It’s About Time is a brand new London exhibition curated by Paul Carey Kent and Christina Niederberger exploring the nature of time and how different timescales can function simultaneously in an artwork. Fourteen artists using a variety of mediums including painting, photography, sculpture, installation, film and performance exhibit their views in four main ways: putting more than one timescale into an image; the strategy of ‘recreating’ one time in another; building the representation of time into a work; making visible the time which passes in the making of the work.
The show also encourages us to consider how two fundamentally contrasting philosophical viewpoints dominate our current understanding of time. Newtonian time conceives time as a universal given that structures events in linear succession. According to this understanding time travel is – theoretically – possible. The opposing view, in the tradition of Leibniz and Kant, states that time doesn’t refer to any kind of given container through which events and objects move, but is part of a fundamental intellectual structure which allows us to represent, compare and order things. Time, then, is neither an event nor a thing, and thus is not itself measurable nor can it be travelled.
Either way, time is not the simple matter it seems when reading a clock. Much of the work has been made especially for this show by its international cast of artists: Emma Bennett, Tereza Buskova, Andy Charalambous, Susan Collins, Clarisse d’Arcimoles, Alison Gill, Nick Hornby, Alex Hudson, Livia Marin, Pernille Holm Mercer, Nika Neelova, Christina Niederberger, Harald Smykla and Dolly Thompsett.
This question is usually taken to refer straightforwardly the precise position of the minute and hour hands on the clock face or a digital number which tell us what the time is at any given moment. So a simple definition states that ‘time is what clocks measure’ – but beyond that lies complexity. Which answers then can we provide if the question, instead, aims to un- ravel time as a fundamental concept of our existence? What then is time? “If no one asks me”, Saint Augustine stated, “I know what it is.” “If I wish to explain it to him who asks”, he continues, “I do not know.”
Time has been a major subject of religion, philosophy, history and science, but defining it in a man- ner applicable to all fields of study without circularity has consistently eluded scholars. Two fundamentally contrasting philosophical viewpoints dominate our current understand- ing. Newtonian time conceives time as a universal given that structures events in linear succession. Accord- ing to this understanding time travel is – theoretically – possible. The op- posing view states that time doesn’t refer to any kind of given container through which events and objects move, nor to any entity that ‘flows’. It is explained, rather, as part of a fun- damental intellectual structure which allows us to represent, compare and order things and make sense of our experiences. This second view, in the tradition of Leibniz and Kant, main- tains that time is neither an event nor a thing, and thus is not itself measur- able nor can it be travelled.
Although time and its relentless pass- ing are engrained in our conscious existence as we make a distinction between our limited life span and eternity, and although a contem- porary world without clocks which regulate our daily routines would be unimaginable, the concept remains mysterious and ultimately ungraspa- ble. Popular slogans such as ‘time is money’, ‘time is running out’, ‘time and tide wait for no man’, ‘to be on time’, ‘time flies’, ‘wasting/making time’ or ‘keeping time’ might be said to impose a false paradigm by com- menting about time as if it could be grasped separately from our agency. These sayings, however, also testify to a fundamental human need to make time tangible, as it seems that only then we are able to grasp it as something that can provide us with a sense of our existence in time. This is poignantly evident in the story of Robinson Crusoe. After being shipwrecked on a desert island he starts his new life outside civilized society by making a calendar, dem- onstrating thus his desire to impose a human linear order on the cyclical time of nature. His choice of name for the cannibal he rescues has to be understood in the same context. By calling him ‘Friday’ (as he found him on a Friday), Robinson not only reveals his conviction that the linear order of time is a given and must be adhered to, but his gesture also sug- gests that with the structure of man- made time the wild, primitive and chaotic can ultimately be mastered and tamed.
In The Sense of an Ending Frank Kermode makes a similar point as he comments that “The clock’s ‘tick- tock’ humanises time by giving it a form.” It is the same ‘form’ Bataille writes about in his critical dictionary when he maintains that “a dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words but their tasks” and laments that for our understand- ing it is generally required “that each thing has its form.” In line with Bataille’s comments Kermode explains our distinction between the ‘tick’ and the ‘tock’ as an attempt to overcome and grasp the disorganisa- tion of a continuous time flow by imposing on it a structure which has both a beginning and an ending.
According to Kermode this suggests that we have a “deep need for intel- ligible Ends” as they initiate a sense of origin and testify of “a need in the moment of existence to belong.” As we establish “models of the world [that] make tolerable one’s moment between beginning and end” they enable us to “project ourselves […] past the End, so as to see the struc- ture whole, a thing we cannot do from our spot of time in the middle.” These beginnings and ends allow us to “make little images of moments”, periodizing the continuous flow of time into graspable segments. The end becomes in itself an eternally deferred ‘not yet’, a meditation about origins, beginnings and ends and as such an intriguing topic for past and contemporary artistic expression across all media. We hope the show enriches and arrests, but also offers a fresh understanding of ‘our time’.
Christina Niedeberger October 2013
Photo: Alison Gill Fibonacci Rabbit Generator