"INDIVIDUAL HAPPINESS NOW!" That was the credo of Len Lye (1901-1980), a New Zealand born multi-disciplinary artist. He’s a legend to most animators and unknown to almost anyone else. The Ikon Gallery in Birmingham is currently hosting the ﬁrst major retrospective of his work in the UK.
Lye was passionate in the pursuit of kinetic art, using animation, sculpture, painting and even batik. His work was continually evolving as he looked for different ways to convey movement and motion. His ﬁlms for the GPO ﬁlm unit in the ‘30s like Colour Box (1935) and Rainbow Dance (1936) were colourful abstract precursors to music videos, made using experimental techniques like painting and printing directly onto the ﬁlm strip. Watching the ﬁlms gives you the surreal experience of pure colour, movement and music combined with the rates for sending parcels (3 lbs for 6d if you’re interested!).
His work appeals to more than just our visual sense, it appeals to our physicality, our sense of our selves and our own bodies. The kinetic sculpture in particular creates a visceral reaction in the viewer - you feel the sound of it echoing through your chest as it ‘performs’ its choreographed ballet of movement and sound. Fountain III (1976) is an enormous, slowly revolving over-arching bouquet of steel rods lit with theatre lights, and it made me feel simultaneously awed, amazed and slightly seasick as I walked around it.
Len Lye’s work is about change and evolution: black and white ﬁlm stock processed into colour, steel transformed into water, paint into light and parcel rates into poetry. “Individual happiness now!” is a assertion of the joy of being alive, of qualia - the subjective quality of conscious experience. The exhibition leaves you with the impression of a unique artist who was insatiably curious and constantly inventive.