David Hockney at Tate Britain: To Go or Not to Go?

David Hockney 1

David Hockney’s paintings never really grabbed me. I was familiar with some of his iconic yet dissimilar works such as We Two Boys Together Clinging and A Bigger Splash. I knew both were considered “important” but never really knew why. I couldn’t get too enthusiastic about his 2012 exhibition at the Royal Academy.

Tate Britain in London announces it is showing the first ever exhibition that covers the sixty years of Hockney’s work. After some reflection, I get on a plane.

The exhibition is causing quite some excitement in the UK and even on the BBC. I am determined not to be swept up by the hype. If I am disappointed or confused by the exhibition, I am going to say so. Harsh critic, me! The day does not start well. Yesterday’s visit to the dentist is proving painful. I am crammed in a commuter train. It is cold and raining hard. I arrive at Tate Britain fifteen minutes before the doors open. A crowd has already gathered. Friendly staff eventually unlock and let us all in. We drip our way across the marble floor to get in line to check our umbrellas and soaked coats. By the time I am in the first room of the exhibition, it is packed. A child is crying loudly. At this point, I consider walking out. But, with aching jaw, I decide to shuffle along with the rest of middle-class England. A man in a tweed jacket say to his wife “He was gay, you know!” She replies “Well, never mind, dear!”

The exhibition occupies twelve spaces arranged by chronolgy and/or influences. After my first tour, I go around again with the audio guide. I buy the handsome 270-page catalogue. I return the following day. This show is monumental in its scope and presentation. It contains some exceptionally beautiful pictures. To say I am bowled over is an understatement. Exhibitions will never be the same. Tate Britain makes manifest something about David Hockney that has previously eluded me; that he is Britain’s best-known living picture-maker because he is a towering genius. Yes, my opinion is modified somewhat!

We have to be “wowed” these days. As (or if) you view the Hockney exhibition, do not expect to be wowed by everything. Do not even expect to be wowed by the majority of his pictures; you will be wowed by some. What will certainly wow you is to reach the final space having glimpsed the sixty year creative trajectory and the staggering output of a man whose life is dedicated not only to picture-making but also, and more importantly, to addressing the inadequacies of all means of picture–making when it comes to representing in two dimensions the world we see and move in. My road to Damascus moment comes after viewing and reviewing Hockney’s life, influences and pictures along and in light of this trajectory.

David Hockney 2

“We Two Boys Together Clinging” 1961 Oil on board 122cm x 152cm

The first room (A Play Within a Play) establishes a critical element of Hockney’s work. This is that a person’s visual perception of the picture is taken into account; the spectator is challenged, intrigued, amused, teased, confronted or manipulated. The collection from the early 1960s in the second room (Demonstrations of Versatility) amply demonstrates the 25 year-old Hockney’s disdain for painting’s protocols and etiquette and his rejection of social convention. His work at that time has been labelled both “pop” and “abstract expressionism.” In Hockney’s view, neither term applies. The paintings outrageously promulgate his homosexuality at a time when it was illegal. They are difficult to like. However, they show that whatever trajectory young Hockney was on, it was never going to be ordinary.

The next three rooms (Paintings with People In, Sunbather and Towards Naturalism) show Hockney abandoning his previous style and slowly progressing towards naturalism. This phase is closely linked to his love affair with California which began when he moved there in 1964. Expansive canvases show illusional domestic scenes, couples in relationships, sun-blessed swimming pools, light on water and glass, bare-bottomed young men, palm trees and a squeaky clean suburban Los Angeles. The later paintings are precisely executed. He waves two fingers at the Abstract Expressionists when he points out that the splash of his A Bigger Splash was meticulously painted with a small brush over weeks.

David Hockney 3

A Bigger Splash 1967 Acrylic on canvas 242cm x 244cm

In the last of these three rooms are two paintings that in different ways reveal the full extent of Hockney’s technical mastery of painting. Mt. Fuji and Flowers (1974) and Contre-Jour in the French Style (1974) are both mesmerisingly beautiful.

The exhibition leads us on to a room (Close Looking) that contains sketches from Hockney’s extensive travels and some truly exquisite drawn portraits. They provide a welcome break from the preceding huge canvases. This room is particularly popular with other viewers; they take much longer to stop and discuss. It prepares us for what comes next (A Bigger Photography.)

