News and Events


A controversial manuscript has been brought out from the Len Lye Archive in New Plymouth. Written 76 years ago, it is about to published for the first time.

This was a collaboration between two notable figures – New Zealand-born artist Len Lye and famous British writer Robert Graves. Graves was the author of the I, Claudius novels which became a popular TV series, and of Good-Bye to All That, a vivid first-hand account of trench fighting during the First World War. The two men were lifelong friends.

Their text - a kind of manifesto about what it means to live in a free society - is being published under the title Individual Happiness Now.  Paul Brobbel of the Len Lye Centre (publisher of the book) says: ‘This manuscript is one of the most exciting discoveries we’ve made in the large collection of papers and works of art which Lye bequeathed to the people of New Zealand when he died in 1980. The Lye Centre is publishing it with the permission of the Robert Graves estate. Internationally there’s been a great deal of interest since Graves’s work still has many readers.’

The essay was written in 1941 at a time when the Nazis appeared to be winning the war and were planning to invade Britain.  Graves and Lye were deeply disturbed because they felt the Nazis were winning the propaganda war. Winston Churchill and other leaders were not explaining clearly what the Allies were fighting for. Politicians were afraid that ‘the moment they left the area of pious platitude,’ they ran into arguments and controversies. And so they kept to clichés. In response, Graves and Lye set out to explain what freedom and democracy really mean.

‘This essay is 76 years old but it is amazingly topical today,’ says Roger Horrocks, who edited the text for publication. ‘Now, all over Europe and in the United States, there are extreme-right politicians questioning the idea of a diverse, free, democratic society, just as the Fascists did.  Also, the propagandists for ISIS on social media are making converts even among some young people in the West. Our leaders are not doing a good job of explaining the values we must protect.  I think Individual Happiness Now will offer a great starting-point for that discussion.’

Back in the 1940s, the manifesto was circulated to many British politicians and media people. Its most enthusiastic reader was the American politician Wendell Willkie, who had strong backing to become the first Secretary General of the United Nations at the end of the war. He brought Lye to New York in 1944 to discuss his ideas, but Willkie died that year after a sudden heart attack. The Graves and Lye essay was much discussed but never published – until now.

‘The fact that Graves and Lye were bohemian artists helped to make them great champions of individual freedom and happiness,’ says Horrocks. ‘Their view of politics was totally opposed to the grimness of Fascism. In some respects, it looked forward to the exuberant politics of the hippie era!

The book - Len Lye and Robert Graves, ‘Individual Happiness Now’: A Definition of Common Purpose - will be available from the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery/Len Lye Centre shop from April 8th 2017.  









Len Lye and Robert Graves in Majorca 1968






Albatross in an unusual work.  In Lye’s other kinetic sculptures the ‘elements’ that vibrate are usually made from highly polished steel.  These vibrating strips and rods form ‘figures of motion’ – virtual images that reflect patterns of light.  By contrast, Albatross employs a slender and delicate wooden ‘wing’ balanced on a painted metal shaft.  As the shaft spins and vibrates it causes the wing to flutter and rotate.  Albatross is more an actual wing than a virtual one.

Lye experimented extensively with ideas and materials.  He completed the original Albatross in New York in 1965 and described it as:

“…a long sliver of spruce, very springy wood, about the most springy and it’s tapered at both ends something like a thin pointed boomerang and it bounces on a shaft of a motor on a little holding arrangement… [I]t runs free but momentum start to turn this sliver and it starts to wave, just like a spirit of a winged Albatross.”

Lye was fascinated by Polynesian culture: its dance, its artefacts (the Australian boomerang) and its mythology.  He studied and drew from these cultures extensively.  There are colonies of Albatross in New Zealand and Māori refer to them in their legends and songs.  Although Lye wandered extensively spending most of his life ‘over seas’, Albatross is a reminder of his antipodean roots.

Albatross was reconstructed in 2015 and first shown at the Len Lye Centre in the exhibition, ‘Flora and Fauna’. 







Albatross in flight at the Len Lye Centre, January, 2016






A re-construction of Witch Dance was added to the Len Lye collection last year.  It was shown in ‘Experimental Moves’ curated by Sarah Wall, Assistant Len Lye Curator, and is proving a popular addition to the exhibition. (See

Witch Dance, is a small work where several wire figures topped with bells, dance in unison.  It anticipates larger works such as Wand Dance that the Foundation is currently building.

Stuart Robb, New Plymouth based design engineer, re-constructed the work under the supervision of the Foundation and with the support of the Len Lye Centre.  Stuart has a long association with the Foundation having built and repaired several of Len’s sculptures.  His reconstruction of Witch Dance is beautifully crafted and a faithful rendition of the original work.  The original work can now, happily be retired and preserved from further ware and tear.

Witch Dance (a.k.a. Ritual Dance) was first shown at ‘Bounding Steel Sculpture’, an exhibition of several of Lye’s kinetic works shown at the Howard Wise Galley in New York in 1965   Lye said of the work:

“It looked effective when the six other upright rods all came from the same centre of motion but all have a kind of slightly different action, so you could watch them for quite a while comparing their motion”






Seven wire figures dance in unison





Angus McGregor (left) and Caleb Balmer (right) in front of their poster of Len Lye’s Rotating Harmonic.  Both are mechanical engineering students in their fourth year at the University of Canterbury and part of a research programme, run by Dr Shayne Gooch, to develop Len Lye’s kinetic sculptures to their full scale. 

