about Len Lye
Afterword to Len Lye’s Happy Moments
Auckland: Holloway Press, 2002
Len Lye, born in Christchurch in 1901, gained an international reputation as a film-maker, painter and kinetic sculptor. He lived in London from 1926 to 1944 and was then based in New York for the rest of his life. He made two return visits to New Zealand (1968 and 1977) and when he died in 1980 he left his collection to the Len Lye Foundation that had been established there.
The first ‘moments’ were written around 1960 in New York. Lye had not seen New Zealand for more than 35 years but was still in touch with his brother Philip. Having for years been engaged in a theoretical study of individuality and its relationship to art on the one hand and happiness on the other, Lye began to consider his own childhood as a case study in ‘getting to know your own mind’. Once he started describing his most intense early memories he found he had hit a rich lode.
His moments were not always factually accurate in terms of dates and details but they powerfully conveyed a child¹s feelings in uncensored form. An adult might not see these particular events as important but they gave the child sudden, startling insights into the world and his own potential. The genre had been established many years earlier by William Wordsworth in The Prelude, or Growth of a Poet’s Mind, a long poem that described the ‘glad animal movements’ of childhood with an emphasis on moments of intensity experienced in isolation. Lye’s epiphanies ranged from powerful encounters with nature to homely excitements such as the discovery of chewing gum or a sense of desolation after losing a fight with the local bully. He wrote in crisp, rhythmic sentences full of colours, smells, tastes and kinaesthetic feelings. His artist’s interest in movement informed his vivid descriptions of spearing fish, running, chewing biscuits, wriggling toes in bed, sprinkling scarce sugar on porridge, throwing a broomstick handle with Zen
sureness, and other boyhood activities. ‘My Model’ and ‘Wave’ showed his related interest in stillness or frozen movement.
Happy Moments evokes the working class world of Lye’s childhood in which furniture is made from fruit cases, kids go barefoot to school, hunger is the normal state of affairs and a comic book is a big deal. When Lye was three around the time of ‘Flash’ his father Harry died, leaving his mother Rose struggling to make a living as a housekeeper and cleaner. Len and his brother Philip had to be boarded out with relatives and with Catholic families such as the Rooneys who were members of Rose’s church. There was one period of liberation, the two years he spent at the Cape Campbell lighthouse (on the north-east tip of the South Island) where Frederick Ford Powell, his new stepfather, had found a job as assistant keeper. As described in ‘Powell’, ‘Black Sun’, ‘Rabbits’ and ‘Octopus’, the seven-year-old boy ran wild in these wide open spaces, exhilarated by the sea, sand, rockpools and the lighthouse he called the ‘Great Flasher’. His life in this ‘garden of Eden¹ ended abruptly when his stepfather became violent and had to be committed to a psychiatric hospital.
Rose Lye moved to Wellington (the location for most of the later moments) and the boys had to be sent to various foster homes. As ‘Sundays’ suggests, reunions with their mother (who was then battling medical as well as financial problems) were events they treasured. Despite the poverty and insecurity of his childhood Lye grew into a lively, confident, good-humoured young man with a passion for art. Starting with an Impressionist-style interest in light and colour (‘Helix’), he developed a more radical interest in movement (‘Inspiration’ and ‘My Model’). The final episode in the sequence takes him in his early 20s to Australia. Soon after this he would become a ship¹s stoker and work his way to London in search of other artists to share his avant-garde interests.
Lye changed the title of the sequence from Moments to ‘Happy Moments’ after he came across a book about two Chinese sages who passed their time in a mountain hut during a rain storm by exchanging a ‘hundred happy moments’. He also turned his sequence into a meditation exercise which he described in the essay ‘Turn On’ as his alternative to yoga or drugs: ‘So there’s me now flattened out as a body breathing with eyes closed, sorting out its life’s best moments. It finds itself pleased to be the same skin full of tension and bones . . . with the clean warm sheets on smooth skinned feet in the cool-as-a-cucumber weather’. Running through his memories was like ‘the way a drowning person sees his whole life’ but with pleasure rather than anxiety. Even if some of the experiences had originally been painful, he could savour them with an artist’s detachment.
The importance of Happy Moments was immediately recognised by the poet Alistair Reid who found it ‘beautifully transparent and heart-stopping’ in comparison with the abstract, theoretical writing Lye had previously shown him. Reid made a number of attempts in the early 1960s to get the sequence into print, but American publishers felt it lacked an organising principle that was sufficiently clear and compelling. They advised the author to find a cute way of packaging the sequence, with one editor suggesting glossy,tourist photos of New Zealand! In the 1980s, after Lye’s death, I attempted to get Happy Moments published in New Zealand but at that time publishers could not be persuaded there was sufficient local interest in the artist. Wystan Curnow and I did manage to get a few episodes into the AUP book Figures of Motion, and the Australian magazine Cantrills Filmnotes accepted ‘Wave’. I also quoted from Happy Moments in my biography of Lye, published in 2001 by Auckland University Press, but the present Holloway Press book represents the first time the sequence has been published as a whole. In the last few years the artist’s reputation has grown through one-man exhibitions in major public galleries in Australia and France (including the Centre Pompidou in Paris) and surveys of kinetic sculpture in other European cities.
I have had to do a considerable amount of editing as Lye was an inveterate re-writer and cutter-and-paster. He kept re-telling his favourite experiences in different words. He also liked to analyse those experiences in terms of his current theories, particularly his earliest moment (the flashing kerosene can) round which he wove an elaborate myth in which the sun symbolised life and energy in contrast to the illness that was then threatening his father. In the end he removed such speculations from Happy Moments and simply described the flash without explaining why this image represented such a powerhouse of associations for him. This understatement owed something to his current admiration for Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Old Man and the Sea. Some of the offcuts became part of his long (and still unpublished) theoretical essay ‘Somewhat Autobiographical’.
There are so many versions of Happy Moments that none can be regarded as definitive but I have attempted as editor to produce a coherent sequence that illustrates Lye’s writing at its best. When he last discussed the work with me in 1980 he made the general suggestion that some of his doodles could accompany the text. He regarded ‘doodling’ (or ‘automatic drawing’) as an important method of discovery and it provided the starting point for many of his paintings. It is thanks to the Holloway Press, to publisher Peter Simpson and typographer Tara McLeod, that this marvellous sequence has at last reached print after 40 years in manuscript. Thanks also to the Len Lye Foundation for permission to reproduce text and images.
© Roger Horrocks