Passing the Time: Temporality and Duration in Installation art

According to the American art historian Jonathan Crary, the scopic has been a major driving force of Western culture since the 18th Century; it follows that sight must be located somewhere the audience can focus upon and, the narrower the field of scrutiny, the more absorbed we become. In a commodified culture art is progressively construed as part of the entertainment industry. In spectacular mode, the audience seesaws between utter captivity, when paying attention to an event, and dejection or boredom, when there is nothing to be seen. We have, in short, learned how to pay attention, and are rewarded by narrowly scripted spaces and events through mainstream film and the internet, which reward with instant recognition and gratification.

When we invited Crary to write the foreword to our second book on Installation art,1Nicolas de Oliveira, Nicola Oxley, Michael Petry, Installation art in the New Millennium: Empire of the Senses, Thames & Hudson, London and New York, 2003. we were conscious of how social, durational and immersive artworks might begin to challenge the hegemony of vision through the deployment of tactics of disengagement and boredom. These, it was argued, could be utilised to counter the narrowing of vision itself, whilst broadening out the audience’s sensory repertoire to include sound, smell and touch.

Duration has been a constant feature for artists since the 1960s with works such as Andy Warhol’s Sleep Empire (1964), a plot-less eight hour slow motion film of the Empire State building in New York, or John Cage’s Organ2/ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible) (1987), a piano score adapted for the organ and lasting, in its most recent incarnation, 639 years. Warhol broke with the tradition of art representing a moment of communion between the work and the viewer. In these works, paying attention ceases to offer a rewarding experience as time is stretched beyond its bearable limit, and gives way to new forms of viewing and listening.

It is notable, however, that many works that test the audience’s endurance, are carefully staged and located. Such works usually require a specific viewing environment, and today are often presented as video or sound installations. The Irish artist James Coleman’s La Tache aveugle (1978) took the dissection of time to an extreme by using thirteen frames (from a sequence of only half a second) from the film The invisible Man (1933) by James Whale,2The original film is based on a story by H.G.Wells, first published in 1897. The scene used by Coleman contains the fateful moment of transformation when the protagonist finds himself on the borderline between invisibility and visibility. ‘By extending this brief sequence of a about half a second over a duration of more than eight hours, the intervals between the individual frames are stretched to more than 36 minutes each. The succession of images, which in the film creates an illusion of continuity by being transported at a particular speed, namely 24 frames per second, is slowed down so much by remaining more than half an hour at one single image, that perception of a continuous event is made impossible.’ Susanne Gaensheimer, Moments in Time: On Narration and Slowness, Cantz Editions, 1999 P.68 presented as a large-scale slide projection lasting for a period of eight hours.3 A similar process of extreme slowness was employed by British artist Douglas Gordon in his 24 Hour Psycho (1993), which omits the soundtrack and extends Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film to an entire day.

The description of this work serves as both opening scene and closing chapter in Don DeLillo’s novel Point Omega (2010).4DeLillo stated that his visit to the exhibition at MoMA, New York gave him the idea for the novel in the first place.

‘It felt real, the pace was paradoxically real, bodies moving musically, barely moving, twelve-tone, things barely happening, cause and effect so drastically drawn apart that it seemed real to him, the way all the things in the physical world that we don’t understand are said to be real.’5Don DeLillo, Point Omega, Picador, London, 2010, p.18.

DeLillo’s narrator appears entirely immersed, dwelling on aspects of the work that become visible due only to the extreme slowness of the footage, savouring every repetitive turn of each amplified detail. Progressively, his senses become attuned to the presence of the other spectators in the installation – the way in which their bodies interrupt the projection, casting shadows and shapes, and the manner of their own (in)attention and social interaction. It is as if the outside were leaking into the work. The author points towards two modes of spectating, seemingly at odds with one another: extreme focus and disengaged viewing. The traditional viewing model based on contemplation would appear to privilege concentration over disengagement, but here no qualitative judgment is made.

The German Fluxus artist Wolf Kahlen’s 365 Zeitansagen (‘time-tellings’), shown in 1998 at MOI presented a 24 Hour soundwork comprising 365 statements (gathered from artists and theorists worldwide and previously heard as a 24 hour radio broadcast in Germany). The galleries were empty except for a complete printout of the timeslots and names of the contributors. Kahlen’s work points to the abstract nature of time by choosing to represent it with human utterances. The real time of the event remains present, but is layered with its representation, metaphorical time.

This gap between actual experience and representation leads to the spectator’s dislocation from one temporal mode to another. It follows that this migration, in many Installations, is also a spatial one. In other words, the spectator is always present in the physical space of the work, and in the place of what is represented. This experience might be understood in the manner of philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s notion of ‘daydreaming’, a form of lucid, productive dreaming, in which the individual is at once here, in the present, and elsewhere simultaneously. This is contrary to an actual dream-state where the sleeper has no control over the dream.

This dual state was also referenced in the exhibition The Half-Shut Door (2011) at SE8 Gallery. An hour-long soundscape was played in complete darkness in a space wrapped in sound-absorbing felt; it was derived from 4 videoworks of Hans Op de Beeck, Joao Onofre, Dryden Goodwin and Stefan Bruggemann. In each case the visual element of the film was omitted. The exhibition consisted of two components, the audio (here), which was installed in the gallery, and the implied visual (there), which was alluded to but remained absent in the space.

