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Murray Edmond, Talk for Launch of Len Lye's Body English (Holloway Press, December 2009)


Let me start by reading the first text in Body English:

I propose to allow my bodily feelings to enter my mind and push out some word twangs and meanings.
I find that a body english kind of language helps one to use a string of words as an umbilical cord from brain to body. It can be used cross-checking the outside and the inside of the same navel.”

In Werner Herzog's latest film - or movie as Len Lye might have preferred - Close Encounters at the End of the World, about Antarctica, there are shots through a microscope of minute creatures called forminafera building pseudopodia by sucking in tiny particles to attach to themselves.  When these little circular blobs blip onto the steadily growing tentacular legs, it looks just like Len Lye's film Tusalava which premiered in London in 1929.  Suddenly the voice of the scientist Herzog is interviewing while we watch these pictures says: “It's almost art.” Lye would have loved this connection, because of the way that it recognised the link between biological processes and art, because of the acknowledgement that a wide range of activity might be art, and also for its provisional nature: “It's almost art.” When Roger Horrocks, along with Wystan Curnow, back in 1980 proposed a publication of Len Lye's writings, at that time of his published essays, they suggested to Lye that it be called “The Essential Len Lye” but Lye was “horrified” by the title saying it made him sound “too important” and his ideas “too definitive.” His suggested alternative was “Len Lye Sort Of.”[1] Lye’s work is always mixing and moving back and forth, between art and science, between body and language, between petrie dishes and tapa cloths, and, in his art, movement becomes music and music becomes sculpture.

Louis Adler, who was an engineer in New York who helped Lye early on with building his moving sculptures summed up the wonderful mixture of stillness and movement in Lye when he said: “Len had the most expressive body I've ever seen. He had a dancing vibrating way of standing still.”[2]

Lye is best known as a sculptor and film-maker, and after these as a painter, but in the second half of his life, after close encounters with Laura Riding and Robert Graves, not to mention Dylan Thomas, writing played an important role. As a young man he thought poetry “a lot of romantic junk.”[3] But by the time he was making films in wartime Britain there was “Nothing but poetry in his reading.” [4]

The writings which Roger has put together in this elegant hand-press Holloway package date from three periods in Lye's life: New York City in the late 1940s, a time for him of new love in a new city; the early 1960s  when Lye published a small collection of  memories, often about New Zealand, called “Happy Moments”; and the mid 1970s when he mixes science and art theory with poetry. Body English is a very happy conurbation of  the autobiographical, the mythical (which would include science in Lye's mind) and the poetic.

The book is beautifully printed by Tara McLeod on delicious creamy  paper which reminds me of un-dyed tapa cloth. Some of Lye's doodlings are included in orange ink and these give even more of a feel of tapa. I salute Roger and the Holloway Press for the fine presentation of this work.

Len Lye had that best of educations – the deep, serious and joyful study of the autodidact whose books are never closed. He was always more the student than the teacher. But I would like to say something about the importance of Lye's art and the territory it dances in, having already noted its provisionality and modesty (despite its sometimes grand scale): his idea of the body as a site of language and knowledge proposes an integration of signification. Whereas a sign may be only defined by everything it is not, Lye's idea of multiple signifying systems finding common root in the human body is a neglected room of modernism which has been closed for repairs in recent times; but with the reassertion of evolutionary theory in art, the psycho-physical systems of the body have taken on a renewed fascination. My own theatre/drama training in the work of Jacques Lecoq, whose dicta were that “the cry demands its sign” and that “the body remembers,”  makes him a strange cousin to Lye's own notion of “Body English.” Other figures one might add to this territory are the philosopher Merleau-Ponty, the poet Charles Olson, the para-theatrical Jerzy Grotowski, and our own local multi-artists such as Jack Body and Phil Dadson. Perhaps we can label this movement “The Movement Movement”.

Brion Gysin, another multi-artist, who as a young man was, like Lye, influenced by Surrealism in England in the 1930s, had this to say about art: “I enjoy inventing things out of fun. After all, life is a game, not a career.” I can feel Lye vibrating in agreement.

Congratulations to Roger for another example of his long dedication to making Lye's writing available and to Holloway Press for presenting it so beautifully.


1.      Roger Horrocks, Len Lye: A Biography (Auckland: Auckland UP, 2001) p. 377.

2.     Horrocks, p. 278.

3.    Horrocks, p. 99.

4.    Horrocks, p. 191.