Janet McAllister on the arts

Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAlliser: Revelations from rebellion

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Tusalava by Len Lye at the Mangere Arts Centre. Photo / Sam Hartnett
Tusalava by Len Lye at the Mangere Arts Centre. Photo / Sam Hartnett

Part of kinetic artist Len Lye's legend is that he wasn't one to comply meekly with authority, artistically or socially.

In his early 20s he visited Samoa from 1924-25, and became angry at missionaries "destroying the local culture by imposing their own values", as Roger Horrocks put it in his 2001 Lye biography. He also ran foul of notorious New Zealand-appointed administrator George Richardson, who thought that, as Lye was wayward enough to be living with the locals, he must also be sleeping with them. Lye's flip reply: "I'm not running round with Samoan girls, much as I'd love to." Richardson, furious, threatened Lye with deportation.

That was Lye's life; composer Matthew Faiumu Salapu also sees generational friction, youthful rebellion and challenges to imposed belief in Lye's first film, Tusalava. The 1929 10-minute semi-abstract animation is projected fantastically large in Agiagia, the Lye showcase at the Mangere Arts Centre (until next Sunday, March 16) and is also on YouTube.

Salapu, 33, aka Anonymouz, is one of three composers of Samoan heritage writing new soundtracks for the evocative film, to be premiered next Saturday. (The other two are jazz/orchestral composer Matatumua Opeloge Ah Sam, and The Factory's Poulima Salima.)

Influenced by Maori, indigenous Australian and Samoan art, Tusalava features organic-looking strings of circles - like worms, seaweed, seed necklaces, sea slugs or intestines. They enlarge, divide and engulf, suggesting birth, sex and conflict.

A curved body of three parts grows the film's first straight lines. For Salapu, this sudden spikiness represents the creation of religion, imposed by one generation on the next. At this point, his sustained notes and ambient sounds (recorded in Samoa) acquire a set beat, and the bass "smashes in", says Salapu. "Boom - you're in 2014, it kicks you in the chest."

Salapu sees patterns of three throughout Tusalava, inspiring him to layer on a live string trio for the concert. He's quick to point out the number's obvious meanings - mind-body-soul, holy trinity - but prefers a less comforting meaning: "Three is an uneven number - it's not a perfectly divisible energy ... There's a leftover, an incompletion that we have to make peace with."

Salapu turns out to be the most articulate musician I've interviewed since DJ Sir Vere in 2001. He pulls no punches; three represents "the fact that we all have to die". For each generation, this means "there's a limited amount of time to make things happen, [to influence] what's coming up next".

He's pleased the premiere is at Mangere, where he grew up. "We used to park up here in our naughty days, drinking," he reminisces. Now he's come home with an analysis of that rebellion, a response to an artwork by another young man.

But in our incomplete world, things are not cut and dried; Salapu acknowledges that each new generation become elders themselves. And as for Lye, he leveraged Richardson's anathema to get free passage, not back to New Zealand, but on to Sydney, towards other new and exciting places. Conflict begat novelty.

- NZ Herald

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