31 Jul 2020
Artists, experts, scholars, specialists and Len Lye film fans will share their insights on the artist and experimental filmmaker in a brand new series coming to Instagram weekly, inspired by the current exhibition 'The Absolute Truth of the Happiness Acid' (6 Jun — 1 Nov 2020).
This week, curator Mark Williams recalls the extraordinary impact of a Len Lye film screening had on both himself and the fellow cinemagoers that filled the auditorium at the sold-out event, and why it is essential to support the creatives who make these moments possible.
The Indisputable Truth of The Happiness Acid: On Tour With Len Lye (USA, 2006)
I’ve only seen an audience burst into spontaneous applause at a film screening twice; once at a children’s experimental film screening in Germany where oceans of liquid abstraction burst from an elephants trunk, and secondly at a screening of Len Lye films in New York in 2006.
The audience that night at Anthology Film Archives was sold out. Many of these films hadn’t been seen in New York for decades. I introduced the screening, one of around 15 stops of a tour I had organized across North America of a programme curated by Roger Horrocks. I was touring other NZ programmes too– classic NZ experimental film and post object art on video - but Lye was what the audiences came to see.
And did they lap it up! At Anthology, each transformative burst of colour in Rainbow Dance was greeted with actual cheers, whoops and applause – mid-screening. It was if Lye – a jazz nut who had named one of his sons ‘Bix’ after legendary cornet player Bix Beiderbecke - had just finished a solo in the cinema. And, more or less, he had; Lye’s dancing lines so often departing from the recognizable motifs to a world of unbounded form and colour, never quite forgetting the tune but endlessly testing it’s limits.
After the screening, so many questions – Just how did he do that? What was Lye’s equipment? Above all, why haven’t we seen these films for so many years?
We decided to find out. The next day Anthology programmer Andrew Lampert phoned Jonas Mekas to ask why Lye had never been part of Anthology’s Essential Cinema collection, 300 films that sought to present a history of 20th century experimental film. Jonas informed us that Lye had been asked and agreed; on the condition that he be paid half a million dollars.
This was an absurd ask from Lye from a small independent film distributor. Nevertheless it was emblematic of the frustration that Lye must have felt when he downed tools and declared himself on strike from film-making in the 1950’s. And now, in Aotearoa in 2020, when there is so much conversation about the sustainability of artists practice, Lye’s stance is once again unexpectedly relevant. If we really love the happiness acid, we need to support our artists to make the stuff.
Stay tuned for further exploration into Len Lye's work in the weeks to come.
You can follow Mark on Instagram: @circuitafv
Based in Wellington, Mark Williams, is the Director/Curator and Founder of CIRCUIT Artist Film and Video Aotearoa New Zealand an arts agency which supports New Zealand artists working in the moving image through commissioning of works, distribution, critical review and professional practice initiatives.
Len Lye, Rainbow Dance, 1936.
Courtesy the British Post Office, Len Lye Foundation, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and New Zealand Film Archive.