Everyone is familiar with the idea that one of the functions of the visual arts is to articulate space and our mode of existence therein; it is much less obvious that we may expect art to do the same thing with respect to time. Yet a closer look reveals that the visual arts always had temporal interests and that modern art in particular took the concept of time-involved artwork even more seriously than before. Apart from the inherent interest in this underappreciated category, there are other reasons to investigate artworks preoccupied with the concept of time: To begin with, such works tend to orient themselves toward new and original metaphysical issues; in addition, when artworks invoke new metaphysical reflection their own metaphysical nature may change and they turn into objects of metaphysical art. Finally, in a period like ours when it seems that there are major problem with the notion of time itself—when people talk about the end of history and the disappearance of public time—works that aspire to rethink the concept become important to our survival.
The exhibition Days of Future Just Past is not a survey of time-related artwork. It’s a collection of pieces each of which has something novel to say either about time itself, about the relations between art and temporal experience. About the relations of time and space and the ways, objects are transformed in time.
In December 1967 Robert Smithson (1938 –1973) published his seminal text The Monuments of Passaic in ARTFORUM International. The travel journal to the city of his birth which had no past, only what might be called a future, was illustrated by photographs of ruins and remains of building projects past, present and future. All of the ‘monuments’ had already disappeared by 1973 with the exception of a bridge and a sandbox – they had, according to Smithson neither a past nor a real future. And they persist in a state of timelessness.
US American concept artist Dan Graham (1942) negotiates time as a spatial and interpersonal configuration. He takes up Walter Benjamin’s terminology of the ‘just past’ that continues in an ‘expanded present’. The Charim Gallerie is presenting the seldom shown performance Past Future Split Attention that took place in 1972 in the London Lisson Gallery – in the absence of the public – for a video documentation.
It is one of those influential works by which Graham introduced the fourth dimension, time, into the sphere of art, where space and time meld with each other. ‘Two performers speak of each other’, wrote Rainer Metzger, ‘the one predicts the other’s behaviour in very near future, the other recounts the partner’s behaviour from memory’. The principle of time delay was further developed by Dan Graham (as well as other artists) using technical assistance.
VALIE EXPORT’s (1940) closed circuit video installation 'Split Video Mobile', 1975 – the concept sketch is being shown – is implemented in the following manner: each of two semi-circular walls has four cameras mounted on the interior and four monitors mounted on the exterior surfaces. Walking in a straight line between them is filmed and the signal transmitted to the monitors. A time delay mechanism turns the completed steps around: the final monitor at the end of the row shows the first steps of the walk, the penultimate shows the second segment etc. until the circle is closed. As in the case of Dan Graham, VALIE EXPORT’s piece is concerned with a feedback/feed-a-head reflection that allows past and present to be slid into one another.
Sherrie Levine (1947) is an important representative of Appropriation Art which began in New York in the 1980s. The genre is concerned with strategies aimed at appropriating image material from other artists. In her After... series Levine copied the historical works of famous old masters such as Egon Schiele or photographed canonical works such as Walker Evans’s series about the impoverished tenant farmers of Alabama in art catalogues. Appropriation is a form of engagement with the historical mode – the viewer is invited to follow the artist into the past.
In 1987 Clegg & Guttmann (1955) took a large-format, fictitious group portrait from which they made a fine-GRAINED print. In 1991 the picture appeared on the cover of a Japanese art magazine using offset printing with its associated DOT MATRIX. Finally, in 2015, Clegg & Guttmann scanned the cover and made a PIXEL image out of it. From now on the picture combines GRAIN, DOT MATRIX and PIXELS, thereby making a time-line archaeology of reproduction techniques visible.
In the first instance Dorit Margreiter’s (1967) new set of works, Experimental Noise, is concerned with the technical processes used in modern image processing. At the same time it addresses our yearnings for materiality, craftsmanship and the products of analogue technology. The pigments show so-called interference filters that are employed to ‘age’ the glossy world of digital imaging using imperfections such as scratches, dust or chemical smears. Something that looks like a lesson from a photography course is framed as an ‘object’ and can be read as a flashback to the originals and the possibilities of their reproduction.
