You can spend a trippy hour in an enormous box, too
The "immersive art event" wave, and David Hockney's psychedelically good new show
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A few years ago, a buddy and I (Jonah) went to check out the Broad Museum — a now-dead L.A. billionaire’s bludgeoningly blue-chip collection of Hirsts, Koonses, Bradfords, Murakamis, Warhols, Basquiats, Walkers, Wools & more. The museum had only been open a couple months, and tickets were free but scarce enough to feel like a “hot commodity,” so mad people were flicking themselves up in the lobby. Mad people were also queuing to flick themselves up in the ground-floor Yayoi Kusama infinity-mirror room, so we gave that a miss and headed to the escalator, which rises through a smoothed-stone tunnel and delivers you into a skylit atrium like a gigantic alien birth canal. As escalators go, this one is very photogenic, so mad people were flicking it up, too.
All of which set the scene for what happened next. When we got upstairs we passed some massive Koons tulips on our way to look at something else — maybe Mike Kelley’s beautiful~nightmarish black & white woodgrain vortex “Infinite Expansion.” We began talking about it … and no more than a minute had gone by when a docent tapped my shoulder: Would we please move to one side? he asked. Another visitor wanted to take a picture in front of the piece, and we were f**king up their shot.
Your boy’s mind reeled. Had this flick-desirer actually asked dude to move us over? They couldn’t take a patient spin around the galleries, savor some of these haunting William Kentridges and get their photo later? Or had he clocked their frustration independently, and volunteered his Selfie Guardian services unsolicited?? The encounter felt extremely of a piece with the Broad’s very torched, very L.A. “see and be seen” energy. And yet it felt more torched, more distinctly L.A., and more novel at the time than it does now. Because, over the past half-decade or so, which major art exhibitor hasn’t had to re-envision itself, to some degree, as a social-media attraction in order to get people out?
That visit was in January of 2016 — 2 years before the “Museum of Ice Cream” became a sell-out hit in San Francisco. You know I didn’t see that s**t, but from what I gather, it cracked the lucrative code on how to build a “grammable” “museum” “experience” with zero costly Koonses, Turrells, Rain Rooms, Eliassons, Kusamas or actual museums required.
Here in the “post”-Covid era, people are itchier than ever for attractions and events to draw them out into the real world — kind of. Because “the real world” has also proven useful when it comes to generating fresh material to post about online, and these days you can imagine yourself never returning to the real world, per se, so much as subsuming and suturing it into a virtual one that your consciousness never fully leaves.
Obviously, humans taking photos of things instead of “just looking at them” is as old as, I don’t know, the Eastman Kodak Brownie, which hit the market in 1900. Ever since, people “who want to live in the moment” have been shaking their heads at other people photographing sunsets. But what’s different today is that it’s never been easier to take a photo as reflexively & unthinkingly as it is now — to feel yourself becoming an appendage of your phone, flicking s**t up not in the name of “posterity” or even in the name of any clearly identifiable desire, really, but in deference to a conditioned, Pavlovian pressure to re-affirm your existence online.
And yes, real-world experiences have done double-duty as online currency as long as there’s been social media, whether it’s the circa-2008 archetypal tweet “about what you ate for lunch” or the circa-2017 archetypal IG story of your a** chilling in what is “low key” yet unmistakably a Delta One seat. But we seem closer than ever to the totalizing point where you might forget any other duty the real world could possibly perform besides “source of content.”
Capital-E Event art exhibitions readily lend themselves to this logic, with an additional “highbrow” sheen. This is why Drake recently poured $100 million into rehabbing, resuscitating and rolling out the defunct ‘80s “art theme park” Luna Luna as a touring attraction built around rides & other elements devised & designed by Roy Lichtenstein, Philip Glass, Keith Haring and David Hockney, among others… A truly wild line-up, and it takes no imagination to imagine the elevator pitch that got the investment capital flowing: “Coachella but with Basquiats.”
