal artist’.  The result was the release of a new kind of visual energy, which was both biological and astronomical, mythical and scientific, symbolic and real, microcosmic and macrocosmic, and was rounded by a Polynesian philosophical concept expressed in the film’s title, which means ‘eventually everything is just the same’.
In Tusalava, as in Lye’s static paintings, there is an almost seamless fusion of forms evoking Australian Aboriginal and Polynesian symbols and those evoking microscopic biological phenomena such as anti-bodies and viruses. It is as if both were born equally in Len Lye’s life-long habit of ‘doodling’. What he called his Old Brain, borrowing a term used in biology for the area of the brain developed first in human evolution, ‘must have communed with my innate self enough to have reached down into my body and come up with gene-carried information which I expressed visually’.  The Old Brain was a way of linking the ancestral past with the body living in the present moment.
An outstanding quality of Len Lye’s kinetic sculptures is their attentiveness to sound (taking us right back to Lye’s ‘feeling days’ and ‘someone clanking a nice piece of metal outside your window’). The sonic aspect of a piece of metal is as important as its visual aspect, for Lye, making it possible to say that a work like Universe, 1963–1976 is as much a musical instrument as a sculpture. This sculpture/music interface was indeed a feature of kinetic art, and one which is often forgotten, a facet of the pursuit of the ‘vibration’—one thinks of the work of the Bachet brothers in France and of Phil Dadson’s invented instruments in New Zealand. In Force Fields it was possible to compare the sound production of Lye’s Universe and Blade, 1959–1976 with that of Takis’s Musicales series from the 1960s, for example. This went to show how, in two groups of works, apparently so pared down in their visual abstraction, a great range of different experiences could be felt to be concentrated.
In Universe, when set in motion, the rigidity of the 6.7-metre circular polished steel band, suggesting the cosmos, is softened into figures of fluidity by the push and pull of electro-magnets in the base, linking it with Lye’s genetic doodles. At the same time the work is opened to chance, or to extremely complex patterns of interaction, as the bounding steel misses or strikes the suspended satellite of the hard-wood ball, emitting a clean metallic clang over the wavering resonance of the ring’s contortions. It was impossible to forget the way, during the exhibition Force Fields, the sound of Universe carried through the crowded museum, travelling far beyond where the work itself was visible, yet, because of its sonic purity, making no distracting intrusion on the work of other artists. Somewhere too, in Universe and Blade, is the violence of Pacific storms, the din of factories, the singing saw of the woodsman, and the bullroarer of the Australian Aboriginal.
Far from the bounding and lurching motion of Universe, Takis’s Musicales preserve an upright frontality and hieratic stillness which, despite the absence of any overt reference, make one think of the archaic Greek sculpture that Takis admires so much, especially the simplified human figures of the Cycladic culture. The Musicale is a relief, further emphasising the iconic stasis of the wall-hung work. At the core of this stasis is the single mobile element — the elegant needle which an on/off electromagnet causes to bounce against a stretched and amplified wire in a shivering and trembling motion caught between gravity and the magnetic pull. The sound is a single prolonged note which starts and stops again as the needle hits or drops away from the wire, a deep vibrato that could be heard as a sonic equivalent of universal electromagnetism.
Musing about his own work, Jean Tinguely once said: ‘Perhaps we have the possibility of producing a joyful, that is to say a free machine.’  Len Lye would surely identify with the effort to re-imagine our mechanical civilisation and complex social collective, with its essentially repetitive standardisation, under the sign of a liberated playfulness. In his upbeat way he advocated Individual Happiness Now! His work proves how much that individuality would reflect difference, and what the Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci called the ‘infinity of traces’ that make up identity.
 Len Lye quoted in Wystan Curnow, ‘Len Lye’s Sculpture and the Body of his Work’, Art New Zealand 17, 1980, p.35.
 Roger Horrocks, ‘Len Lye—Origins of his Art’, in Len Lye, Jean Michel Bohours, Roger Horrocks (eds.), (exh. cat.) Paris: Editions du Centre Pompidou, 2000, p.11 (French), p.178 (English).
 Ibid., p.15/p.179.
 Roger Horrocks, Len Lye, a Biography, Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2001, p.19.
 Alastair Reid, quoted in ibid., p.107.
 Jesus Rafael Soto, quoted in Jean Clay, ‘Soto’, Signals Newsbulletin, London, vol. 1, no. 10, Nov–Dec 1965, p.6.
 Barbara Rose, ‘Len Lye: Shaman, Artist, Prophet’, Len Lye, op. cit., p.134/p.220.
 Len Lye, quoted in ibid., p.134/p.221.
 Georges Vantongerloo, ‘To Perceive’, in Anthony Hill, Data, Directions in Art Theory and Aesthetics, London: Faber, 1968, p.23.
 Ana Mendieta, quoted in Ana Mendieta, Gloria Moure (ed.), (exh. cat.) Barcelona: Fundació Antoni Tapies, 1996, p.216.
 Roger Horrocks, Len Lye, op. cit. p.18/p.181.
 Len Lye, “The Body English of Myth Art and the Genes,’ unpublished mss., Len Lye Foundation Archives, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, NZ
 Jean Tinguely, quoted in Jean Tinguely, (exh. cat.), Paris: Centre Pompidou, 1996.
Guy Brett is an art writer and independent curator living in London. The author of the seminal Kinetic Art (1966), Brett has also curated exhibitions such as In Motion (Arts Council of Great Britain, 1966) and Force Fields: Phases of the Kinetic (MACBA, Barcelona / Hayward, London, 2001). In 2008 he co-curated an exhibition of the work of Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles at Tate Modern.