“The idea that the revolution in modern art had still scarcely influenced the medium of film-making was very much in Lye's thoughts when he arrived in London in 1926.” (5) Tusalava was completed a few years thereafter with the aid of a London Film Society grant. (6) Shot with a 35mm animation camera, Tusalava was inspired by the indigenous art of Australian, Polynesian and Maori cultures. The film, extremely cryptic, about “the beginnings of organic life,” develops slowly over 9 minutes. Throughout its duration, over 4000 drawings of cellular forms continuously generate new shapes that grow and interact with one another across two distinct vertically formatted panels (one black, one white), evoking themes of birth, death, sex, and transformation. Tusalava (a Samoan word meaning “just the same”) concludes with a pulsating spirographic pattern that, upon penetration by the tongue of an animal-like figure, elicits bolts of electricity before advancing upwards (towards the viewer) and consuming both halves of the frame.
(The Len Lye Foundation)
The film's fascination with biological, genetic and symbolic imagery presages Lye's 1968 lecture “The Absolute Truth of the Happiness Acid”. According to Arthur Cantrill, this “complex three-hour presentation was in two parts: 'Art and the Body' and 'Art and the Genes.' It used films, slides and audio tapes, and needed the aid of three assistants. It was a performance as much as a talk.” (7) The main focus of the lecture-screening was Lye's idiosyncratic theory of DNA, which he saw as the wellspring and pattern of artistic creation. In his formulation, quoting the art critic Clive Bell, “art lies in the genes”. Aesthetic ideas are generated by our genetic make-up, which Lye illustrated by comparing images of Le Corbusier and Henry Moore's work with their respective facial structures. This indexical relationship between the essence of “selfness” and our corporeal reality accounts for Lye's creation of imagery and forms that represent bodily feelings and motion, as well as his keen interests in music (especially jazz) and dance. Lye's sense of movement was rooted in the physical, “the kinetic of the body's rhythms”, not purely a matter of visual patterns. (8)