Incredibly, I wasn’t thinking about any of the above the other day when I sat enraptured for an hour inside a brand-new, four-story-tall box in London, watching the David Hockney show that just opened there. This is the one big recommendation I held back from our smash-hit London Travel Report: The box is called Lightroom, and the show, “Bigger & Closer (not smaller & further away),” is a ~50-minute multi-screen audiovisual loop consisting of animated Hockney paintings; Hockney iPad drawings you watch take shape stroke by stroke; and other assorted sketches, studies, reference photos, and other process documentation & ephemera.
These images are projected in HD at enormous scale across Lightroom’s walls and, some times, the floor. The whole thing is set to an orchestral score by Nico Muhly (a Canonized Spyplane King because of his work on Usher’s “Climax,” one of the best pop songs ever made.) And there’s charming narration throughout from the wheelchair-whipping, substantially deaf, yet very jolly-sounding Hockney himself, too.
I hadn’t read anything about the show beforehand. So I didn’t know that “Bigger & Closer” is, broadly speaking, part of a wave of “immersive art experiences” where, e.g., paintings by art-historical icons like Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo are animated & projected really big while music plays. Sort of like Pink Floyd laser light shows at planetariums, but for fine art — which is to say, naff-as-h*ll, upmarket-philistine s**t of the type that makes the erudite & craggy-brained among us shudder 😉!!
I also didn’t know that Hockney — whose “A Bigger Splash” sold for $30 million at auction in 2020, and whose “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” sold for $90 million in 2018, still the fourth-most expensive painting by a living artist — had addressed this déclassé affinity in interviews. He countered that, unlike Van Gogh, who is dead, Hockney, who isn’t, was able to involve himself deeply in crafting this particular immersive experience, meaning this wasn’t some reanimated-zombie cash-grab monstrosity so much as a new, site-specific work in its own right…
Well, props to this 85-year-old king and the small army of people who worked with him on this show for the last three years — I loved it. The effect was, in aggregate, extremely psychedelic, and I emerged back into a gray London day the way you emerge from a mellow but profound trip:
A lot of great culture in the modern era is predominantly vibes-based, like a bunch of A24 movies, or Frank Ocean songs, or the Fire of Love documentary, where they don’t ever tell you what the f**k these charming French weirdos were actually studying, much less learning, when they stood in sick metallic suits at the edge of hella active volcanos — the footage is powerfully vibey enough to do more than its share of the work.
This Hockney show could very easily have been predominantly vibes-based, too, and it might have still ripped on those terms alone. One of the reasons his paintings cost so much is that they are supremely pleasant to look at, and — by extension — it turns out to be supremely pleasant to feel yourself dwarfed and devoured by Hockney’s work from all angles. It helps that the animation effects feel fun & apposite, rather than like tacked-on gimmickry — e.g., an animated immersive version of “Starry Night” where the clouds are “magically aswirl” on some cornball s**t…
But the show has been devised in fleet & lively ways not just to create “elite vibes” but to illuminate how and why Hockney sees the world the way he does. Early on, he talks about his desire to represent impossible perspectives, and as he speaks we see classical one- and two-point-perspectival works splash across the screens, giving way to the Polaroids Hockney took from multiple angles of a metal chair at the Jardin du Luxembourg in the ‘80s (above left), which gives way to his paintings of impossible chairs (above right).
Then we see this same way of working unfold at gargantuan, breathtaking scale at the Grand Canyon — mamma mia:
I’m a true fiend for “process talk” — artists getting into the weeds about the decisions, techniques and ways of thinking that go into making something great. And the process talk here doesn’t ever get dry or fusty. The show scrambles the line between “visual-essay mode” & “visual-poem mode,” and the 2 modes enliven each other.
I was also happy that — unlike a Kusama infinity room, or Olafur Eliasson’s One-way colour tunnel — this was a “show,” unfolding across time with a deliberate narrative logic that you wanted to follow, and where you could linger as long as you wanted, rather than a “must-see attraction,” where you have to wait to get in, then hurry through the s**t, possibly even under an explicit time limit, because more people are waiting behind you.
Once you’re inside an “attraction” like that you’re doing something different from seeing art. You are not opening yourself up to some unexpected, beautifully destabilizing encounter. There’s no time for settling in and letting thoughts emerge, so instead you wind up doing what you always do: whipping out your phone to snap pics. You never really see the work in front of you in any meaningful sense, because you’ve projected your attention elsewhere — namely, towards the (substantially imaginary) virtual audience for a picture you’ll likely decide isn’t even worth posting or ever looking at again.
