Hockney and me

A winters day standing in Finsbury Park looking down towards the main entrance. It is cold. The sun is low and clouds are encroaching and flirting with it. The light changes from moment to moment. I love winter light, there is a crispness to everything.  I watch the scene like a photographer waiting to press the shutter. I have no camera and enjoy the subtle changes to the landscape: the trees, the grass, in the varying light. If I took a picture, the rustle of leaves, hum of traffic would not be captured, nor the light play. While it would be a moment frozen in time, a static reminder of all I saw when standing here in this park, on this day, it would be a reminder only to me, a poor facsimile. I continue watching carefully in my chosen spot, the one where everything is just so, balanced: the sky, grass, trees. The sun is gone behind cloud. A uniform dullness descends. No longer changing, no longer quick. I leave the park, through the exit into the busy street, the energy of traffic and sparkle of lights in dusk.

Maybe I learnt to see through taking pictures but I felt its restriction. The decisive moment: selecting a picture, framing it, was all about exclusion, removing the passage of time. 1/100th of a second is not a moment but a thin time slice on an inhuman scale: half blinking eyes, unnaturally frozen faces, no sense of a space. I discovered David Hockney’s photo collages, called joiners, while studying photography in the early 90s. In them he played with the portrayal of space and time, overcoming limitations he found in single photographs. I made my own Joiners. I came to better know his ideas. He felt photography was limiting and returned to painting. My interest too waned, life moved on.

In 2005 I went to India, to Bangalore, and fell in love with trees. The city had two large parks and wide tree lined avenues, big trees, impressive extending over roads, providing shade. Bangalore had been a sleepy post-colonial town, now rapidly urbanising, improving its infrastructure. I saw a flyover, which curved round the bowl of an old resident tree. I saw a building built in deference to the tree it now contained. Trees were sacred here, as it should be. But then on a road trip to Mysore I saw destruction. By the side of the road for the whole length of the journey from one city to the next were felled trees, one after another, 200-year-old trees, their great trunks left upturned by the roadside, sacrificed to road enlargement.

The same year I visited my sister in Ontario, Canada. She had moved out of the city to a bungalow with a fifty acre wood attached. For someone feeling imprisoned at a desk it was pure magic. I woke up in the morning and walked out on the garden lawn and into the trees, maybe disturbing a deer. I visited with snow on the ground, in early spring, later in summer then in autumn. On each occasion with my camera – the same trees in different seasons, different conditions – attempting to capture their beauty, their alteration, their permanence.

2010, in London I visited the Tate to see a painting, Large Trees at Wurther, one picture the size of a wall. Hockney was bringing IMAX to the art world. I had not been following his progress for a decade. He had in the interim started painting landscape, with trees, in his native Yorkshire. This one was made up of many canvasses, arranged in a grid like one of his Polaroid joiners. There was a tree with a wood behind, the sun behind and low. I liked the way he painted shadows, purples and pinks. Film with its reduced tonal range – as compared to the human eye – could not compete. I sat and absorbed it. The picture was big enough that it filled my field of vision, the quantity making qualitative difference in my brain. I was immersed in it, in the time it took in the painting of it. Days not fractions of seconds, human time. Longer, meditative time. Hockney and me, we were aligned again, now in our love of trees.