Lye's waka into celluloid: Tusalava (1929)


Abstract by Alexandra Porter

Len Lye titled his first film Tusalava, a Sāmoan word meaning 'in the end, everything is just the same’ or ‘things go full cycle’. The black and white animation is a story of cellular evolution, embodies Lye’s on-going quest to ‘compose motion’ and doodle his way into what he coined ‘old brain’ imagery. A product of the colonies himself Lye held a deep fascination and respect for indigenous arts of the Pacific (as well as Africa) and merged these ideas with European Modernist influences exploring forms and emotions of ‘primitive’ cultures. The film’s 9,500 drawings were created at an average rate of eight images a day and shot on a rostrum camera literally ‘cell by cell’ - the entire project spanned two years. Tusalava premiered in 1929 at the London Film Society, accompanied by a live piano score originally composed by his antipodean friend and pianist, Jack Ellit. Though now lost, the absence of the score has prompted many musicians to respond to the work since the film’s revival in 1967. By drawing on the widely published material of art critics, writers and curators like Roger Horrocks, Wystan Curnow and Anne Kirker, this paper surveys Lye’s journey into myth creation.

[Below] A sample of supporting images from Porter's seminar 12th July 2017 at Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision, the Archive of NZ Film, Television & Sound, Wellington:

Beginnings of Witchetty Grub Sketch by Len Lye, c. 1927

Working drawing of the Tusalava Witchetty Grub c. 1927 (approx 200x250mm) Courtesy of the Len Lye Foundation Archive and Collection.

Detail of Hammersmith Bridge, London. Photo by Alexandra Porter, 2016.

Mechanical cog and chain detail: Hammersmith Bridge, London (photo: Alexandra Porter, 2016).

Film frame from Len Lye's first film titled 'Tusalava' (1929).

Tusalava (1929) film frame, Courtesy of the Len Lye Foundation Archive and Collection.