City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

A Free Radical: Len Lye

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Of course, amidst the torrent of brainless drivel studded with thunderously great clips, it was inevitable that The YouTube would end up with loads of avant-garde film. I recently chanced across these old favourites, which I hadn’t seen for many years, by the great New Zealand artist Len Lye. I used to have these on a dusty old VHS, lifted from a long-lost Channel 4 documentary on avant-garde film, featuring Lye, Malcolm LeGrice, Stan Brakhage, Chris Marker et al. (Hard to imagine Channel 4 doing that now, instead of ‘F**k off, I’m a Forty-Stone Bishop!’ or whatever it is they’re making these days. Anyway.)

Len Lye

Len Lye is something of a heroic character in early film, having thoroughly explored indigenous South Pacific culture, including Australia, Polynesia, and Samoa, where he was expelled by the New Zealand colonial administration for living within an indigenous community. He headed for London in 1926, traversing the globe by working as a coal trimmer on a steam ship, whereupon he embarked on a career as avant-garde filmmaker and visual artist, sponsored by supporters of the surrealist movement and the likes of the courageous G.P.O. Film Unit. It’s great that he’s going to be commemorated through a Len Lye centre, in New Plymouth, New Zealand. His work is best described through the films themselves; or in abstract terms, in his own words: “One of my art teachers put me onto trying to find my own art theory. After many morning walks an idea hit me that seemed like a complete revelation. It was to compose motion, just as musicians compose sound. [The idea] was to lead me far, far away from wanting to excel in traditional art.”

First up, 1935’s ‘A Colour Box’, for the G.P.O. Film Unit, followed by 1958’s ‘Free Radicals’:

‘Free Radicals’ is perhaps the pick. It belies its age – coming up for its 50th birthday next year – and feels quite contemporary. Partly due to the timeless nature of the music perhaps – but the only real difference between this and Tröllback’s gorgeous visual setting for Brian Eno and David Byrne’s ‘Moonlight In Glory’ [QuickTime] is the latter’s sophisticated effects. The formal structure is essentially the same though. Actually, it even sounds like something from ‘My Life In The Bush of Ghosts’.

See also the lovely Rainbow Dance:

I find it a delicious irony that seeing these films, in this way, is an unlikely by-product of late-capitalist, ’emergent’ poster child YouTube and the stentorian ‘top-down’ state-sponsored output of the G.P.O. Film Unit and the New Zealand Film Commission. Unlikely bed-fellows but these films wouldn’t be in front of you now without the efforts of either.


4 responses to “A Free Radical: Len Lye”

  1. John C Avatar

    C4 also showed a great documentary about Len Lye a few years before Keith Griffiths’ Abstract Cinema documentary, which I presume is the one you’re referring to above. A whole night of abstract cinema (they showed other films after the doc including Le Grice and Eno’s Berlin Horse) and they were screening Benjamin Wooley’s excellent Midnight Underground series at the same time showing many films that hadn’t been on TV before and probably won’t again. Nice that YouTube is turning up more of this stuff, I wait impatiently for quality to improve.
    That Keith Griffiths’ doc:
    And there’s also Gene Youngblood’s Expanded Cinema book as a set of free PDFs here:


  2. tusalava Avatar

    Great post. Having these films on YouTube is something of a double-edged sword, isn’t it? Fantastic access, but poor quality. In their way Lye’s films are about the medium of film, and its a pity that people see them in such shoddy pixilated circumstances on their desktop. Of course, they would not be in front of us now without the efforts of well-intentioned people wanting to share them, either… dilemmas, dilemmas. What is a poor copyright holder to do?


  3. Roger Horrocks Avatar
    Roger Horrocks

    Hi Dan
    Enjoyed your comments on Len Lye. You may have come across my biography of Lye, but if not, let me know your mail address and I’ll see if I can find a spare copy. Incidentally Keith Griffiths did a very good documentary on Lye (called ‘Doodlin’). We did one, too, called ‘Flip and Two Twisters’ (named after one of his kinetic sculptures).
    Best wishes, Roger


  4. peter Avatar

    great post dan and nice observations about the bush of ghosts etc. you mentioned malcolm legrice…

    nice soundtrack!


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