November 24, 2013

Time is Relative... What? And Other Timely Considerations

Learning is one of those passions I have that has never wavered but I've learned that understanding more does not necessarily make the world seem more simple or straightforward, as I once might have supposed as a kid. In fact, my view of the world has become much more complicated. Because the world isn't simple. It is deliciously and mind-bogglingly complex.

One thing that seemed so simple and straightforward to me when I was young was the concept of time. I felt that time would always be ticking as usual everywhere, consistently and consecutively no matter what my own perception of it was. It had never even occurred to me that that might not be the case until I learned that time is relative. And it's taken me some studying to really grasp and confidently conceptualize that idea. It's one of the many things I once took for granted as simple, which I now understand is not really the case. This excellent video by Minute Physics on Youtube is one of my favorites for explaining the concept of time's relatively. Check it out below.

As the Tenth Doctor from BBC's television series Doctor Who says, "People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint - it's more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly... time-y wimey... stuff." This is probably my favorite explanation of what time is, disregarding whether or not it is scientifically correct, because it isolates one very important fact: our experience of time is NOT non-linear or non-subjective. It is in fact incredibly subjective and it is so linear from our individual view points that we call it a freaking timeline. (This is all true of course unless you have a sentient time machine disguised as a blue Police Box, but that's a whole other story.)

So here we are trapped in our individual subjective timelines. You can't change the speed or skip around like you can with a DVD player. And with this subjective "consistency" of time comes the unavoidable consistency of change. Simon Kentgens is an artist based in Breda, Netherlands. His 2009 artwork, Bloom consists of two "nearly identical flower bouquets," the one on the left is real and the one on the right is fake. Through the exhibition the real flowers gradually decay and die while the fake flowers remain exactly the same.

Bloom is one of those pieces that I really love for saying so much with so little. By placing the live bouquet next to a similar fake one, the steady and inevitable withering of the real flowers draw a increasing contrast to the fakes. Without those artificial flowers to act as a contrasting constant, the real bouquet would just be another dying arrangement. It is this comparison between the two that isolates the fragility of life, and while a human's life time is longer than a bouquet of cut flowers, it brings an interesting chance for self-reflection of our own fleeting lifespans. Perhaps growing older is not always apparent day to day but the difference is certainly there in the end.

A recent project by the artist collaboration Nerhol called Misunderstanding Focus uses three minutes, instead of the length of an exhibition, to bring up another topic about life. For the project, each participant is asked to sit as still as possible in front of a camera as it takes numerous consecutive photos for a straight three minutes. After putting this set of photos into a neat pile and cutting the layers in different topographically flowing shapes, those unavoidable movements life is subjected to reveal themselves through the resulting distortions in the portrait. With this artwork, it is not the process of aging that is painted for the viewer, but our incredible innate inability to remain perfectly still.

Fong Qi Wei, an artist whose work is shown later in this post, made an excellent observation when he said, "Photography is a medium that is famous for freezing time." With this project though, Nerhol freezes many moments of time, much like filming a movie, but instead of showing these images in progressive order as a movie does, Misunderstanding Focus piles all these images on top of each other so the viewer has a chance to see three minutes all at once. We may not be able to experience more than one moment at a time first hand, but these photos give an interesting idea of what it might be like to be able to do so.

I also love how some people are super awesome at staying still (ala that third woman down with in the black shirt) and others... well let's just say I don't think they would make a very convincing live statue.

John Clang takes a different approach in his photographic series Time. Instead of zeroing in on a live individual (be it flower or human), he plants his camera in a public space and measures the passage of time through the many different people that pass by throughout the day. Instead of presenting a consecutive flow between moments as Nerhol does, his ripped segments juxtapose completely separate instants randomly in one image. The result is many unfinished flashes of what has happened in front of the camera and in doing so his collages give a mild representation of what that place experiences throughout the day.

Pelle Cass's photographic series Selected People begins the same way as Clang's Time. He sets his camera up in one place and takes many photos over a period of time. But instead of collageing ripped segments of photographs together, Cass uses photo-manipulating software to create his own organized image by combining and keeping some of the various people that walked passed. The result is a beautifully designed flow of figures that seem to dance in patterns across the space.