David Hockney 4

The Scrabble Game 1983 Photographic collage 99cm x 147cm

Hockney found photography an inadequate means to make pictures. He felt it was limited by the one-point perspective and the “frozen moment” of the image. Allowing himself the influence of cubism, he embarked on a process involving hundreds of photographs per work that resulted in some of the most arresting pictures – including portraits – ever produced by this medium. Fast forward four rooms to The Four Seasons (2010-2011.) On each wall of a square hang nine crystal-clear video screens that show a coordinated nine-screen-slo-mo-scene of the same English country lane; but each wall is dedicated to one of the four seasons. I am captivated and abandon any attempt to find adequate words. I steal them from the catalogue: “high-def post cubist movie”! And Hockney’s extraordinary digital adventure has only just begun!

The three intervening rooms (Experiences of Space, Experiences of Place and The Wolds) comprise large brightly coloured canvases painted from the early 1980s through to 2009. People move past them quickly. Experiences of Space is strongly influenced by Picasso and Chinese scroll painting as Hockney freely admits. These paintings also reflect Hockney’s interest in the design of theatre sets. Perspective is flattened and one’s eye is forced to move around the fragments of the composition. The provenance of Experiences of Place is Hockney’s draw to wide open spaces. It is the least approachable part of the whole exhibition. The three garish renditions of the Grand Canyon do not work as landscape pictures. The Wolds brings Hockney back to England. These large, bright, multi-canvas, non-naturalistic landscapes are certainly intriguing but don’t set my senses a-buzz.

The penultimate room (Yorkshire and Hollywood) contains 25 closely mounted, stunning charcoal drawings from 2013 of a springtime Yorkshire woodland. Shortly after their completion, Hockney returned to his home in Hollywood where, in 2015, he completed his most recent large canvases of his garden and famous blue balcony. Hockney is now 80 years old. Is the juxtaposition of the spring drawings with these paintings to be seen as a kind of beginning and end? Are we about to arrive in the final scene of an epic film?

I stand in the middle of the last room (iPads) surrounded by his digital paintings done between 2009 and 2016. Some evolve as I watch. I am enthralled as an original Hockney of a small cactus in a red pot in a blue mug on a yellow tablecloth appears in front of me over two minutes. Every style, subject, influence and medium finds its way onto these screens. His extraordinary trajectory is encapsulated here. It is the most brilliant summary of his life’s work and of the exhibition. It is also his legacy. However, I suspect Hockney’s trajectory is yet to come to ground. Whilst this room may, in reality and metaphorically, represent the final scenes of Hockney’s blockbuster, there is a hint of more to come; another episode. A bigger exhibition even?

So, here’s what I think. This is the most important, beautiful and satisfying exhibition you will see. Go! Even if you are determined to dislike or dismiss Hockney’s work, go! Mix with the crowd! Get stuck in! Lap it all up! Be outraged! Be awed!

All images of David Hockney’s work are reproduced here thanks to Tate Britain.

Anywhen: live report day 2

Yesterday’s experience of Anywhen stays with me overnight. I can’t help thinking that, ultimately, what Phillippe Parreno is doing is playing with our absolute desire for certainty in our lives. I decide to give it another go. And so, at 11.45 today, I return to the famous Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. Sombre base non-melodic music greets me. And…..  Wow! A helium filled fish drifts by. Children leap in excitement. Adults point their iPhones.

Anywhen day two 1

I take my place on the carpet. I sit down among a hundred others. Amazingly, most are under twenty years old.

11.50 The music continues; it increases in volume. The lights go up. The suspended screens perform a little vertical shuffle with squeaky mechanical noises.

Certainty. It is essential for our mental and social well-being. We look for it in our daily routines, in the sun rising, in religious beliefs and in statistics. The seemingly random happenings in Anywhen deprive us of any certainty in our immediate surroundings. I hear a voice behind from a young lady “I guess it’s all about anticipation!” I guess it is.

11.55 The lights go down again. More music. Some people leave. Others arrive; they wonder why everyone is lying on the carpet. I make a new friend.

Anywhen day two 2

12.04 The ventriloquist lady (Nina Conti) and the cuttlefish-squid are back on the screen.

Anywhen day two 3

12.10 She asks “Who is the master? Who is the slave?” My fellow viewers (experiencers?) are drawn into the hypnotic log-curve forms of the fish.

12.25 I look behind. Everyone has a mesmerised expression. A huge chaotic noise rolls down the hall. A hundred school children arrive in hi-viz vests. This, I assume but without certainty, is not part of Perrano’s “immersive” creation.

Anywhen day two 4

12.32 Lights flash. A woman screams “Attention!” Electronic bips and burps. Then silence. Microphone feedback squeal. “Grass!” an android voice shouts. “Rain!”

