David Hockney: The Jugglers, Whitney Museum, New York – review

“The Jugglers, June 24, 2012”, a large, new video installation by David Hockney, is charming in a goofy sort of way. A motley company of semi-competent performers shuffles about a makeshift stage with methodical unease, their attention fixed on keeping their pins in the air and their hoops in motion. Hockney, best known for his paintings and graphic work, is utterly at home in his new medium. He approaches the effort with such cheerful insouciance you might think he decided to improvise the whole thing on the spot. He didn’t: “The Jugglers” is as carefully wrought as anything Hockney has done before. He executes a feat of co-ordinated precision on 18 screens, but unlike his cast of 12, he’s adept at making the trick look easy.

The nine-minute extravaganza, now occupying one vast wall at the Whitney Museum of American Art, was filmed on a single June day in Hockney’s Yorkshire studio, a space so luxuriant with summer light that shadows melt away and depth disappears. The human figures bob jerkily across the flattened red and blue backdrop like avatars in an early video game. Members of the troupe, dressed in black but still somehow ragtag and sloppy, hurl Day-Glo objects into the air in time with “Stars and Stripes Forever”. That patriotic song serves as the official national march of the United States, but Hockney withholds stentorian pomp. Instead of the huge and blaring brass-and-drum ensemble familiar from parades and football games, we get only a lone harmonica plaintively burbling the tune. A slightly dismal air clings to the bright scene, a wan atmosphere of enforced jollity. The music wheezes. The amateur acrobats totter awkwardly. The pageantry feels coerced.

Yet there’s nothing dilettantish about the video itself. Beneath its candy-coloured surface is a meditation on how we perceive the world by merging partial truths into a fractured panorama. In the past, Hockney assembled multiple Polaroids of a single person into faceted portraits. No single component was fully faithful, but together, a hive of photos offered a flawed approximation of reality. In those works, Hockney denies us a direct dialogue with the subject, offering instead a multi-lingual conversation with a stack of fragments. These composite images don’t tell us where to look or how; rather, they throw open windows.

Hockney has brought that same democracy of sight to moving pictures, furnishing multiple perspectives on the action. This makes the piece fit nicely into a cinematic tradition: the documentary film-maker Errol Morris asks a question – “what really happened?” – and then goes around collecting answers, observations, and possibly irrelevant information to come up with an approximate but always elusive answer. Hockney does something similar here, creating a single scene too shifting, textured and complex, too full of clamouring moments, to take in all at once.

Only by seeing it again and again or merging the perspectives of many viewers, could you arrive at an accurate account of nine busy minutes. One viewer might clock the progress of the slim serious youth tossing a handful of white balls as he sidles from frame to frame. Someone more attuned to friendship might focus on the two buddies gleefully tossing plastic pins to one another. Over time, Hockney captures the carefree boyishness of their friendship, the playful attempts at one-upmanship, and the easy acceptance of failure. In his small procession, Hockney presents a cross-section of social relationships and flashes of individual personality.

Step back from the screens, and yet another picture coheres. At this distance we register the quasi-cubist composition – the way yellow, green, blue and orange projectiles multiply as the marchers fling them joyfully into the air, like fireworks on the Fourth of July. Suddenly the backdrop snaps into focus as an American flag, and the incidental music takes on new significance. Perhaps this is the way Hockney’s old home in Los Angeles looks from his current perch in Yorkshire; maybe it’s a caustic reflection on California’s culture of organised exuberance, as seen from the grey-green moors.

You could read the piece more darkly even than that. The video’s obsessively silly entertainers recall the “juggling fiends” Macbeth abhors – the witches, who whisper of hope but bring only doom. Like all of us, they strut and fret, absorbed in their pointless task, defying the certainty that no matter how frantically they keep battling destiny, in the end the pins will fall.

Until Sept 1, www.whitney.org

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