At least when you spend 45 minutes in line at a cursed~hyped third-wave bagel joint you get a d*mn poppy w/ cream cheese out of it!!
This isn’t just a 👴 Grandpa Spyplane oldhead 👴 line of critique. There’s a lyric in the new Frost Children video for their song “HI 5” where they sing, “Kill my phone / I can’t stop looking at myself.” The whole video is about the duo becoming indistinguishable from their own avatars — in a glitched-out, twitchy, unstable way, rather than some smooth techno-utopian fantasy. It seems like they’re struggling with the same fundamental conundrum:
One major reason “Bigger and Closer” has stayed with me is that it’s all about trying and failing to “really look” at things. At one point during Hockney’s narration he contrasts the act of painting a landscape with the act of photographing a landscape. When you’re painting, he argues, you’ve got to look carefully at a blade of grass to see what it’s doing, how the light is hitting it, how it’s curving, and how it’s sitting in relation to the next blade of grass, what that one’s doing, the one next to that, and so on. To complete your image, you can’t just raise an arm and capture it — you have to constitute the image, piece by piece, and this requires a transportive degree of granular attention familiar to anyone who’s ever attempted to paint or draw from life.
The only complaint I might raise about this show unfolds along those exact lines: The projections, while intensely beautiful, pass by too quickly to let you, as a viewer, settle on one blade of grass for very long, losing yourself and discovering the kinds of things about Hockney’s work that require time and sustained attention to emerge. (Real talk, I’m kind of bummed I only sat for one loop — I’ve given much stupider things 2 hours of my time, and also I had to flick the s**t up to illustrate this post, whereas it would have been tight to sit through it once with the phone tucked away.)
But I think this rush of beauty might actually have been a roundabout virtue, and that my criticism is one the show anticipates, accounts for, and weaves into itself. One of its overarching themes — which Hockney reiterates a few times, a few different ways — is that there is a crushing, ecstatic excess of beauty to be beheld in life. A superabundance of significance, to the point that you’re always missing something: There is more joy & awe hurtling by than you can grab hold of, in other words. To behold something completely is to kill it. To yearn to see more of something than you ever can is to be alive!! In its “immersive multimedia experience” kind of way, this show embodies that.
“Bigger & Closer (not smaller & further away)” is up from now until June 4, and if you’re one of our London Spyfriends, or headed there between now and then, put it on your list.
BTW, some cool Britons came through the Hockney opening fitted…
Including Jarvis Cocker the eternal legend (above top right) in a great corduroy field jacket… Hockney himself (middle right) CROCCED UP in black “formal” Crocs, rather than his typical yellow joints, with a baggy checkered suit… And Spyfriend Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip (above bottom left) in the ill long Marimekko colorblock button up…
Blackbird Spyplane takes money from no one besides our readers, so we keep some of our best s**t behind the paywall. Join the Cla$$ified Recon tier if you haven’t — Jonah & Erin
Almost a month late to the comment game AND my first comment but here goes:
I was in London in early April and took the fam to this, based solely on your rec. They were slightly surprised that this was on the agenda as I have spoken derisively about the immersive art trend (I was an art major, let me live), and I absolutely wouldn't have made the time had I not read this.
Will I sound like a weirdo if I tell you it almost brought me to tears? Like multiple times? Was it maybe the fact that I was feeling the family vacation vibes and flooded with memories that were a little bittersweet as it was our last day in London and I knew we were about to return to the drudgery of daily life? Was it that my 11yo son had happily inhaled a plate of mussels while standing up at Borough Market just before and I could see him as both child and future adult? Was it my down for whatever husband, happily watching the moving colors? Was it the charming British family behind us, explaining to a small child that the voice was "Mr. Hockney"? Maybe all of the above?
All this is to say: thanks for the push.
The other thing about most of the immersive art stuff (that excludes to artist from the creation process) is the motivation; they're 100% profit-driven. There's no artistic message or meaning, they transmute recognizable public domain imagery into copyright-able, franchise-able 'experiences' that are pitched by experiential marketing agencies to investors for their ROI.