‘How did you two meet?’ is a ‘recipe’ for a public programme from the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal. The CCA invited us to put our spin on this recipe at M+. ‘Our How did you two meet?’ recipe goes like this: pick two seemingly disconnected objects in the M+ Collections, usually by juxtaposing one of the oldest with one of the newest objects, and narrate a story that connects them.
This time, curators delved into M+’s Moving Image collection. Ulanda Blair (Curator, Moving Image) introduced one of the oldest moving image works in the collection, and Chanel Kong (Associate Curator, Moving Image) introduced one of the newest. Together, the curators were challenged to connect the two seemingly unrelated works. Below, we share the results.
One of Our Oldest Moving Image Works: Free Radicals by Len Lye
Ulanda Blair: Free Radicals by New Zealand-born artist Len Lye is the oldest moving image work that will be on display in the M+ galleries when we open next year. It was made in 1958 and re-edited in 1979, just a few months before Lye passed away at the age of seventy-eight.
Often described as a ‘scratch film’, Free Radicals is a landmark achievement in the global history of moving image art. Remarkably, the black-and-white animation was made without the use of a camera. The artist instead scratched the surface of the film’s emulsion using dental tools, nails, needles, wire brushes, fine-toothed saws, and even an arrowhead. When magnified and animated with a projector, these miniature scratches are transformed into jaunty figures of motion that vibrate and dance against the inky black frame.
The vigour and vitality of Free Radicals belies the many months that Lye spent painstakingly inscribing these tiny marks onto more than 7,000 frames of 16mm filmstrip. In 1979, he decided to re-edit the film, losing 1,500 of these hand-etched frames in the process.
With its jagged lightning bolts, fiery stars, and atomic particles, Free Radicals harnesses the inherent motion of the natural world. The work’s title is a reference to modern physics—‘free radicals’ are particles of energy. The connection between nature and the body is underscored by Lye’s choice of traditional African music, credited to the Bagirmi tribe and their god of thunder. Lye was aiming for what he called ‘bodily empathy’ with his audience, capturing motion to activate a sensory, full-bodied viewing experience.
It could be said that Lye himself was a free radical. He was an extraordinary polymath and an interdisciplinary maker who lived a rich life spanning multiple continents. He was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, and was raised for a time in a lighthouse. His films and sculptures often evoke the tidal patterns, cloud formations, and vicious nighttime storms he experienced in his youth. Lye spent his entire career pursuing an ‘art of motion’—a theory he’d developed as a young man watching clouds sweep over the windy hills of New Zealand.
In his early twenties Lye relocated to Australia and Samoa, where his first-hand exposure to indigenous arts and culture profoundly affected his future art-making. He moved to London in 1926 and a decade later exhibited alongside major figures like Marcel Duchamp, Joan Miró, and Man Ray in the International Surrealist Exhibition. The Surrealists’ practice of automatism and their spirit of spontaneity are evident in much of Lye’s early work. In 1944 he moved to New York City, and it was there that he fully established himself as a cinematic innovator.
We have two more works by Lye in the M+ Collections. Color Cry (1952) was his first major American film and first experiment with 16mm, after having previously worked with 35mm film in London. Color Cry was an evolution of Man Ray's Rayograph shadow-cast photographic process. Lye used stencils, fabrics, filmstrips with sprocket holes, and coloured gels to create dynamic silhouetted patterns.
Particles in Space (1979) was the final film Lye made. In it, we see him return to the reduced black-and-white palette and the etching technique of Free Radicals, made more than twenty years earlier. Unfortunately, the critical success of Lye’s scratch films did not translate financially and he was unable to sustain his filmmaking career. Instead, he began channelling his artistic energy into sculpture, becoming a leading figure in the kinetic art movement of 1960s and 1970s New York.
It was through sculpture that Lye cemented his lifetime commitment to an ‘art of motion’.
