Len Lye Centre, New Plymouth

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The Len Lye Centre opened in July this year – it is part of, and physically attached to, the Govett Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth, Taranaki. On two facades of the new building is a wave-like mirror of stainless steel that reflects the light, buildings opposite, passing cars and people, and clouds – appropriate for a building dedicated to an artist who sought movement in his work.

Len Lye (1901-1980) was a New Zealand-born artist but he spent most of his adult life in England and America – he is mainly known for his kinetic sculptures and experimental films, where often he scratched and painted directly onto the film. The Len Lye Centre is the first public gallery in New Zealand dedicated to a single artist.

I visited it a week ago – the building is of course memorable: the publicity for the centre says it is the ‘country’s first example of destination architecture linked to contemporary art’. But what about the interior and the exhibitions? I saw the first exhibition, which the gallery calls “Len Lye’s Jam Session” (on from 25 July to 29 November) and it takes its inspiration from the musical elements in his work. Those who saw the extensive Len Lye exhibition at Wellington’s City Gallery a year ago may be disappointed at first with the Len Lye Centre exhibition. There aren’t many kinetic sculptures on display in this exhibition, but having seen the City Gallery exhibition, I wasn’t bothered by that. In fact, I was pleased to see some of his works in other media, such as drawings, photograms, a painting and a number of his films.

On entering the Govett Brewster reception area, you turn to the left and are led up a ramp past the wavy walls (the interior is concrete, not distracting stainless steel!). There is a cinema on the right and I went to the daily showing of several Len Lye films (51 minutes in total), which came with an informative brochure. At the top of the ramp you turn right and the first ‘large works’ gallery opens up. This contained four kinetic sculptures, called ‘fountains’, of varying sizes. The first and smallest was made in 1960 and the largest in 2015. Yes, well after Lye died in 1980 – many of his ideas were ‘ahead of their time’ in that the technology (and money) for making them on larger scales wasn’t always available in his lifetime, although he envisaged them as bigger versions.

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They also cast moving shadows on the walls behind.Lye 4

Following the ramp around and up to the next level you find the largest – and last – gallery in the centre where you are first confronted with a large screen showing his film ‘Swinging the Lambeth Walk’. There was another smaller screen in the room showing ‘Free Radicals’.

Two kinetic sculptures – ‘Universe’ and ‘Grass’ were in here, but on the walls were lesser known Lye works – a number of drawings where he explored ways of trying to capture a sense of movement; some of his photograms where he exposed objects directly to light sensitive paper; one painting, and some archival material. Because of the music theme there were two sets of headphones opposite the work ‘Grass’ which played two pieces of music and invited the listener to decide which he/she preferred while watching ‘Grass’. Lye didn’t include music with this work, but apparently suggested a slow Miles Davis jazz number or an Eric Satie piano piece might be suitable and examples of these were playing.

‘Grass’

On my second visit to the gallery there was also a group of young school children in here.

From that gallery you can take either of two bridges or go back to the ramp and follow it into the original Govett Brewster gallery. I look forward to future exhibitions to see how the gallery curators make use of the Len Lye works and material they have, but also bring in other artists’ works.

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