It's been a summer of close encounters here in London, some earthbound, some of an extraterrestrial kind. As everyone knows, Europe was abuzz with excitement over the solar eclipse on Aug. 11.
The American earthworks artist James Turrell created an observatory, an Elliptic Ecliptic as he calls it, for safe contemplation of the heavens (there were fears of mass blindings as the hapless curious stare Vincent-like at the darkening orb). At Tremenheere, Cornwall, the best county in Britain in which to observe this astronomical event, he built an oval-shaped cabin with an elliptical hole in the roof. This cabin is open over the summer, but on Aug. 11, whoever was lucky enough to be inside it experienced a dusk and dawn in fast forward at 11:11 a.m.
Anyone who wasn't there for the big moment (the whole County of Cornwall was pretty full, never mind Turrell's magic cabin) can make do with a limited edition portfolio by the artist, published by London gallerist Michael Hue-Williams, who commissioned Turrell's observatory, or they can view an internet broadcast of the astronomical event at www.livereality.com.
Hockney's Grand Canyon
But you don't have to look to the moon for a blast of otherworldly sublimity: there's always the Grand Canyon. On view at the Royal Academy is A Bigger Grand Canyon by David Hockney, a work whose title seems to joke about the thin line between grand and grandiosity. (The painting eventually goes to the National Gallery of Australia, which paid $4.7 million for it.)
In the past Hockney used the camera to capture a sense of the unforgiving expansiveness of the desert. Here he's used down to earth oil on canvas. The installation of six works, including two huge murals each 24 feet long and made up of many smaller panels, takes up a whole room in the RA's annual Summer Exhibition (an unprecedented honor). There is a gazebo (platform) at the center of the gallery, added because visitors were clambering on the Victorian seats, and mirrors at the corners, a gimmick in my opinion, included for some optical reason best known to the artist.
A show at Annely Juda focuses on the related pastels (it had been at the Richard Gray Gallery in New York in the spring). This medium gives a strange intimacy and delicacy to his treatment of a subject, which is really about impersonal scale. One pastel, incidentally, Composition for a Closer Grand Canyon, is almost two meters wide.
Anyhow, back at the Academy, Hockney's mural cycle landed him the Charles Wollaston Award, which was recently upgraded to £25,000 (about $40,000). The judges for this prize included Susan Ferleger Brades, director of the Hayward, and Michael Hue-Williams. Both must have had their heads full of the moon at the time of judging, with their respective projects under way. Apart from artistic excellence, the "loony" nature of Hockney's subject must have tipped him towards victory.
While we're on the subject of orbs, a few years ago London supposedly experienced an upsurge in road accidents involving male drivers due to a billboard campaign for the Wonderbra. An apparently generously endowed model in the said brassiere looked coolly at the oncoming traffic and said "Hello Boys!" Feminist artist Chila Kumari Burman has turned this campaign around with an installation at Andrew Mummery Gallery that she calls Hello Girls.
A lot of Burman's work explores her identity as a second generation British Asian -- her parents were born in the Punjab, India -- and this work is no exception. Burman has copied several dozen bras onto traditional Indian fabrics, joining them together in a wall grid curiously like Hockney's multipaneled, brashly colored canyon murals. (Canyons is the word for the Apsaras to whom Burman alludes, those semi-divine beauties with their idealized breasts who are carved on temples, most famously at Khajuraho.)
Burman's brew of politics and autobiography first hit the scene in the 1970s and presaged the sexual candor of Tracey Emin, who has just been short-listed for the 1999 Turner Prize. Both artists fuse heightened sexuality, ethnic otherness (Emin is half-Turkish) and a working-class seaside childhood (Formby in the north for Burman, Margate on the south coast for Emin). Never mind eclipses: such constellations of identity are plenty enough to make the art world stand still for a good 15 minutes.
NASA at the Hayward
Not as sexy but equally riveting is the exhibition of lunar photographs organized by San Francisco photographer Michael Light, who was given a free run of NASA's archive of 30,000 photos from the 12 Apollo missions, 1968-72. The display, nicely timed to coincide with the total eclipse, is currently at the Hayward Gallery on London's South Bank. To my eye, the black and white shots of the crater-encrusted satellite were more dramatic and tangible - more earthy? -- than the color landscapes, which had a tendency to sameness.
A far more unworldly sight, a weirder "close encounter," was to be had in the Hayward's first floor galleries. The face of the moon pales in comparison to the faces of Phil, Alex, Lucas, Kiki, Roy and Francesco -- all courtesy of Chuck Close.
Close's MoMA-organized retrospective had finished its planned U.S. tour when, in an inspired move, London put in a bid. The Hayward show was smaller, and much the better for it. I'm a late convert to the Close cult: the MoMA show convinced me of the power of his images, his "in yer face" approach to the face, but only the intimate selection here in London finally brought me round to an appreciation of the strange, meditative beauty of his art.
DAVID COHEN is an independent art critic based in London.