Monday 12 March 2012

Concerts of kinetic watercolour

Excerpts from Chapter Seven:
Concerts of kinetic watercolour.
A kinetic image, projected twelve metres wide, from From me flows what you call Time by Toru Takemitsu. Performed with the Rotterdam Philharmonic in 2004.

Painting watercolours on paper while listening to music in the studio is a challenge. But it’s easy compared with creating paintings in real time in a concert hall full of two thousand spectators.  These images are flowing, kinetic: moving on continuously. There’s no time for reflection or corrections.  As I work, everybody’s watching the projection of my paintings on a screen, in synch with the music; and with a live performance everything can go wrong.  An artist’s worst nightmare, you might say.  

But it’s a deliberate choice on my part.  I’ve left the security of my studio (to which visitors are normally invited to see a painting “when it’s finished”), because I want the audience to share the moment of creation and the complete process of the evolution that follows. When it’s finished, you’re too late!

I’m actually painting on the rather small working areas (28 x 28cm) of a number of overhead projectors and the audience looks over my shoulder as I work (see Blog 1 for an illustration). When projected, the enormous magnification of my small visuals is magical in itself. Tiny bubbles of paint become planets floating through space on a collision course – it’s hypnotic. So the spectators, in a constant state of surprise, will focus intensely on the present moment, terribly aware that that they will never see any of these images again. Like a passing sunset, this provokes intense nostalgia. 

The ability of being able to completely focus on the now has a long tradition in Asian philosophy. This experience has a beauty of its own. It can be compared to watching the falling cherry blossoms, so beautiful, yet transient – like life. There’s nothing left to see (or buy) at the end of the performance. Both images and music have gone - for ever.  Yes, you can put it on video, but it’s nothing like the live experience.

Two stills from Hallelujah Junction (for two pianos), by John Adams.  Actually these only really exist as kinetic images, changing with the music.

To perform in this way you have memorize the music, create a choreography for your brushes, create a storyboard, then practise and practise, until every gesture becomes part of an ongoing, flowing rhythmic performance - like making music. You must be completely organized in advance - in my case with a variety of brushes and pots of colour exactly arranged so that in a split second I can seize one brush, then another carrying just the right amount of ready-mixed colour, without missing a beat.  I use mostly transparent water-based inks on glass plates and I know from experience how these will work: the flow rate, the interaction of wet paint on wet, wet on dry, splash on dry, fine liner on wet or dry, etc.  The magnified organic movements of these liquids are fascinating, especially if they are geared to pulsate or explode to the tempi of the music.  I’ve called this live kinetic painting because you see the movement of the brushes and the wet painting continues to move as you watch.  I love it when musicians tell me afterwards “ Hey, I could see my solo moving past!” This art form only exists “in real time”, so still photographs lack both the movement and the music.

Another attraction of this art form is its visceral, sensual nature.  We relate to the visibly organic interaction of these liquid watercolours because we too are largely made up of water. Today, when everyone is going nuts about digital technology, I am saying - look, these low-tech analogue visuals feel good, in a way that synthetic visuals made up of digital pixels cannot approximate.

From me flows what you call Time, for 5 percussionists & orchestra, 2004.
My pure transparent colours, linked with music, also evoke a strong emotional response from the audience that is very similar to the combined effect of choral music and slowly moving multi-coloured light, projected across a cathedral from its stained-glass windows.  Cathedrals and churches provided some of the earliest light-shows!  I’m proud to be able to achieve a similar experience – indeed I feel it sometimes borders on a spiritual experience.

What drives me to keep on doing performances of live painting?  The urge stems from a love of music and modern dance, from a desire to literally get involved in the performance and from the sheer joy from the glowing colours.  It’s also a personal challenge to test my skills, to confront my nerves and the awareness that so many things can go wrong.  This might sound masochistic, but then the words of conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt come to mind: “You can often discover great beauty on the edge of a disaster”.  I’ll take that risk. The energy I get from performing keeps me young and after years of experience, I know deep down that I have an arsenal of solutions in my hands, an ability to bring everything to a creative and entertaining conclusion.  But you have to be slightly crazy to enjoy doing this! 

Next Monday: Edward Gardner conducts Elgar’s “friends pictured within”.


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