The Unfortunate Spectacle of the David Hockney Immersive Experience

David Hockney, Bigger & Closer (not smaller & further away), 2023 (installation view). Photo: Justin Sutcliffe. Courtesy Lightroom, London

A new 360-degree film promises an intimate insight into the famed artist’s life and career but delivers a sensory overload riddled with clichés

David Hockney likes looking, as he intones over his new 360-degree largescale film installation, “and there are a lot of different ways to look at things”. The 50-minute loop of vivid colour and sound is projected across all four walls (plus the grey carpeted floor) of Lightroom, a joint venture between a production house and a theatre company, self-described as ‘a new home for spectacular artist-led shows’. In his gravelly Yorkshire twang, Hockney tells of his fascination with new media. His famed iPad paintings of bucolic Normandy landscapes are animated in the process of being drawn line by line, sped-up exponentially to erase any hint of hesitation or self-doubt and shown onscreen in portentous, gold-painted frames.

The voiceover, intimately spoken by Hockney in the first person, has been shaped by a film and TV writer from hours of recorded interviews. The film, which presents him as an artist constantly attempting to capture the reality of how we see the world, arcs from his own early experiments and gripes with photography (“we see psychologically, but cameras see geometrically”), to 3D scanning and multicamera video. He grapples with the theory of linear perspective, arguing, “If our eyes move, there is not just one perspective; there are thousands of perspectives. You are inside it, not outside it.” It is just one of many not-so-subtle nods to the immersive experience offered by Lightroom’s audiovisual capabilities.

Bigger & Closer (not smaller & further away), 2023 (installation view). Photo: Justin Sutcliffe. Courtesy Lightroom, London

Hockney’s narration returns again and again to the boundaries of artmaking (and how he has consistently expanded them), and to the plurality of ways in which we each experience the world, a subject not without irony given the singular focus on his own point of view throughout. The film zips through Hockney’s early days in Los Angeles, including his fascination with its perfectly turquoise pools, to Fantasia-esque animations of his luscious set designs for opera, flanked by hammy digital renderings of red velvet curtains, taking not so much a chronological as a scattergun approach to the highlights of his career.

Images of digital paintings and photographs multiply endlessly into smaller gridded tiles that wrap around the room, in a recurring visual motif intended to conjure the awe-inspiring range of Hockney’s vision, but which leaves the viewer straining to focus on any one of them at all. Set to a prescriptively emotive score by Nico Muhly, all swelling strings and tinkling piano (bar a bizarre sequence of Hockney driving in the LA mountains to Wagner’s Entry of the Gods into Valhalla, taken from Hockney’s 2012 video piece Wagner Drive), mixed with the cartoonish sound of a pencil scratching over paper, the effect is undeniably theatrical.

Yet for all its playful animations and behind-the-scenes photographs, what Bigger & Closer (not smaller & further away) fails to achieve is a lasting sense of the work’s wider cultural impact. Hockney’s connection to queer culture is entirely absent in this family-friendly affair, while his team of assistants is not once mentioned in favour of the tired auteur narrative. By insisting that he and his work are shown ‘bigger and closer’, it is impossible to find any sense of perspective, leaving one wishing for the relief that might ultimately be found in moving further away.

Bigger & Closer (not smaller & further away) at Lightroom, London, through 1 October

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