07 June 2017

Along with hip-hop, sitcoms, and the economy, screen savers flourished during the Clinton years…

Zack Hatfield’s article from the Paris Review on screensavers turns out to be quite wonderful. I like passing that quotation from it around to introduce it, because it made me laugh, but the whole thing is thoughtful, and wonderful. And it made me think:

You can’t consume a screen saver in an instant. You can’t fast-forward or rewind one. The genre, its own kind of endurance art, shuns immediacy. Fugitives from time, screen savers possess no real beginning or end. Their ouroboric nature is perhaps why preservations on YouTube, whether ten minutes or twelve hours long, tend to evoke disenchantment.

Screensavers are anti-images.

Susan Sontag, in On Photography, remarked that a photograph describes “a neat slice of time, not a flow.” But if you take Hatfield’s point – that the screensaver only makes sense in its infinite form, summoned unbid, and existing until it is dismissed… then a screensaver is only ever flow. The act of quoting a screensaver is inadequate, almost impossible. Which takes me back to Sontag, who goes on to describe a photograph as a quotation: “a photograph could be described as a quotation, which makes a book of photographs like a book of quotations“.

A screensaver cannot be meaningfully sliced; it cannot ever become quotation. A photograph is a choice of a single moment of time, and thus, implicitly, a rejection of surrounding moments. But Hatfield describes screensavers as if they only ever are surrounding moments, each a moment leading to another. And they resist comparison to film, to: they are elliptical, not structured, not ongoing. There is art film that probably stands comparison best: for instance, Christian Marclay’s The Clock functions as an ongoing, 24-hour loop, and precisely works because it has no formal beginning and end. (It feels a little trite to describe The Clock as a screensaver, and yet it would make the most wonderful screensaver – a little world running in parallel that only emerges when you step away from a screen).

And: I liked his description of screensavers invoking “rapture and reverie, and stillness“; how appropriate that something designed to be continuously, but unobtrusively, changing, should be a meditation upon stillness.

When you put it like that: screensavers are our only functional perpetual motion machines.


04 February 2013

Leo Villarreal’s Cylinder II is the opening work at the Hayward’s Light Show. It’s a very good exhibition, with a few high points; Villarreal’s piece was one of mine.

And yet.

The notes on the piece describes it as featuring “light and movement” composed by “complex computer programming.”

This particular word – complex – frequently annoys me when it comes to technologically manifested art. It annoys me because the craft of the piece is its assembly – both its manufacture, in light and metal, and its programming. But to make a virtue of its complexity… is much like describing Rembrandt as painting in “challenging oil paints”.

It’s one thing to describe the work as complex. But to describe the process the artist took as complex is something else; many artistic processes are complex, but few deserve that complexity highlighting. And in this case… the programming is intricate, and has been executed carefully, but it struck me as just another piece of electronically produced art.

Make no mistake: it’s entirely beautiful. But something about highlighting the complexity of the process when it’s fairly typical of that process rubs up against me; I wonder if it’s the surprise or alienness of technologically manifested work.

Of course, Villarreal’s piece isn’t really about how hard the programming is at all; it’s about how light interacts with a space, how patterns emerge, how we perceive. The programme notes go onto to discuss that, and they do so much better.

It’s a lovely show, though. Not much of it is bad, but the best parts – Villarreal, Eliasson, McCall, Flavin – are wonderful.

(On an entirely separate note: an exhibition in which the ability of the public to read “NO PHOTOGRAPHY” signs was worse than ever. The signs were particularly illegible in the darkened rooms, which rather spoiled my favourite piece of the exhibition – Anthony McCall’s You and I, Horizontal; an exhibit that makes a virtue of carefully shaped light through darkness is somewhat impeded by camera flashes. Leave them at home, folks; it’s art, not a sideshow.)

Bigger Trees

26 April 2010

Several weekends ago now, I went to the Tate Britain to see the Chris Ofili and Henry Moore exhibitions. Both were good. I find sculpture difficult to “read”, as it were, although I found Moore’s stringed work very beautiful; the real highlight of his exhibition for me, though, was the central room of his sketches from the Blitz and from coalmines. The Ofili, similarly, wasn’t initially to my taste, but grew into a rather nice body of work, and the room of his blue paintings was wonderful; I enjoyed the catalogue of the Blue works I read later, although was disappointed to see how many of the Blue paintings hadn’t been selected for display.

But the best thing I saw in the gallery that weekend was a total surprise.

That surprise was David Hockney’s Bigger Trees Near Warter.

I glimpsed the painting through a doorway, not in its entirety, just part of it, already filling the doorframe and enticing me in. What greeted me on the other side was, in every sense, stunning.

Bigger Trees Near Warter is a huge painting, made of 50 canvases – 10 wide by 5 high – and, in this showing, duplicated on two adjacent walls of the gallery in scale replicas constructed out of fifty photographic prints. It dominates the room, filling your peripheral vision as well as your forward gaze.

(I enjoyed Hockney’s rational for making the painting so big – he didn’t want the Royal Academy to try to hang anything next to it, and so he ensured it would fill the wall it was intended for)

And, as the explanatory documentary running on a small television on the fourth wall explains, the artwork was only really possible because of modern technology.

Hockney’s a very technically savvy artist – something that often surprises people – and it was fascinating to watch him at work. The computer’s role in Bigger Trees was very specific – it enabled pre-visualisation of the larger work, showing how the initial sketches would be divide across fifty paintings, and by stitching together photographs of work in progress, hinting at how the artwork was developing. After all, there wasn’t nearly enough room in Hockney’s UK studio to hang all the canvasses.

But that was it: each canvas was still very much painted in the field, and the stitched image helped plan which canvasses to take out each day. It’s still very much a landscape painting made on location. I admired both the necessity of technology to the painting, and yet a lack of complete reliance on it.

Enough of the method, though, because even if you didn’t know that, it’s still a phenomenal work: subtle use of colour that’s unmistakably English countryside, detail in the tree branches that’s visible at a distance, but recedes as you get closer; a painting on such a large scale it never escapes your eye. It dominates you, keeps you in place, and then the shapes form into detail and draw your eye in.

I looked at this one image for a good while – longer than I’ve looked at any single painting for a long while. My eyes occasionally darted right and left to check that the facsimiles really were identical, and not variants; quiet and still in one of the gallery’s larger single rooms, awed, and glad to have followed my nose – or rather, my eyes – through that doorway. I’ve been a fan of Hockney for a while, but this was just magnificent; if you’re passing Tate Britain in the near future, it’s worth the detour to find. Words and photographs can hardly do it justice.