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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.