In an eight-part series, one example of which can be shown in the exhibition, Heimo Zobernig (1958) reflected on Pablo Picasso’s most famous picture, the monumental Grisaille, Guernica, from 1937. In paraphrasing the most quoted picture in the world, Zobernig eradicated the concrete indications of the picture’s content. The high level of comprehensibility in Picasso’s work becomes fragmented and coded, the politically effective historical image turned into a treatise on the appropriation mode and the potential of painting in general.
Thomas Locher’s (1956) works deal with language and communication and reveal structures that lie behind systems. In the 1990s Locher made works in which numbers were engraved in coloured fields of Astralon (a thermoplastic synthetic). The are concerned with staging, perception and order though it is an order that is not always comprehensible. Viewing the works in the context of this exhibition, one notices that Locher breaks down perception into time, into the rhythm that is created when the eye jumps from one number to the next. Thee connection between time and movement, a phenomenon that Aristotle has examined, becomes as obvious as the relationship between now, before and afterwards.
For the series of works, Putting in time, Christian Mayer (1976) analysed time capsules, a category of objects firmly embedded in ceremonial events associated with US American folklore. In order to do so he used press photos from newspaper archives that show the subject. The wall pieces are arranged with allochthones – petrified tree trunks that survived 200 million years under water in the swampy areas of Madagascar. The transformed material has retained its form and appearance but has an altered cell structure and – as a biological time capsule – includes plant as well as animal fossils.
US American artist Mark Dion (1961) collected, compared and categorised historical material using the academic standards of science. Animal and plant specimens, display cases and scientific instruments are just as much part of his repertoire as dioramas, wunderkammer [chambers of wonders] and curiosity cabinets. Dion made a monument to the anthropocene, the new geological age in which humans mould the biological, geological and atmospheric processes. In the collage the dinosaurs are surrounded with layered columns of sandstone, basalt and marble which are covered in concrete and civilisation’s waste products. Dion pours black asphalt over the whole: the earth in the age of humankind.
Josef Bauer’s (1934) work is perhaps the most beautiful (re)discovery of Austrian art. As one of the first concept artists of this country, he linked text with sculpture and body art, experimented with various systems of signs, with visual poetry and objects made of language. Bauer takes time literally, writing elongated letters, a Z and then places a T alongside it. He uses the length of a wall to leave his reduced and analytical trail, a rebus of linguistic philosophy, number theory and pole vaulting – all disciplines of which he is a past master.
Markus Schinwald (1973) choreographs time in a new work group, the Aktuatoren [Actuators]. These are vitrine objects which are placed in niches, openings, gaps or breakthroughs, depending on the architectural characteristics of the exhibition space. They consist of historical tower clock movements, of elegant spools, cranks and cogs. Set in movement electronically, one can hear the suggestive sounds of clockwork. The artist developed The Acruators for his exhibition in the Stockholm Magasin III Museum where they were employed as ‘dance machines’ in a collaboration with the Royal Swedish Ballet.
Austrialian Beatrix Curran (1988) studied at the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna. Music is an essential element of her artistic praxis. Under the nom de plume, ‘Battle-ax’ she will perform ‘4V’s’ (an acronym for the 4th Vienna School) as a viola player. She will be accompanied by Julija Zaharijević, who speaks texts to the music. The work refers to the Schönberg’s and Berg’s legendary Second Vienna School, fleet-footedly passes (perhaps) the Third with electronic musicians from Pulsinger to Tunakan – to land in a present in which the actors on and in front of the stage can no longer be distinguished from one another.
For her sound work Marguerite Humeau (1986) reconstructed the voice of a diva from antiquity: Cleopatra. Plutarch not only described her beauty but also the charm and sweetness of her spoken words. Marguerite Humeau worked with scientists and language laboratories in Cambridge and Paris in order to resurrect Cleopatra’s voice. She questioned historians, musicians, ethnologists and doctors as to how they would describe the voice of the Egyptian It-Girl. As a result of that research Cleopatra’s synthetic voice can now be heard. She sings a love song in the long-lost languages of ancient Egypt which she herself would have spoken.
Characteristic for many of the works in this exhibition is the fact that the conceptual approach taken is not solely based on text and institutional critique. Instead, the strategies are founded on the orchestration of aesthetic experience. And as to the correlation between this exhibition and Armen Avanessian’s theme of acceleration: the past embraced by the present, with our memory not mirroring the past but rather reinventing it. History is never finished but rather conjures in the present an echo of the future.
(Brigitte Huck/Martin Guttmann)