As the country’s first single-artist museum, New Plymouth’s Len Lye Centre, which opened in July, is an important test case for New Zealand’s art world. With its reflective, curtain-like surface of marine-grade stainless steel – the architect Andrew Patterson’s response to Lye’s kinetic innovations – it’s a seriously ambitious public building. It is also an unashamed attempt to draw cultural tourism from the main centres of Auckland and Wellington. New Plymouth, however, has long been an art-world destination. The Lye Centre is an annex to one of New Zealand’s most significant contemporary art museums – the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. Right from its inception, there were murmurings about whether the Govett-Brewster could hold its own alongside Lye’s shiny new home.
The Centre opened with two major Lye presentations. First, there were four versions of his famous Fountain: a work Lye made and remade several times throughout the 1960s and ’70s. Here, each iteration grew progressively larger; the tallest was eight metres – a monster version with little of the subtle, swishing movement that defines the smaller ones. The second presentation was ‘Len Lye’s Jam Session’, a curated exhibition ostensibly about Lye’s relationship with 20th-century music, but that also doubled as a greatest hits show. Free Radicals (1958) – arguably his most important film, in which he scratched animations directly onto celluloid – was included. Nearby was the sculpture Universe (1963), a band of steel that bounces from side to side, bonging occasionally against a ball suspended above it. Around the walls were several of Lye’s photograms from the 1940s, as well as his surrealist paintings and drawings from the 1930s.
It was a classic survey: a highly effective introduction to a major artist. But it was also an exercise in myth-making and Lye makes a charming subject: a handsome, music-loving man who moved easily between the intelligentsia he encountered in Paris and London and New York. Amongst the photograms were his portraits of friends Joan Miró and Georgia O’Keeffe, alongside a portrait of Lye by Hans Namuth (1961); headphones pumped out Lye favourites by Miles Davis and Erik Satie. At the opening, a scratchy recording of Lye himself was played, pronouncing that it wouldn’t be until the 21st century that many of his ideas would be realized. When the Len Lye Foundation was established, not long before the artist’s death in 1980, he mandated it to build large versions of his work, based on his drawings and maquettes. There is a slightly Frankensteinian quality to this. The largest version of Fountain is one example. There are also plans to construct the largest kinetic sculpture in the world.
The gains for Lye unquestionably felt like a loss – at least at this early stage – for the Govett-Brewster. Since opening in 1970, it has been one of the major venues for contemporary art in New Zealand: a space for important installations, exhibitions and performances that other venues wouldn’t touch. On the opening day, these competing legacies were placed in counterpoint in the Lye Centre’s cinema, where the artist’s first animation, Tusalava (1929) – a proto-primitivist film in which a cellular structure grows and morphs – was screened. It was followed immediately by Leon Narbey’s A Film of Real Time: A Light Sound Environment (1970); a superb, trippy documentary about the artist’s exhibition ‘Real Time’, the inaugural show at the Govett-Brewster: an incredible installation of neon, foil and steel sculptures.
The edgy energy of Narbey’s work was missing from the Govett-Brewster’s re-opening collection exhibition. Titled ‘Our Hearts of Darkness’ and curated by the gallery’s director, Simon Rees, it attempted to ‘chart the way that violence is embedded within New Zealand identity and used against people different to a mono-cultural ideal’. Several of the works focused on conflicts in the local region, including Colin McCahon’s important painting Parihaka Triptych (1972): the artist’s response to an infamous police raid in 1881 on a pacifist settlement of Maori who were protesting land confiscation. Ann Shelton’s Cell, Seacliff Asylum, North Otago, New Zealand (2003) was also included – a photo-diptych showing a now-abandoned asylum where one of New Zealand’s greatest writers, Janet Frame, was briefly incarcerated.
‘Our Hearts of Darkness’ was framed as a dark contrast to the jazzy verve of the Lye work next door. But it was dour for other reasons: the black walls that had been carried through from the Lye spaces; the comparative stillness of the work; the fact that almost none of it dated from the past decade. Though this was primarily a moment to acknowledge a beautiful new building and the raising of the stakes for Lye scholarship, the contrast pointed to an underlying anxiety: about what will happen to our bravest, liveliest contemporary institution now that it has to compete with one of our most compelling 20th-century ghosts.
First published in Issue 174