12.36 The screens descend but only partially. More people drift in expecting the show to begin. I am certain that this is far from certain. I harbour a little smug feeling that I can anticipate their disappointment.

12.38 Right on cue. The lights come on and the screens are hauled back up. Everyone stays. Scratchy recording of folky guitar song.

12.39 Very noisy airplane swoop. Some of us duck in a startled way. Another fish swims by about two metres off the floor. A young girl tries to catch it.

Anywhen day two 5

13.01 Only electronic sounds. Nobody seems bored. Some snooze. Some kiss. Some check their snapchats, instagrams and whatsapps.

13.10 Nothing new to report. Feeling hungry. Feeling also rather happy I came back.

13.11 Total silence. Surprising.

13.15 I try to examine my very mixed feelings. I remain intrigued. I am not disappointed. Thanks to the others around me, I am far from bored.

13.20 I conclude that Anywhen is a remarkable experience. It seems the uncertainty that this concept serves up appeals to younger people. Perhaps this is because modern life is so full of … well…. certainties. Who knows for certain? Sorry about yesterday’s blog post, Tate Modern. Bravo, Monsieur Parreno!

13.25 Lunch.

Reporting live from Anywhen

It is 11.10 on 2 November 2016. I lie on a carpet in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. (How I love this place!) I am here to experience “Anywhen.” Nothing much is happening. A mother feeds her baby. Some schoolchildren scrap and roll in the enormous space.

11.20 The lights go down. There is the sound of rain falling. Massive white screens hang enticingly from the ceiling. The screens move. Bright white light is projected onto one. There is the sound of waves breaking.

11.25 There is a flicker of excitement from the children. A large plastic fish is spotted moving high among the wires that suspend the screens and multiple loud-speakers.

11.30 I wait. I read the promotional blurb. “Prepare to have your senses activated and stimulated by a spectacular choreography of acoustics, sound lighting, flying objects and film, each connected to the other and playing their part in a far bigger score. Tate’s Turbine Hall becomes a universe of inter-related and connected events and parallel realities. Events will unfold anywhere.” I am indeed prepared.

11.35. I wait.

11.48. Something is about to happen. There is the sound of machinery. Vehicle reversing warning beeps take over. The screens descend to near-ground level. The hundred or so people waiting with me move with interest. A businessman in very smart pin-stripe suit and tie with poppy plants his brief case next to me and lies down.

11.52. Ah! Something flickers on-screen. A beautiful woman ventriloquist starts to talk into a microphone (without moving her lips!) about perpetuity, eternity, opportunity, complexity, cosmic inevitability and neuronal connectivity.

12.04 Her voice continues in the same vein. On screen is a watery surface. There are splishy. sploshy splashy watery sounds.

12.08 A non-human eye appears. This turns out be the eye of a beautiful cuttlefish-squiddy beast that swims around elegantly. It changes colour in dimply blue-yellow waves. The woman’s voice dies away. The businessman departs shaking his head.

12.10 The lights go up. The lights go down. The speakers crank out a kind of Darth Vader on Ecstasy voice.

12.15 Big lights strobe. The now-fed baby cries in confusion. The screens are still hanging there. The lights go up.

12.16 Nothing happens. I return to the blurb. “Anywhen is a site-specific exhibition that changes throughout the day and that will evolve during the six-month period of the commission. The exhibition is conceived as an automaton which guides the public through a constantly changing play of moving elements, light configurations and sound environments. The artist states that ‘the exhibition is a construction of situations or sequences in a non-linear narrative’.”

12.20 Still nothing. “The commission responds to the Turbine Hall’s position at the centre of the museum, an open space connected to the city itself. The artist combines aspects of chance and control: the sequences of events are triggered by software which is informed by micro-organisms. These react to and activate elements of the commission through a bioreactor visible at the far end of the Turbine Hall.”

12.22 The lights and screens go up together. The music of a not-so-talented busking guitar player- singer fills the hall.

12.25 His voice is drowned out by what sounds like an underground train passing.

12.26 He stops playing. One person claps.

12.28. The screens descend again noisily. Big machinery sounds. The screens go up.

12.30 I take a photo. I’m not sure why ….. or of what.

Anywhen

12.32 Another fish passes by. A little lower this time. Airplane sounds. Lights flash.

12.35 Electronic buzzing. Ticking noises. I read more.Philippe Parreno is a French avant-garde artist who came to prominence in the 1990s and is perhaps most widely known for his feature film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. Parreno works across film, video, sound, sculpture, performance and information technology and collaborates extensively with musicians, scientists, architects and writers.”

