Critics’ Picks

Phil Dadson, Osmosis, 2011, still from a color video, 6 minutes 15 seconds.

Phil Dadson, Osmosis, 2011, still from a color video, 6 minutes 15 seconds.

New Plymouth

“Old Genes: Artists Reading Len Lye”

Govett-Brewster Art Gallery
42 Queen Street
December 10, 2011–February 26, 2012

New Zealander Len Lye’s Jazz Age films and kinetic sculptures were formative accomplishments in international modernism. The preservation—and reactivation—of Lye’s global legacy has been placed in the safe hands of New Plymouth’s Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, whose latest Lye-related exhibition shows that his buoyant, experimental spirit is alive and well. Curated by Tyler Cann, “Old Genes: Artists Reading Len Lye” presents four contemporary responses to the late artist’s work, interspersed with some of his own pieces. For example, in Phil Dadson’s video Osmosis, 2011, young people wearing polka-dotted caps (one of Lye’s signature looks) enter the Auckland Art Gallery and start to bob and weave in sync with Lye’s kinetic sculpture Universe, 1976: a wobbling band of steel that rings out when it strikes a ball hung directly above it. Gradually, these gallerygoers start to make odd noises—clicks, pops, snorts, and raspberries—a kind of Three Stooges riff; the video nods to Lye’s twin fascinations with movement and language. Tessa Laird’s Points of Agreement, 2011, is a similarly intelligent translation: a series of “facsimiles” in which she hand-copied pages from Lye’s notebooks, which were themselves copied from Freud’s Totem and Taboo (1913) and illustrated by Lye with images of African, Pacific, and Maori art (Laird adds her own touches, with knowing references to her artistic peers and contemporary theory). The result is a densely layered, funny reclamation of Lye’s Pacific heritage, his relationship with psychoanalytic theory, and the debate about modernism’s appropriation of “primitive” artifacts, which still generates plenty of heat in this part of the world. As Cann suggests in his accompanying essay, all the works in the show owe Lye a genetic debt, but each produces its own mutations. The single thread running through them is a subtle sense of play—with Lye’s history, but also with modernism’s strange and unresolvable place in South Pacific culture.