One of Our Newest Moving Image Works: The Retrieval, Restoration and Predicament by Lee Kai Chung
Chanel Kong: The Retrieval, Restoration and Predicament (2018) is one of the newest moving image works in the M+ Collections, made by young local artist Lee Kai Chung.
Lee’s multimedia and research-based practice responds to the idea of the public archive and the sociopolitical importance of record-keeping in Hong Kong. His project Open Archives Initiative is a collective platform that collects historical records from the community and encourages public awareness of archival issues in Hong Kong. The research project also led Lee to establish Archive of the People, a collective formed in 2016, commissioned by Para Site, and subsequently exhibited at Art Basel Hong Kong.
Lee’s performances, installations, and documentations can be seen as gestures of political and artistic transgression. This, in part, explains why his work has such strong resonance for us today.
The Retrieval, Restoration and Predicament is an installation composed of a single-channel video and nine bronze sculptures that Lee cast using a 3D modelling process. You can recognise some of the bronze pieces in the installation, seen on the left above, as replicas of parts of the Queen Victoria statue that is now located in Victoria Park in Causeway Bay.
In this work, Lee traces the circulation of some of the bronze statues that were confiscated and damaged by the Japanese army during the occupation of Hong Kong in the Second World War. Only four of the eleven bronze statues that were confiscated actually survived the war and were returned to Hong Kong. This includes the Queen Victoria statue as well as the two HSBC bronze lions in Central. It also includes a statue of Sir Thomas Jackson, the Chief Manager of HSBC, still installed in Statue Square.
In Lee’s video, three narrators tell stories that suggest the life of these statues. The narrators are a mason for the Imperial Japanese Army, a Cantonese-speaking female narrator—who might be the voice for a feng shui ritual object in the granite base of one of the HSBC lions—and a soldier from the Royal Hong Kong Regiment who was a prisoner of war. In three different languages, the lives of these bronze objects are given dimension and perspective, set in a context that speaks to the complexity of the transnational forces at play at the time.
Lee intercuts the telling of these stories with archival footage as well as modern-day footage that he shot himself. It’s as though these objects are now given a voice—perhaps multiple voices of those who played a role in their lives. The interlacing and layering of techniques, voices, and materials come together in a work that is at once speculative but also based on historical documentation and research. Lee’s interest in the place of the archive is revealed forcefully in the story of monuments and their place in society.
How are these objects connected?
Kong: It’s interesting that these two works are paired here and now, thinking about the role of art today and the role of the museum in terms of why we collect what we collect.
In many ways, we can begin to consider these works in the range of varied creative responses to the legacies of colonialism. Both Lee and Lye demonstrate a desire to communicate a sense of the world they live in; one inhabited by an overlapping multitude of cultures, languages, histories, and tensions. It’s gratifying to now be able to see some of the affinities between them in this exercise, when time has passed between the works and when we are experiencing visual culture in a globalising, contemporary context.
Lee Kai Chung’s practice involves revealing different facets of the stories he tells, whether through footage he collected while travelling in the region or from different types of people he has encountered in his research. I think it has something to do with how this region has always been a place where travel and transnational issues are part of the fabric of everyone’s creative practice.
Blair: That is also personified in the transnational figure of Lye, who was such an itinerant artist and who, like a bowerbird, collected inspiration from many different cultures and contexts. In Samoa, he was influenced by tattooing and by tapa cloths. He researched Aboriginal painting practices in Australia, having previously studied Māori carving in New Zealand. He exhibited alongside Surrealist and Dada artists like Man Ray and Duchamp in London, and the Abstract Expressionists in New York. His unique visual vocabulary is a mix of many different cultural expressions.
Kong: These two works also speak to the range of works we look at as part of the Moving Image team. Both artists were thinking outside of the medium or technique when thinking about their practice.
Blair: Absolutely. Lye didn’t use a camera to make his work. Lee was, of course, making a film, but the sculptures and the installation were such an important physical experience as well. Both of these artists are moving image artists, but they also look and work beyond the camera.
The above discussion has been edited for clarity. This article was originally published on M+ Stories.