Len Lye

film 4 of 5

Trade Tattoo

Film Review by Dean Duncan Mar 26, 2015

This is a real extension of Lye’s methods, and a real deepening. For the first time he incorporates documentary footage, and to very great effect. We see workers working, in support of commerce and trade and the general welfare. (Is this necessarily the case? Are their complexities, hypocrisies, injustices? The fact that there are, and that this is still valid and valuable, gets us very nicely to the paradox of the subsidized documentary. There’s serious compromise at the core, but it gradually enacts things that the secular prophet crying in the wilderness never could. Sometimes we need activism and even fire breathing, but diplomacy will probably, ultimately get you further.)  

Lye continues to work his colour and kinetical magic, continues to use his various tints and stencils and washes. Music too, of course—as generally, this combination makes the whole thing seem positively joyful. The GPO is referenced throughout, becoming structurally integral, instead of just a comical afterthought. (The film’s graphic/ typographical design is superb.) This isn’t John Grierson fronting for one of his aesthetical pals, and this isn’t an aesthetical pal being sacrificed at the altar of mammon. It is, as Grierson so famously described the documentary idiom entire, the creative treatment of actuality. That is: the artist is uninhibitedly creative within the bounds established by the sponsor, and by his responsibilities to the public. This is a perfectly integrated artwork, formally and conceptually. “The rhythm of trade is maintained by the mails.”