David Batchelor on art and the urban environment

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Tuesday, December 5, 2017 - 10:02

David Batchelor is an artist, sculptor and writer who has achieved global recognition for his installations crafted from found objects which are given new life as brightly coloured light boxes or unlit composites.

Batchelor’s works have illuminated galleries and public spaces from São Paulo’s Galeria Leme to St Pancras International. His latest commission, Sixty Minute Spectrum (2017), will light up the recently refurbished iconic rooflights of the Hayward Gallery as we countdown to our reopening in January 2018.

But why has the use of colour become so integral to Batchelor’s work? And what is it about the urban landscape that continues to inspire him? We caught up with the artist ahead of the launch of Sixty Minute Spectrum to find out more.

You’re an artist who has become synonymous with brightly coloured, illuminated installations, yet much of your earlier work centred on monochromes. How did that transition take place? Or is it wrong to view it as a transition?

The earliest works I made after I left college were black paintings, and then I made some mostly white constructions. I hadn’t thought about colour for a good many years until one day in the studio, in one of those slightly desperate moments, I painted the front of a small sculpture bright pink. From that point, which was over 25 years ago, I began to think about colour, to work with it in the studio and to read and write about it. Colour is such a complex subject – technically, neurologically, culturally, linguistically, politically – that I have never tired of it.

You have spoken before, in conversation with the philosopher Jonathan Rée, about how you feel that ‘abstract art is the art of the city and that monochrome is its exemplary form’. Why do you believe this to be the case? What is is that separates abstract art from the non urban environment?

I had in mind the kind of flat, planar abstract art that begins with Malevich, Rodchenko, Popova and others, and has continued in a wide variety of forms in Europe, the Americas, Asia and elsewhere. My point was that you only find flat, regular, monochromatic surfaces in the city. Nature is always about modulation, depth and infinite variety. At the same time people have said abstract art and the monochrome are a turning away from the everyday life of the city. In fact you can find monochromes everywhere in the city, if you look for them, that how the series of photographs, Found Monochromes, came about.

Do you still collect Found Monochromes? Are they something you find yourself unconsciously identifying?

I began photographing found white monochromes in 1997. The most recent one, which I came across a couple of weeks ago, is number six hundred and something. The reasons I began taking them and the reasons I have continued to take them for 20 years may be rather different, but I identify with them quite consciously. They form a kind of 20 year map of my movements within London and in every other city I have visited.


Your connection to the urban environment as a platform for abstract art is clear in a number of your commissions, including this latest one for us. Are you interested in subverting the mundanity of the everyday through bright colours that are impossible to ignore?

The architectural environment tends to be very neutral in terms of colour: concrete, steel and glass tend toward the grey or colourless. I have no problem with this at all, in fact it is a very useful backdrop to my work, which can contrast with it quite dramatically. In addition, many surfaces in the city are shiny or reflective, which means that colour, and illuminated colour in particular, can bounce around this environment a long way from its source, especially at night. Advertisers worked this out a long time ago; I try to use colour for its own sake rather than in the service of a particular product or a market.

I’m not quite vain enough to assume my work is especially subversive, but I do hope that it might invite people to ask some questions about the physical, cultural and chromatic spaces we all inhabit.

Coming back to your commission for Hayward Gallery, what was the brief you were given, and how did you arrive at your work Sixty Minute Spectrum?

To be honest I don’t quite remember the exact brief, but I talked with [Hayward Gallery Director] Ralph Rugoff over several months about developing a work that would both draw attention to the gallery – which has been ‘dark’ for three years – and have some kind of countdown element that would point towards its reopening.

Further to this – why sixty minutes? What was it that drew you to this particular time frame?

I have often thought that clocks are one of the best and most useful forms of public art. This work will function as a kind of timepiece that moves through the spectrum like a minute hand on a clock. In the same way that it is very difficult to see a minute hand move, you won’t be able to see the colour change, but if you look away for a short while and then look back you will see that the colour has changed. Also, if you know it is mid-red at 00 on the clock, and mid-green at 30 minutes past the hour, you will also be able to work out the approximate time depending on which particular colour is visible.

Your work has been exhibited both in and on Hayward Gallery before –  with Magic Hour (2004/7) which appeared in our 2013 Light Show exhibition and with Festival Remix, the winter lights project first shown in 2006.  What does this gallery mean to you?

I first visited the Hayward Gallery when I was about 14 years old and I must have been back several times a year, every year, since then, so you can safely say it has been a part of the my cultural life for nearly half a century. It means a great deal to me: it has helped shape who I am as an artist and as a person, for better or worse.


Sixty Minute Spectrum - David Batchelor

David Batchelor’s Sixty Minute Spectrum illuminated Hayward Gallery’s iconic rooflights until 25 March 2018.

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After a two-year refurbishment Hayward Gallery reopened to the public on 25 January 2018.

more on Hayward Gallery


interview by Glen Wilson