Category Archives: London

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Seductive Technique: Christian Marclay and David Hockney

Film Still from Christian Marclay’s The Clock, 2009

To create The Clock (2009), Christian Marclay edited together thousands of film clips showing time pieces into a literal clock: a 24 hour artwork that constantly refers to the precise time. LACMA purchased the piece and recently screened the film for a second time. When I showed up at 5:45 on a Saturday night, the large auditorium was packed.

The day after I saw it, someone told me that this is their favorite piece of visual art. EVER.

Film Still from Christian Marclay’s The Clock, 2009

The Clock is a compelling meditation on how we conceptualize and experience time, interwoven with a  journey through cinematic history. Marclay plays to the human brain’s predisposition for patterns and the pleasure of recognition, while skillfully using the tools of cinema to subvert our expectations of the medium: anticipation builds and falls, builds and falls, teasing the viewer but never quite reaching a climax.

When I was in London last month, I was lucky enough to witness a similarly hypnotic and popular spectacle: Hockney’s The Bigger Picture that closed this past week at the Royal Academy.

Woldgate Woods, East Yorkshire, 2006.Photograph: David Hockney

Even as he focuses on Yorkshire landscapes, Los Angeles’ influence on Hockney’s viewpoint is clear: cinematic, bright, playful and, especially in some of the totem pieces, slightly apocalyptic. In the more interesting pieces on display at the RA, Hockney’s tendencies for crisp light and striking patterns mingled with the damp, pastoral prettiness of the English countryside to create paintings that were seductive, specific and odd–the landscape painting equivalent of magical realism.

A Closer Winter Tunnel, Feb-Mar, 2006.Photograph: David Hockney / Art Gallery of New South Wales

After moving through nine or ten rooms bursting with trees and pigment, the exhibition led me into a darkened room displaying Hockney’s video pieces. The videos were reminiscent of his photo-collages of the 1980s, capturing space –the woods and paths of Yorkshire as well as his studio interior– using multiple perspectives. The subtle movement and quiet sounds created a gentle rhythmic effect, similar to riding in a train or bobbing in a boat on calm waters. When I was there, a crowd of at least 60 people sat totally mesmerized, watching leaves rustle in the wind.

Just like after the Marclay show, post-Hockney someone told me that they weren’t aware of having a favorite artist before seeing The Bigger Picture (not counting their friends of course) but now Hockney was their number one. Perhaps my friends are particularly prone to hyperbole, but I think that their reactions are a fair sampling of the art-viewing public. So why were  these two shows so popular, especially at a point in time when we are being constantly told that our attention spans are decreasing?

7 November 11.30am & 26 November 9.30am 2010, Woldgate Woods, East Yorkshire. Film still. Photograph: David Hockney

Both Hockney and Marclay use familiar imagery and emphasize visual pleasure. But more than that, they create a specific type of mental experience, that allows the viewer to get lost.  The mind is not able to leave the building and ponder the same stressful thoughts it carries around all day, but it is also not so busy trying to follow the narrative or critically analyze the material that it has to be completely present. Instead, these artworks encourage the audience to turn off some part of their rational mind and relax into the imagery, creating the sort of focused day dreaming that is supposedly excellent for our creativity and mental health.

I think artists sometimes forget that art viewing can be simultaneously stimulating and relaxing –to be honest sometimes I forget that viewers exist at all– and that if the goal is to create better viewers–viewers who are sensitive, imaginative and mindful human beings– then perhaps a lulling seduction is more effective than an aggressive assault.


Nowt so Queer as Folk: Jeremy Deller’s Social Surrealism

David Shrigley Banner, The Southbank Center,London  

David Shrigley’s smartly satirical banner, revolting against the dreary London sky, is a fitting prologue to Jeremy Deller’s sincere and political mid-career survey, Joy in People. Shrigley’s work, which is also on view at the Hayward Gallery in London’s Southbank Centre, is humorous and mildly disturbing –watch this video to see what I mean– and was well worth the visit. But it was Deller’s work that I have found myself discussing, questioning and digesting over the last two weeks.

Valerie’s Snack Bar (2009). During the show visitors can enjoy free cups of tea while watching a video of the procession Deller organized in Manchester. Photo by Linda Nylind

The show Joy in People documents Deller’s “social surrealism” projects from 1993 through the present. A definitive relational artist, Deller’s role in his works shifts between collaborator, facilitator, patron and documentarian. He interweaves the quirks and questions of daily life (bathroom stall graffiti, struggling with an unruly deck chair, “whatever happened to Bez from the Happy Mondays?”) with the larger arcs of social history and politics that we all play a part in. Unlike relational artists who have used interaction as a  metaphysical tool (think Felix Gonzales-Torres or Rikrit Tirivanija), Deller’s work is useful: empathy and dialogue are direct results of his historical reenactment, the greasy pole monument allows a town to continue one of their folk traditions, and his London Bat house project provides protected species with a replacement for habitats destroyed by development.

In The Battle of Orgreave (An Injury to One is An Injury to All), 2001, Deller reenacts one of the more violent confrontations of the 1984-85 British miners’ strike.

One of the last sections of the exhibit documented Deller’s failures, including his rejected proposals for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square and the London Tube map. In one of the plinth proposals, scientist David Kelly -who killed himself after being accused of telling the truth about Weapons of Mass Destruction to journalists- sits with his legs hanging over the edge of the plinth, trying to edge out of the spotlight that history has given him. His story echoes that of the Yorkshire policeman in The Battle of Orgreave (2001), who joined the force to serve his community and ended up “helping to destroy it”. In that same film, MP Tony Benn quotes the adage “In war, truth is the first casualty.” But the stories of these two men suggest something darker and more complex about the ways truth and morality can be manipulated by those in power, and the casualties that result.

Rejected proposal for the Fourth Plinth, with David Kelly. Copyright Jeremy Deller.

Though all Deller’s plinth proposals failed, he did eventually design a successful cover for the Tube map: a portrait of the longest serving TfL employee, executed by artist Paul Ryan.

In an interview recorded when Deller was a nominee for the 2004 Turner Prize (which he subsequently won), he confidently declared that he does not care whether what he does is art or not, and I agree that this debate is not interesting. However, it is interesting to look at how Deller has navigated through his projects, both using and expanding the position of “artist.” This position gives Deller access to various cultural and political institutions, and allows him to come into charged situations as a somewhat unbiased outsider. The fact that he is an artist, and not a scholar or journalist, also gives him the latitude to explore ideas backwards and inside out, focusing on the details and characters that peak his interest. He is not the first artist to use the role this way, but his playful disregard for the boundaries of art making, and the ranging scope of his interests, felt fresh. And as an artist, it felt like a call to action.