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2 March 2023

David Hockney’s fascination with technology

From Polaroid montages and iPad pictures to a new “immersive” exhibition, the artist’s technophilia has produced works of wildly varying quality.

By Michael Prodger

If you get your timing slightly awry when entering the Lightroom – an immersive “space for artist-led shows” that has just opened in the utopian redevelopment area behind King’s Cross station in central London – you will be confronted with a naked male bottom, perhaps 20-feet tall, emerging from a swimming pool. Welcome to Hockneyland.

This Brobdingnagian butt, projected on to a wall, comes from Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool, a painting David Hockney made in California in 1966. It was a bottom the artist knew well, as it belonged to his then lover, an art student named Nick Schlesinger, but the visitor is not supposed to concentrate on the rump or its owner but on the water. There is music playing, a swelling filmic score specially composed by Nico Muhly, and a voiceover – Hockney himself bringing his Yorkshire vowels to La La Land and talking about water as see-through and surface, about the play of light and reflections, and above all the importance of paying attention. “You have to really look,” he says, “most people don’t look.” Schlesinger’s bottom is a red herring.

“David Hockney: Bigger & Closer (not smaller & further away)” is the latest iteration of the trend for immersive art experiences that have popped up everywhere from Tokyo, across America, to Paris, and a disused quarry in Provence. It is no longer enough to look at a painting, the greedy aficionado must enter it to feel it. Recent variations of these son et lumière shows in London have allowed visitors to inhabit paintings by Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo as if they offered an insight into the painter’s mind, and now it is the turn of the perennial crowd-pleaser Hockney.

During a 55-minute loop, his pictures emerge across all four walls of a cinema-size space, and on the floor too for good measure. As visitors watch from scattered benches, or squat on the floor, primary school show-and-tell style, epic iPad drawings appear stylus stroke by stylus stroke until the garden of Hockney’s home in Normandy throbs huge and dayglo all around; the opera sets he designed in the 1980s come to life and marionettes cavort and the sails of the Flying Dutchman billow; Hockney and friends drive in an open-top car up through the Hollywood Hills, and you are there with them in the back seat; on a stretch of wooded road in the Yorkshire Wolds all four seasons materialise simultaneously, one on each wall, snow to blossom (in spring, says Hockney, with relish “nature has an erection… as if champagne has been sprayed over everything”) to bright sunshine to browning leaves at a turn of the head.

[See also: How tech is transforming the world of insurance]

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All the while, Hockney talks about pet themes, from the limitations of traditional perspective to how photographs lack the sense of time that only paintings can give. He mentions the freedom he found when he first lived in California and bought a car – “Everything in Los Angeles is meant to be read at 25 miles per hour” – yet his topic is not Hockney but how he sees, and the pictures that result. In 2016, he put many of these thoughts into a book written with Martin Gayford, A History of Pictures, and in the Lightroom they have been animated.

The trouble is, as images blossom and segue around you, those pictures are never really discussed, although Hockney tries hard to justify the composite Polaroid works, modern versions of cubist pictures, he made in the 1980s. And that instruction to look closely is undermined by the ever-changing carousel of pictures: this is a show for short attention spans, not long ones. It is undoubtedly very lovely to have his saturated art wash over you – to sit with an empty mind on the edge of the vividly coloured Grand Canyon or walk among Yorkshire woods that are something from Fantasia – but it is a sensory truism that if you make any motif large enough and add some soaring strings it will have an effect.

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The show is a curious beast, part documentary and part CGI masterclass, a bit of David Hockney does the Sims, and more than a touch of Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python intermezzi – but without the thoroughgoing-ness of any one of its constituent parts. It is all very clever and by turns sumptuous, diverting, informative and, at times, so-whatish.

What the show does reinforce is Hockney’s long-standing fascination with technology. After those Polaroids he had a go at fax art too, and has been producing iPad pictures for several years, with Apple even coming up with a special drawing program for him. His technophilia, however, has always produced soulless results, curiosities that lack the tug of his paintings and drawings, with the iPad images in particular flaccid and inert when printed. In this entertainment, however, they have found a natural home and, blown up in scale, they work in a way they never have in a gallery. It takes technology to give life to more technology.

“David Hockney: Bigger & Closer (not smaller & further away)” runs until 4 June at the Lightroom, central London

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