12.40 Just sound. Wait! The screens are moving again.“The Hyundai Commission is a series of site-specific installations by contemporary artists in Tate Modern’s iconic Turbine Halll. It is made possible by a unique long-term partnership between Tate and Hyundai Motor.” I remember the mind-boggling work of Abraham Cruzvillegas.

12.50 I am caught between mild intrigue, mild irritation, mild boredom and mild disappointment. Has the last hour enriched my life? Not really. Have my senses been activated and stimulated? Not really. Phrases from my yesteryear school reports come to mind: “Could do better.” “Room for improvement.””Has difficulty focusing.” “Shows occasional encouraging signs,”

12.59 I think maybe I am missing something. Caffeine maybe? But I’ll give it another go tomorrow.

Lunch at the Ariana

I am early for a lunch meeting at the Ariana Museum. I take a seat in the discrete little restaurant. The tables are as yet empty. There is a display of large china dishes and vases. Not so surprising given this museum’s standing in the world of ceramics and glassware.

Ariana 1

Jan De Vliegher “China Blue V&A” 2014 Acrylic on canvas

Then a double-take. This is not a display case. It’s a painting! I approach Jan De Vliegher‘s “China Blue V&A” in awe. The realism is extraordinary.

Ariana 2

Detail of China Blue V&A

More extraordinary still is that the tones, perspective and depth of field have been produced by a combination of the boldest of brush strokes, splashes and drips; a technique rarely associated with, let alone accomplishing, realism. I can’t draw my eyes away from this painting. This is master-class beautiful stuff.

Ariana 3

Paul March “In Pulverum Speramus” Clay, 2015

After lunch, I look around the rest of the museum. In a corner by a door I stumble upon something recognisably from the studio of Paul March. Five smooth ceramic forms are arranged in the pose of a sleeping dog. I want to pick up each part and heft it in my hand. The whole is pleasing. Although caught between abstraction and canine imagary, the piece captures the awkwardness of man’s best friend lying on a hard floor. The title is “In Pulverum Speramus.” My schoolboy latin tells me this reads something like “We hope in the dust.” (Perhaps Paul will tell us the “why” of this title?) His work has a way of finding corners in the Ariana. Remember his spider?

Nice day! Lunch with surprises! But then the Ariana has a way of serving up surprises.

A Feminine Touch with Mechanical Art Devices

I wander into one of my favourite galleries in Geneva: the M.A.D. Gallery. It is a cool-chic space dedicated to wonderful mechanical things. I just sort of assume that this kind of beautiful stuff would be the exclusive domain of those born with a Y chromosome. Aren’t mechanics a boy thing? After all, we grew up with Meccano, Airfix and Lego and then graduated to tinkering with motorbikes that never started!

Mechanical Art Devices 1

Jennifer Townley, “Lift”

I am greeted warmly by Juliette Duru, the gallery‘s communications manager . “What’s new?” I ask. She introduces me to “Lift,” the work of Jennifer Townley from the Netherlands. Ah! A feminine touch in this exotic man-shed!

I stand before a silently moving arrangement of cogs and chains. The principal chain slowly draws ever-changing amoeboid forms on a round white background. All is beautifully proportioned. There is something immensely satisfying about it. It gives the impression that whatever this machine is designed to do, it is doing it calmly and efficiently. It is mesmerising precisely because there is an expectation of function but in fact, beyond the aesthetic, it has no mechanical function at all. I love it! No surprises that Townley’s major influence is the immediately recognisable and “impossible” graphic designs of compatriot, M. C. Escher.

Mechanical Art Devices 2

Gaby Wormann, “Callipogon tertius”

Juliette explains that this year’s collection includes another feminine touch. I am shown immaculately crafted glass display cases each containing a specimen of a huge insect the likes of which I have only seen in Africa or Australia. These are Gaby Wormann’s “Mechanical Creatures.” Stunning! She has delicately inserted hundreds of little cogs, springs and levers from watches into the exoskeletons of real beasts. I gasp at the originality, craftsmanship and attention to detail. Her pieces set up a kind of “What the ….?” moment. You could almost believe that the innards of these oversized bugs really were the stuff of a great horologist. I know that the next time I encounter some big beetle up close and in a quiet place I will creep forward and listen carefully just to make sure it is not ticking.

Wormann says she “deals with the themes of individual ethics and humanity’s uninhibited intervention in complex biological systems.” She doesn’t say “The viewer is invited to inspect a mechanical creature minutely and allow her- or himself to be filled with wonder!” For that is what one does instinctively; one doesn’t need an invitation.

When it comes to Mechanical Art Devices, I clearly have the boy thing wrong.