Arts: Ahead of the game

Abstraction in film is not new. Len Lye was a 1920s pioneer.
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"JUST ABOUT every artform this century," pronounced the dismayingly articulate boy from Kansas, "has moved towards abstraction. Why hasn't cinema done the same?" It was a good question, and, I'll admit, not one I'd been expecting when the American summer school asked me to give a talk about documentary film-making. Caught off-guard, I improvised as best I could: ah, oh, yes, I blathered, in fact it has, there have been plenty of abstract film-makers, some of them very distinguished. In the US, there's Stan Brakhage (I could also have said Ken Jacobs, Christopher MacLaine...), and in or around France there was, oh, Henri Chomette (I could have said Germaine Dulac, Man Ray...), and in Britain...

Well, there have been plenty of abstract film-makers in Britain, too, but the man who is probably the star of the local team, Len Lye (1901- 1980), wasn't actually British, he just stopped off here for 20-odd years en route from his native New Zealand to his final home, New York. If I'd really had my wits about me, I should have simply given that bright kid from Wichita a copy of the London A-Z, directed him to Finchley Road station, and told him to find the Camden Arts Centre, which is currently hosting a welcome retrospective of Lye's abstract films. And a gallery is a perfectly appropriate venue for Lye's work, since he drew no sharp lines of demarcation between his three modes of image-making - films, painting, and kinetic sculpture - regarding them less as conventional Fine Art exercises and more as royal routes into what he called the "Old Brain".

You can get some inkling of what he might have meant by that phrase "Old Brain" when you walk into the gallery and watch his very first film, Tusalava (1929). At first it seems purely formal: mobile lines, dots, squiggles. Then you notice round dots, which start to proliferate into cells, and gel into a pulsing organic shape on the left side of the screen, while a hominid form, akin to something scratched or smeared on a cave wall, emerges into being on the right. The organic shape grows a face, and fangs, and it starts to pump hideous black fluid towards the poor helpless man- thing... In short, Tusalava is like some hallucinatory vision of the teeming, predatory origins of life on earth, heavily laced with reminiscences of the origins of humanity.

Lye claimed that he had retrieved such images from the attic of his unconscious mind, and from the ancient wisdom locked up in his cells - pretty loopy talk, in most British circles, though it's only fair to add that Lye never suggested that such arcane retrievals made him at all special. Anyone, he felt, could learn to court their Old Brain: abstracted doodling is a good way to start. Hence the title, Doodlin', of Keith Griffith's excellent biographical documentary about Len Lye, which is also being shown at Camden between screenings of seven short films by the artist, including Colour Box (1935), Free Radicals (1979) and Particles in Space (1957 & 1979), the film on which Lye continued to work while literally on his deathbed.

In telegram form, the Lye life goes like this: born in Christchurch, NZ, in 1901; spends much of his youth travelling and studying Maori, Aboriginal and Pacific Island art. In 1926, buys a drunken stoker's ticket for pounds 5, and makes his way to London on the SS Euripides. In London, where he is taken up by the artists of the "7 & 5" Society, he becomes famous as the "Stoker-Sculptor", and spends two years painstakingly making Tusalava, which lasts less than 10 minutes and is shown just once. Is saved from poverty by John Grierson, who commissions abstract colour films - many painted directly onto celluloid - as promotions for the GPO.

After the war, Lye headed for America and settled there, creating films when he could, but increasingly devoting his talent to kinetic sculpture. He became quite famous in the circles that care for such things, and worked happily away until he dropped at a ripe age, leaving his masterwork - a huge "temple" of kinetic sculpture, suitable for Arizona or some other desert zone - at the model stage. Some day, it will probably make a juicy biography. Meanwhile, I'm still regretting my absent-mindedness in not sending that bright American student off to Camden. I'm not sure he would have liked Lye's work, but I hope it would have given him the same agreeable sense of strangeness that it gives me: the feeling (to echo Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz) that we're not in Kansas anymore.

Len Lye: Camden Arts Centre, London NW3 (0171-435 2643) until 29 Aug. Call gallery for film times