A Non-Circadian Cadence

William Myers wrote an essay on the Life Time exposition, reviewing all artists and their work.

A Non-Circadian Cadence

For as long as humans have been compelled to coordinate, telling time has been an all-important enterprise. Technologies from sundials and calendars to maritime chronometers and atomic clocks burst forth to make it possible to do both the profound, such as cross the ocean or send a probe to Mars, as well the mundane, like forging a legal agreement or scheduling the delivery of a wheel of cheese. With every advance, it has become possible to enforce ever more precise action among a growing quantity of people and physical matter. While this may seem inevitable, it may not always be beneficial, as early wristwatches attest, used by infantry in the First World War to coordinate charges during the trench warfare on European fronts in 1915.

Philosophers, scientists and artists have long contemplated the power and meaning of time, as it seems to construct our everyday lives and the essential nature of physical matter. Saint Augustine contemplated this in his Confessions, Book XI, written in the 5th century, in which he makes the argument that time tends toward non-existence, as we cannot access either the immediate past, for it is gone, nor the future, always a step away. He concluded that time only exists in the abstract, in the mind and only dimly reflected in our tools or language. Many centuries later our understanding of time reached its more modern if less poetic shape with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity published in 1905. Space and time became fused, bent by gravity and continually in flux, even if imperceptibly, with every movement of matter in the universe.

Perhaps because time is so fraught with these complexities, so omnipresent yet invisible, that it becomes irresistible as a subject for the arts. Works of Vanitas painting, for example, by artists such as Harmen Steenwijkck in the 17th century, remind the viewer of their ultimate fate and the futility of Earthly pursuits. The sumptuous depictions of decay frozen on the canvas can seem potent moralizing symbols but also as small celebrations of fleeting beauty and pleasure. A contemporary take on this genre of painting is offered by artist Suzanne Anker. In her work Vanitas (in a Petri dish), 2013, the formal qualities of earlier works are echoed but their symbolism is subverted, with a series of images of growing and decaying biological matter framed in Petri dishes, totems of modern science. They seem to imply the question: can we dare to think that time and biological decay could be things we can ultimately control?

Scientific research into longevity is rapidly advancing, and will doubtless lead to difficult ethical questions as well as artistic reflection. While we await this possibility of immortality, artists have found original ways to highlight time in both form and contents. John Cage’s work 4’33 from 1952 is a classic in this genre: a musical performance in which not a single note is played for four minutes and 33 seconds, the piece consisting only of the sounds generated by the concert hall audience and prompting listeners to contemplate their listening. A related work by Cage is underway at St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany called As Slow As Possible, which began in 2001 on the church’s organ and is scheduled to end after 639 years.
Another way performance and our perception of time is blended is in the work of Christian Marclay. His 2010 video The Clock runs for 24 hours, consisting of thousands of clips from popular television and film in which a clock appears, with every minute of running time matched with the time as it appears on the screen. In a similar vein, Maarten Baas’s Real Time series shows us hours of labor, moving representations of the hands or digits of a clock’s face, meant to be viewed in coordination with actual time. A common thread among these kinds of works is their challenge to the biological viewer, as it is virtually impossible to experience these pieces in their entirety, and this very elusiveness, reflecting Saint Augustine’s thinking, is part of their appeal.

Katie Paterson’s work Timepieces (Solar System), 2014, embraces this notion of the momentary experience of something much greater to an extreme, utilizing astronomical time. By presenting clocks oriented to the day time on the different planets of our solar system, we are invited to consider how special our conditions are on earth as well as the tremendous degrees of difference between planets. Mercury’s scorched day lasts a full 4223 hours, while Neptune rotates at a rate of 16 hours and 6 minutes. This is all complicated by relativity, since vast distances separate places like Mercury and the earth, between which about 7 minutes is needed for even light or the effects of gravity to travel, challenging any notion of simultaneity.

The imprecision and incompleteness of time-based art has an analogue in the creative process behind cuisine. Recipes and techniques can, of course, be recorded over the centuries and shared across cultures, but all will lose some unnamable qualities or “touches” of their first maker. Advances in microbiology complicate this idea by describing how we all leave multidimensional fingerprints all around us like traces of bacteria and yeasts which have adapted to our bodies and can thrive on things we touch, like food, thereby influencing their taste. Work by Jiwon Woo makes this explicit, in her explorations of rice wine making across different generations and geography, she emphasizes what is preserved and what is lost as families and, by extension, cultural traditions, are rapidly spread across the globe. Her creative point of departure is the Korean term 손맛, or son-mat, literally the “hand taste” of prepared food that is regarded as unique to its maker.