"This work both orders the world and exaggerates its chaos," he says on his website. "With the camera on a tripod, I take many dozens of pictures and simply leave the figures I choose and omit the rest (in photoshop). Nothing has been changed, only selected. Above all, my work shows a surprising world that is only visible to the camera."

These images show an ease in flow between moments much like Nerhol's portraits, however unlike the portrait series, there is no telling when or in what order these figures appeared. The truth then is a mystery to the viewer and by hiding that truth the artist creates believable but false images that are entirely his own, a time and order of moments that don't really exist anywhere but in his manipulated creations.

Photographer Fong Qi Wei sets up a camera in one place to take pictures over a period of time as well, but for his project Time is a Dimension, instead of using people as the subject, he uses light. In his statement about the project on his website he says, "I work in the confines of photographic print, because I like to do so. But in a way, I wanted to break out of this restriction of a single slice of time in photography." Wei breaks from that single slice by digitally collageing those color-changing land and city scapes on the computer. His transitions between photos are gradual and maintain a shifting change that achieves wonderful monochrome and rainbow-esque strips of color that none of these other works can boast of.

This photo below is a little different though. By choosing a busy street to show the changing of light, inevitably the rushing cars are caught as evidence of change as well. The result is a combination of light's transition from day to night and the many jumpy flashes of commuters and their vehicles. Because of this I think the image feels a little awkward. The combination of flow and jumpiness feels like conflicting styles and there's almost too much to pay attention to. The rest of the images in this series have an effortless elegance in their collage, this one I think falters a bit by choice of subject.

Notice that these last four photographic works all lack the separate comparative constant that Bloom enjoys with its artificial bouquet. However what these four works have that Bloom does not is the chance to see beginning, end, and everything in between all at once, in one image. Bloom holds the honor of the change happening first-hand for its exhibition visitors, but by choosing this route, the piece is limited by exactly what these other collage projects attempt to transcend. It needs the separate constant to point these changes out, in the rest of these works the difference in changes are already there for us to see.

None of the works in this post though have addressed the daunting task of trying to measure and materialize the passage of time directly. We see the changes that time creates but how can we look time in the face and attempt to experience and notice it as its own entity? Instead of using the withering of flowers, the subtle changes of a person sitting, the people who walk by one space, or the change of light as measurement, artist Alicia Eggert addresses the slow movement of time alone with just a trusty fine tip permanent marker.

With a standard analog clock to work from, Hour Hand is her attempt to experience time itself using the clock's circular half-day length as reference. "In an attempt to move my hand at the same speed as a clock's hour hand," she says about the piece on her website, "this circle was drawn continuously over a twelve-hour period."

The works in this post have explored the idea that we derive meaning in the process of time by the changes we experience as a result of its course. "A strict progression of cause to effect," as the Tenth Doctor has said. Perhaps this is why, when you stare at a digital clock just waiting for the next digit to show, time suddenly slows to an almost excruciating length, and that one minute as you wait becomes the most extraordinarily mundane minute of your day. I can't help but wonder what it would feel like to approach and experience time in such a direct way for a full 12 hours. I am sure it required some real diligence.

"In an attempt to give the passing time a tangible, measurable length," she says about her next piece below, Half as Long as Yesterday, "this single line was drawn over a period of twelve hours, approximately one foot per hour." Here instead of imitating the object that we use to measure time for us, an analog clock, she creates her own arbitrary means of measurement. I. Love. This. Because what would make more sense, if you're not going to draw a circle, than to draw time with a line? It is essentially a hand drawn timeline of time itself.

In both these works Alicia Eggert addresses this abstract concept of time as directly as possible and tries to make a conventional and broadly accepted but abstract idea something to experience more concretely. My favorite part about these pieces are how terribly imperfect her lines are. The natural waver of the pen, the places where the ink bled a lot into the paper as she tried to move her marker ever so slowly, and especially those places where there's not much bleeding at all as if she might have had to take a break for a second to get up to go to the bathroom or make up for moving her marker a bit too slowly. And that delightfully imperfect oval-like circle. These imperfections are the beauty in these works, because our experience of time is not perfect. It never will be. Time is relative.

"Why is it that we must ignore the fourth dimension? You see we can move in the other three, as the doctor said, up, down, forwards, backwards, sideways. But when it comes to time, we are prisoners."
-The Time Machine film, 1960

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