Angus and Caleb have designed a full scale working prototype of Len Lye’s Rotating Harmonic and they recently presented their research results and design work at a seminar at the University.  Construction of the full scale work has begun.  Angus can be seen holding the motor connecting shaft and Caleb is holding a bearing unit that fits within the wand mount on the table next to him.

Lye made a four foot high Rotating Harmonic in 1959.  He experimented by shuttling a spring steel wire from side to side and by controlling the motor speed, induced the wire to whirl and form a three dimensional ‘virtual’ shape in space.  He understood this transition as one of energy:

“So you’ve got a kind of drama going on whether this metal could accept this energy and you felt it as such-- there seemed to be some kind of living business and in a way it was.”

Scaling up Rotating Harmonic to its full size has presented the students with several challenges.  For one, the forces that act on the base of a forty foot wand as it vibrates are one thousand times greater than those on the smaller, four foot wand!  Nonetheless, Angus and Caleb’s had a ‘break through’ and found a way of reducing these loads that might otherwise have caused the large wand to fail.  The Len Lye projects have captured the imagination of several engineering students.  Caleb says:  "I loved having the opportunity to combine the practicality of engineering and the creativity of art and produce a device that pushes the boundaries of modern materials."

The full scale Rotating Harmonic will be completed next year.






Photo courtesy of Duncan Shaw-Brown, University of Canterbury photographer.







New Plymouth is abuzz with all things Len Lye as we count down to the opening of the Len Lye Centre this weekend. The media, both locally and nationally will be descending on Taranaki this Friday to get a tour of the new gallery.

Live Magazine dedicated their recent issue to the Len Lye Centre and included a wonderful interview with Chairman, John Matthews. You can read the entire issue here.






Recently, members of the engineering and art communities were treated to a preview of Lye’s God of the Sea and Cave Goddess at the University of Canterbury School of Engineering in Christchurch.  PhD candidate, Alex O’Keefe has almost completed this 8 metre high gallery work, a precursor to the much larger Sun, Land and Sea (see article below March 2, 2015) and he was able to demonstrate the ‘lightning bolt’ and the mechanical animation of the Serpent and the Cave Goddess, both constructed from high tensile stainless steel strip.  Alex is looking for a space in Christchurch large enough to bring all the elements of this work together for its first public performance. 

For over 20 years the School of Engineering has provided opportunities for students to study Lye’s work and, in turn, bring about solutions to the challenges of scaling Lye’s sculptures to the size he intended.  Dr Shayne Gooch, a Len Lye enthusiast of many years, is instrumental in providing this program of study.  John Matthews a graduate of the Engineering School and Chairman of the Len Lye Foundation supports the programme through his New Plymouth based company, Technix Industries Ltd.

The demonstration provided an opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate the long and fruitful relationship that the Foundation enjoys with the University. 





Above: Evan Webb, Alex O'Keefe, John Matthews and Shayne Gooch with Lye's Cave Goddess.


Left: A 'bolt of lightning', as demonstrated in the High Voltage Laboratory, will be part of the finished work.






Fountain, 1959 in the Whitney exhibition Singular Vision 2012




The Whitney Museum of American Art will open in its new Renzo Piano designed building in New York next month with an ambitious exhibition, America is hard to See with more than 600 works by some 400 artists.

Film and video art is represented in a section of the exhibition titled, ‘Free Radicals’ that takes its name from Len Lye’s experimental ‘direct’ film that he made in 1958 and which will be screened as part of the exhibition.  Last year the Whitney bought a copy of Free Radicals for its collection.  The museum now owns two of Lye’s works – his film, Free Radicals and his sculpture, Fountain that he built in 1959.
In 2007 the Whitney commissioned the Len Lye Foundation to restore Fountain.  The restored work was first exhibited at the Govett Brewster Art Gallery in 2008 in the exhibition Five Fountains and a Fire Bush, curated by Tyler Cann, before it was returned to the Whitney.  The Whiney exhibited the restored fountain for the first time in its 2010 exhibition, Singular Visions which highlighted works from its collection that ‘conveyed a distinct impression and a specific sense of the maker’s vision’.


Free Radicals, 1958 (revised 1979), 4 mins




After weeks of uncertainty, the New Plymouth District Councillors have agreed to go ahead with the proposed streetscape to compliment the Len Lye Centre. John Matthews, Chairman of the Len Lye Foundation, has offered to foot the extra cost of the streetscape with sponsorship from his company Technix Industries Limited. The NPDC have decided to accept this offer from Mr Matthews. Between $200,000 and $300,000 will be funded to the project by Technix Industries Limited.








Chairman John Matthews submitted a request to the New Plymouth District Council (NPDC) to upgrade the present uneventful looking Queen Street. The proposal is for the area between the stunning Len Lye Centre and restored Govett Brewster Art Gallery on one side of the street and the recently restored White Hart building where Snug Lounge is now located and  the King & Queen Hotel on the other side.

You can read the proposal here.






New Plymouth District Councillors have agreed to defer considering the question of imposing admission charges for visitors to the Govett Brewster Art Gallery and the Len Lye Centre for a 12 month period following their opening.

Mayor Andrew Judd and the councillors where asked to reflect on the issues. Len Lye’s works have an extraordinarily wide appeal – of all ages, genders, and ethnic backgrounds and the NPDC shouldn’t make a decision that actively differentiates the audience based merely on financial resources.

As Len was a passionate champion of free entry to galleries, museums and libraries, this is a great victory for the Foundation.

You can read the full submission here.




Free Admission is standard at famous Serpentine Gallery in London

  Evan Webb outside the famous Serpentine Gallery in London which offers free entry to visitors.