Advances in biology also yield a fascinating if unfamiliar layer of time that governs the behavior of cells in our bodies, in the functioning of telomeres. They are the end caps to chromosomal sequences, acting as both a protector, preventing certain copying errors while a cell divides, but simultaneously shrinking during each such division, counting down to the last time a cell can give rise to another. Humans begin life with about 11,000 bases in their telomeres, shrinking to about 4,000 in old age, and with only some cell types able to have there telomeres replenished. With every tic of these tiny physical “clocks” in each of our roughly thirty trillion cells, we bear the stamp of our biological age. These billions of daily “ticks” during cell division makes a rhythm that is not Circadian, with calm and predictable cycles like the tides, but more like syncopated Trance music, racing and crashing in convulsive crescendos.

Turning to the technosphere, the rhythm of progress becomes ever louder as human-made objects, forces, and sounds invade every environment on the planet. While some argue that this change may be part of the inevitable course of planetary evolution, generating a “next nature,” its rhythms may instead be part of yet another biological clock, a long telomere counting down to a time in which any growth and birth is simply no longer possible. This notion that our technosphere chimes the hours to our collective demise can be observed in Seasynthesis, 2017, the work of Xandra van der Eijk which brings to an audience the human music that buffets the North Sea, the digging of supports for oil rigs and wind turbines, the detonation of munitions, and the engines of tanker ships. This is a cacophony that disrupts and degrades the ecosystems of the underwater realm, in just about every way we can measure them.

As earth endures the growing footprint of civilization, we may predict what might be left behind should we continue on our trajectory of planetary warming and resource waste. If we think in terms of millennia, we can imagine most quotidian objects and environments will be taken by time, from books and paintings to buildings. Plastic will have finally disintegrated while seawater will have slowly covered all traces of our abandoned costal cities. At such a time works like the colossal stone statues of Buddha and the Egyptian pyramids will remain, as will some of the works of the artist Michael Heizer such as City. This work of land art covers 2 x 0.4 kilometers in the U.S. state of Nevada and is scheduled to be open in 2020, having been under construction since 1972. It blends the aesthetics of ancient monuments like the city of Chichen Itza with minimalism and industrial technology. Its monumentality stems from both its presence and its likely permanence, being in the dessert on virtually worthless lands, it may well stand for millions of years, perhaps to be studied by another species.

The work of Guo Cheng also finds this unusual combination of combating and embracing time in a piece of art. For his work Anon, An Intervention in the Anthropocene, 2017, the artist pursues a poetic means to question human impact on the land, and the potential futility of attempting that impact’s erasure. In recursive layers, the artist’s efforts wash away human traces in a discreet block of earth, which was itself placed centuries ago on a plot on the outskirts of Amsterdam. Once the “cleansed” earth is returned to its place, a puzzle will be left for the future, whose inhabitants may struggle to speculate what could motivate such an act.

Another work that harnesses earth as a medium but gives it a live voice is Manta Morta by Gil Gilendro, an instillation of a contained ecosystem, like a terrarium. It stages a complex set of interactions in soil of growth, rot, and rebirth and then allows all these irregular cadences of life to become sound. It is a way to bring the viewer closer to the hidden but flourishing activity occurring at all times and in most every place. The non-visual senses are also engaged in an original way in Thomas and Craighead’s Apocalypse, a perfume that blends olfactory materials detailed in the book of Revelation, from the King James Bible in 1611. For this work a chemical depiction of the biblical end of times makes for a fleeting installation designed with the assistance of perfumer Euan McCall, the bottled product is accompanied by a presentation case that is laden with a scent associated with material decay.

Given that artists tend to detect and respond to changes in our culture before most of us, recent works involving time seem to suggest collective anxieties. Despite the fact that coordination of action between people across vast distances has become easier than ever before, and the precision and availability of time-keeping instruments has never been so complete, we witness a social and political turn towards fragmentation. Perhaps our collective fetishizing of connectivity and productivity is eroding the pillars of civilization. The so-called “attention economy” seems to dominate all platforms of interaction, which endangers critical thinking and appears to propel tribalism.

Artists may help snap us out of such contemporary trances, perhaps they can sober us with the question “how much time does humanity have left?” This seems an underlying idea to the work Ex Nihilo by Timo Wright: a series of three videos, each seemingly unrelated but joined in their subjects by the idea of transmitting something of ourselves or of the present far into the future. By preserving brains or seeds in extreme conditions designed to last centuries or longer or by giving rise to a new being in the form of an artificial intelligence, the work speaks of our collective attempts to control life and death which, in a way, is another way to dictate time.