The Tate develops an ear for art

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The Independent Online
VIEWERS of David Hockney's A Bigger Splash in London's Tate Gallery can now listen to the artist himself discussing the celebrated Los Angeles swimming pool painting of 1967 in his flat Bradford vowels. Hockney on Hockney is being made possible by the Tate's new hi-tech acoustic guide to its works, brought in last week for the gallery's annual rehang. Visitors pay £2 to hire a device - a "Tateinform" - shaped like a mobile phone, and by pressing the number of a particular painting they hear a critical appraisal of the work - and sometimes the thoughts of the actual artist.

Hockney himself gives a heartfelt protestation that he was not a swimming pool fetishist. "I never painted that many swimming pools. People seem to think that's all I painted, but I don't think there's more than 12 paintings," he says. But he then embarks on an absorbing and detailed commentary of how water appears to be dancing and how this can actually be captured better in a painting than in a photograph.

"You could have made a splash with paint, which would have had a very lively effect. But I did it the other way, with small brushes, rather painstakingly. So something that lasts fractions of a second took me two weeks to paint. There's a kind of contradiction in that that interested me."

The Tate has stolen a march on the National Gallery, which will introduce a CD-ROM audio guide to all of its 1,000 works on display in June. The Tate's curator of interpretation, Simon Wilson, said the National Gallery's system had headphones which "cut you off from your companion".

Demonstrating the Tateinform, which is held up to the ear with one hand, he said: "Ours doesn't look quite so naff as having headphones."

He added that the microchip technology did not contain movable parts like the CD-ROM guide, and could not be damaged if dropped.

But a spokeswoman for the National Gallery retorted: "People don't generally go around the National Gallery dropping things."

She added: "If you only have an earpiece in one ear you can't hear properly because you are distracted by other people."

The Tate's investment in the Israeli-manufactured machines follows the gallery's largest survey of visitors which showed an overwhelming desire to have more information about the works on display. The Tateinform differs significantly from a normal cassette guide as it is not sequential, can be updated, can access individual paintings instantly, and depends only on a tiny flashcard (formerly called a PDA or Personal Digital Assistance) which is loaded into the lightweight telephones.

So far they describe 100 of the 600 works on show. Eventually the Tate hopes to have descriptions of all its works.

For Picasso's Weeping Woman, painted after the bombing of Guernica, the curator can be heard explaining: "Picasso found a visual equivalent for this woman's intense grief.

"The jagged and fragmented forms, the harsh intense colours . . . the woman appears almost literally broken up with grief."

The comments from the artists themselves give rather different insights into the process of artistic creation.

Francis Bacon, talking in an interview recorded in 1985 about his 1944 triptych, Three Studies For Figures At The Base of a Crucifixion, is asked why the paintings are the size that they are.

He replies: "As you know, I live in a mews and it is the largest size that would get in and out of the place. If they were framed, they would not get in or out."