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David Hockney x CIRCA: The Meaning of Sunrise

David Hockney x CIRCA: The Meaning of Sunrise

We’ve seen a lot of rapid changes in the last month, especially as lockdown restrictions are easing in the UK. To reflect these changes, CIRCA has also evolved as a platform – taking their physical offering global for the first time. To celebrate their current collaboration with British artist David Hockney, CIRCA are screening the artist’s video in New York’s Times Squares, Los Angeles’ Pendry West Hollywood billboard, Seoul’s Coex K-POP Square, Tokyo’s Yunika Vision LED screen, and London’s Piccadilly Lights.

Created last year as a means of reconnecting the public with art and exhibitions during the pandemic, CIRCA gives artists the opportunity to showcase their work in the form of a two-minute video in a public space. Up until this month, screenings took place on Europe’s largest billboard: the Piccadilly Lights. Every month has seen a different artist take to the screen, showcasing videos that expand on their practice and the messages they want to convey to the public.

In the UK, CIRCA’s videos will be shown at 20:21BST every night, breaking the usual stream of commercials and advertisements and creating a live exhibition experience (global screening times can be found here). For those unable to make it to the screenings, each video is streamed and archived on CIRCA’s website.

David Hockney commemorates the arrival of spring with the video Remember you cannot look at the sun or death for very long, which will be shown each night across the world and online. Hockney is considered one of the most prolific living artists of our time, with his career flourishing during the beginnings of British Pop Art in the 1960s. Moving between different media throughout the subsequent decades, from plein air painting to photocollage to iPad drawing, Hockney has continuously adapted to changing times in order to keep his artwork fresh and inquisitive.

What does the world look like? We have to take time to see its beauty. That’s what I hope my work will encourage people to do when they see it on the large screens.

David Hockney

Remember you cannot look at the sun or death for very long

Remember you cannot look at the sun or death for very long is no different. The video is a reflection on the shared experience of the pandemic – that of lockdown and isolation. Created on Hockney’s iPad during his time in Normandy, the two-and-a-half-minute video depicts an animated sunrise which provides a meditation on the arrival of spring and the transition into a post-pandemic society.

The video begins with an open landscape slowly coming to life. Dawn breaks, a bird flies across the sky, and the sun begins to illuminate the scene as it steadily moves upwards. The rising sun acts as the pinpoint of focus in the video, bringing light and vibrancy to the quiet landscape as it grows outwards in rays of light. These rays engulf the screen in a sunny yellow, and the words “Remember you cannot look at the sun or death for very long” occupy the space as the video comes to an end.

David Hockney Time Limited #CIRCAECONOMY Poster 2021 © David Hockney
David Hockney Time Limited #CIRCAECONOMY Poster 2021 © David Hockney

Hockney’s Spring Message: The Meaning of Sunrise

As mentioned by Henry Little in his essay, let the sunshine in, sunrise is a “timeless and universal” visual metaphor for hope. Signalling the beginning of a new day, sunrise is synonymous with rebirth and the passing of time. Recognised throughout the world, Hockney’s depiction of sunrise manages to capture an international audience through its emphasis of new beginnings – a prominent message when set in the context of the Coronavirus pandemic, where some countries have begun to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

Hockney’s use of sunrise is evidently intentional when addressing these themes, but it’s also interesting to consider whether the artist interweaves any other symbols throughout this artwork.

With an education at the Royal Academy, a long and successful career in the arts, and an interest in the work of the old masters of the Renaissance (see Hockney’s book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters), Hockney is certainly well-versed in art historical canons, techniques, technologies, and symbols.

Watching Hockney’s video brings to mind stories of the pagan god Apollo, in particular his association with the sun. Driving a golden chariot, Apollo was often recounted pulling the sun across the sky and hailing a new day. Although this tale is not directly depicted, the parallels in Hockney’s work are undeniable and can be identified through the bird that flies across the screen just as the sun breaks over the horizon. A precursor to the day’s beginnings, the bird zips through the sky in an echo of the pagan myth.

With the promise of a fresh start in mind, the grounding of Hockney’s work in symbolic association creates a depth of cultural references that are recognisable in multiple contexts. The presence of the sun in this context serves to provide a fresh wave of comfort; just as Apollo signalled a new day, the sun too highlights the prominence of a future we have yet to write.

But the commonalities with Apollo do not stop there. The references to classical symbolism in Remember you cannot look at the sun or death for very long are ironically apparent in their link to the present moment. While Apollo was primarily known as the god of the sun, he was also associated with healing, illness, and medicine. Those favoured by Apollo were delivered from diseases and blessed with good health, but those who incurred his wrath were struck by ill health and plague.

As a figure of the Renaissance, symbolism concerning Apollo was transferred to all types of subject matter. In particular, during the multiple resurgences of plague in Europe, Apollo’s arrows became metaphors for divinely led disease. In Christianity, the motif was adopted and combined with the image of a martyred Saint Sebastian, who intercepts the arrows and prevents plague from harming mankind.

The parallels to our own time don’t go unnoticed. The absence of arrows and plague and distress are at odds with the more daunting realities of Covid, but they also highlight Hockney’s message that we are entering a new, hopeful era; one not dominated by death and fear. The focus on sunrise only reiterates this idea, directing audiences to our collective next steps as a society.

It’s also interesting to note that Apollo was a patron of the arts, in particular music and prose. Hockney’s play on this character is already evident, but when placed in the context of the arts his insistence on new beginnings is even more pertinent.

Coinciding with the reopening of galleries and museums, the image of the rising sun is a reflection on the transition back into normality for the creative sector. Having experienced a seemingly never-ending period of closure, the symbolism of a new dawn emphasises the welcomed return of the artist, gallery, and exhibition. For Hockney, whose collaboration with CIRCA coincides with the opening of his latest exhibition, The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, at the Royal Academy, the reopening of these institutions is a point of celebration.

In more poetic terms, where a day ends, another one begins – and with it comes a renewed vigour and a fresh perspective on the future. Remember you cannot look at the sun or death for very long, although simple in visual terms, hosts a wealth of associations and connections that make the video more than a viewing experience. The metaphorical meaning of sunrise, both hopeful and calming, is more than meets the eye. We’ve only scraped the surface.



In his final note, “Remember you cannot look at the sun or death for very long”, Hockney reiterates the directive for transformation and movement. Rather than dwell on the fear and tragedy of the past year, Hockney calls for a productive change of direction.

You cannot look at the sun or death for very long because both cause pain (whether physical or emotional). The only way to move on from this pain is to direct our gaze elsewhere: to the present moment and to the future. Meditating on the past – on the day before – is a pointless act that does not elicit a positive change.

Remember you cannot look at the sun or death for very long is a prominent message of hope for our collective future. A new day. A fresh start. Another chapter in time. The global reach of CIRCA enables us to see this message on screens from anywhere in the world. Stepping back out into the world after months of lockdown is a cautious process – as it should be – but, as Hockney insinuates, it is still progress. Looking to the future is a step in the right direction. 


Keep up to date with CIRCA on their website.

For more on our series with CIRCA, check out our previous article here.

About The Author

Charlie Colville

I’m Charlie, a digital journalist and Mouthing Off's Editor in Chief. You'll find me exploring galleries, listening to podcasts, and using the gift of the written gab to get my opinion out to the world.

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