23 Jul 2014

New phase for Len Lye Centre

11:39 am on 23 July 2014

Construction of the $11.5 million Len Lye Centre in New Plymouth is about to take a dramatic turn with the installation of a 32-tonne, mirror-grade stainless steel facade.

The 14 metre-high facade will wrap around the centre which is being built to showcase the work of the influential New Zealand film-maker and kinetic sculptor, who died in 1980.

An artist's impression of the Len Lye Centre.

An artist's impression of the Len Lye Centre. Photo: Patterson Associates Ltd

The owner of Rivet, the Taranaki company building the $2 million facade, is the first to admit the project is quite different from the work it usually does.

"Typically we're making sink benches, handrails, tanks and ducting and architectural fittings so something of this size and scale is unusual."

Mr Scott said the company had had to buy new laser cutting machinery and create new tooling to be able to fabricate the facade, and even had to send the 510 panels overseas for a final polish.

"The steel is what they call a number eight finish, mirrored, and that's the highest grade finish you can get on stainless steel and there's only one factory in the world that could put that finish on that sized sheet, and that's in Taiwan."

Len Lye Centre director Simon Rees said the complex was a great example of big ideas coming from small places, and it would prove a boon for New Zealand artists and 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 for 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 also heads up the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, gave up a high-profile career in Europe to return to New Plymouth because the opening of the Len Lye Centre will amplify the city's position as an arts leader.

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 has also brought to film, painting, photography and poetry.

Len Lye in his studio in 1958.

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

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

He has been exhibited around the world and Lye's are films 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.

Outside of the Govett-Brewster 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 director Evan Webb is one of a group responsible for bringing the artist's work to life at the new centre.

Mr Webb said the 3000 square metre building will allow Lye's ideas to be realised on a scale not before seen in a gallery setting, including the creation of a 7.5-metre version of Lye's kinetic sculpture Fountain.

"Fountain is a plume of stainless steel tubes or rods that come vertically out of a motor at the base of the work and these are rotated, and as they're rotated the rods sway backwards and forwards and give the impression that there is light rising from the motorised base."

The construction of the Len Lye Centre has had its detractors in New Plymouth and more than one district councillor has paid the price for backing the project. But Rivet sheetmetal worker Ian Smith said he sensed the community was warming to the idea.

"I think it is growing on people, they realise it is going to happen, there's nothing they can do about it and they're getting more to the stage where they more want to know how it's going, what's happening. There's a lot less anti, not like there was. I think it's going to be all right. It'll look good."

Construction of the Len Lye Centre is scheduled to be complete at the end of the year, and it is due to open to the public in May 2015.