24 Jul 2015

First view of Taranaki's Len Lye Centre

1:24 pm on 24 July 2015

The world is getting its first peek inside the Len Lye Centre in New Plymouth as international media are taken through the $12 million complex ahead of its grand opening tomorrow.

New Zealand's first gallery dedicated to a single artist, the centre has been built to showcase the work of Len Lye - an internationally recognised New Zealand filmmaker and kinetic sculptor, who died in 1980.

The opening exhibition is a new survey of the artist's work called Len Lye's Jam Session. Designed as a "best of", it will feature kinetic sculpture, painting, cinema and works from his archive.

A highlight is an 8-metre high version of Fountain, which will be displayed in the centre's purpose-built Large Works Gallery alongside three smaller examples of the piece.

Fountain features a plume of stainless steel rods that rise vertically out of a motorised base which rotates causing the rods sway backwards and forwards, giving the impression that there is light rising from the base of the piece.

The Len Lye Centre has divided opinion in New Plymouth with many criticising it as a waste of money and a burden on ratepayers, but after a decade of planning it got the go-ahead from the district council in 2012.

Funds for its construction have been raised through private sponsorship and a central government contribution of $4 million, but the council will pay the additional operational costs of the combined Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and Len Lye Centre of about $100,000 a year.

It has guaranteed entry will be free at least for the first year.

Even that is too much for some councillors who have said they will boycott the $64,000 opening ceremony.

The Len Lye Centre in New Plymouth.

The Len Lye Centre in New Plymouth during its construction Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

A stunning 32-tonne, 14m-high mirror-grade stainless steel facade which wraps around the Patterson Architects-designed centre has caught the imagination locally and whetted the appetite for what is on show inside.

The facade itself is worth $2 million and has been especially created by Taranaki company Rivet, which typically makes sink benches, handrails and architectural fittings.

'Visionary artist'

Christchurch-born Len Lye is considered a visionary artist, a pioneer of film and one of the most important and influential artists to emerge from New Zealand.

His "direct films" made by painting and scratching on celluloid were part of Lye's vision for a new "art of movement" and his dynamic and innovative motorised stainless steel sculptures of the 1960s express an energy that Lye also brought to film, painting, photography and poetry.

NZ On Screen video of Lye's Swinging the Lambeth Walk

The artist lived and worked in London in the 1920s and moved to New York in 1944. While he is best known overseas as a filmmaker, in New Zealand Lye was most prominent as a kinetic sculptor.

He has been exhibited around the world and Lye's films are held in numerous international collections including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Pacific Film Archive at Berkeley and the British Film Institute in London.

Len Lye in his studio in 1958.

Len Lye in his studio in 1958. Photo: Len Lye Foundation Collection / Govett-Brewster Art Gallery

Outside of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth, which reopens tomorrow after a $6 million council-funded upgrade including earthquake strengthening, his sculptures are held in public collections including the Art Institute of Chicago, Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Berkeley Art Museum, California.

Late in his life Lye chose to make Taranaki the home of his works and, since 1980, the Govett-Brewster has housed and cared for the Len Lye Collection and Archive, of more than 18,000 individual pieces.

Len Lye Foundation chairman John Matthews played a significant part in that decision.

Mr Matthews travelled to New York in the 1970s to see if Lye would be interested in providing some works for the Govett-Brewster and the two men struck up a bond.

The industrial engineer was then instrumental in working out how to make Lye's kinetic sculptures come to life.

The 820 square metre Len Lye Centre will allow his ideas to be realised on a scale not before seen in a gallery setting, including the creation of the 8-metre version of Fountain.

Len Lye Centre director Simon Rees has described the combined art museum, which incorporates a 62-seat cinema, as a boon for New Zealand artists which will become a magnet for visitors from around the country and overseas.

"It's the first piece of destination architecture linked to contemporary art in New Zealand and I think it can be a major attractor of international attention here both within the arts circuit and from tourists, and act as a boomerang to take New Zealand contemporary art to the world and Len Lye with it."

Mr Rees, who gave up a high-profile career in Europe to return to New Plymouth, believes the opening of the Len Lye Centre will amplify the city's position as an arts leader.

The existing Govett-Brewster gallery attracted about 70,000 visitors a year before it closed for its upgrade and a 2011 Business and Economic Research Ltd (Berl) report says the new complex will attract 30 percent more visitors a year bumping that up to about 100,000.

About 60 percent of those visitors will come from out of town and the expected economic boost to region is about $3 million a year.

Alongside Len Lye's Jam Session, the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery will reopen with an exhibition entitled Our Hearts of Darkness.

An examination of violence in New Zealand through the lens of contemporary art from the Govett-Brewster Collection, it will also feature a Len Lye kinetic sculpture, the refurbished Trilogy (A Flip and Two Twisters).

The doors to the combined art museum open to the public at 10am tomorrow following an official powhiri.

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