A common feature shared by The Half-Shut Door and some of the works named above, was an inquiry of viewing modalities and expectations. This exhibition encouraged lucid dreaming fostered by the absence of visual stimuli and by the sonic immersion. Here, duration does not simply run – it is a carefully built experience, a scripted space.

By contrast, The Clock, a filmic installation by Christian Marclay (2010) is the result of the artist’s 3 year period of gathering clips and orchestrating the overall sequences to a score that he conceived. It runs for 24 hours and the focus on footage showing methods of timekeeping constantly updates the audience’s awareness of time’s passage. Despite the extreme duration of the work, it does not require the audience to disengage. The reverse is the case, since spectators were compelled to pay close attention to the work, in the way they might when watching a compelling narrative.

The hours were treated like chapters in a novel. The overall concept was to build a drama of a single day, echoing works of fiction like Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, and Ulysses by James Joyce. Marclay’s approach is quotational in that it appropriates moments of other known works and collates them together in a new sequence. Time thus oscillates between familiarity and unfamiliarity. Its is perhaps why the spectators do not feel they are watching a film, but instead feel they exist alongside a film, melding fictional and real time. The scripted time of the film is their lived time.

Moreover, though the audience’s eager expectation of the next clip seems directed at the future, it is equally fomented by the desire for the new information to shed light on what has gone before. Sigmund Freud’s term Nachträglichkeit (Afterwardsness) is the mode of belated understanding and retroactive attribution of earlier events. Put simply, the term suggests that memory is reprinted in accordance with later experience. Narrative does not reveal every aspect of the story; its skill relies on a gradual uncovering of events and characters. Fiction successfully controls the reader’s navigation of scripted space. This constructed façade for dreaming, Freud says, is a readymade – a narrative lying in wait to be affixed to the dream material.

The showing of a 35mm print of avant-garde film maker Hollis Frampton’s classic film Zorn’s Lemma (1970) was a key element of the exhibition The Mulberry Tree Press (2010). The film is based on partially ordered sets derived from mathematics, that take the form of letters of the alphabet6The letters function as readymades, or found language since they were photographed in the city as fragments of illuminated signs, adverts or billboards, and on the bonnets and tails of cars. flashed up in 1 second intervals. Periodically the letters are replaced with other images, so the viewer is never entirely sure of what comes next, or how the system operates.

This sense of expectation was equally present in Bruce Gilbert’s Moment to Moment (1998), a sound installation shown in the exhibition LAB at MOI. The darkened room held a cabinet filled with gravel; in its hollowed-out centre was a puddle of water. The audio-track played the intermittent sound of single water drops. Each drop had a subtly different pitch and frequency, allowing the audience to build up their expectation of tone and timing. Both Moment to Moment and Zorn’s Lemma introduced duration as a constructed experience, but one that does not conform to the requirements of narrative. Duration is not presented as an unleavened period of waiting or endurance but as a structural experiment.

Caroline Wilkinson’s installation Fugitive (1993) at MOI presented colour as a temporal and sculptural material. The gallery was bathed in intense blue light, which was filtered into the space with the aid of coloured gels placed behind windows and pavement-lights. The caseless mechanism of a clock was placed on a perspex shelf, its balance-wheel oscillating silently. Walter Benjamin’s term Jetztzeit (now-time) might be employed to examine the work. This moment ‘out of time’, which lacks a historical referent, aptly circumscribes the work. Stripped of form -a cultural signifier – light becomes a sculptural medium and is reduced to sheer materiality. Here, the dialectics of a continuous present and a suspended present are lifted and come to a standstill.

A strikingly similar light is cast by Hans Op de Beeck’s Location(1) (1998) also installed at MOI for the exhibition Scale (2002). The work shows a snowbound crossroads with 4 sets of working traffic-lights, bathed in blue, nocturnal light. Op de Beeck’s Location series, ambitious sets of ever-increasing scale, arguably places the viewer in Benjamin’s now-time. These familiar built environments (a motorway café, a superstore, a diorama and so on) locate the spectator at the crossroads between the everyday and its uncanny, artificial double, a non-place where time is suspended. French anthropologist Marc Augé’s term ‘non-place’ corresponds closely to these spaces: ‘If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place.The hypothesis advanced here is that super modernity produces non-places.’

Perhaps it is the idea of the non-place that runs through the recent history of Installation art; it fulfils the role of the placeholder, a stand-in for the unpresentable. And, according to Jean-François Lyotard, the task of postmodern art is encapsulated in the attempt to present the unpresentable. But since it cannot be represented as itself, something else is brought in as a substitution. What is told, or presented is often something quite different in appearance or in meaning of what cannot be shown. However, what is put in its place does not replace it; instead, it underdetermines what cannot be represented. It is arguable that something is unrepresentable if it cannot be brought before our eyes, or if an adequate material form of presentation cannot be found. More accurately though, argues Jacques Ranciére, ‘a thing cannot be represented by artistic means on account of the very nature of those very means’,7Jacques Ranciére, The Future of the Image, Verso, London and New York, 2007, p.110. due to a surplus of presence. He refers to art as a vehicle that carries meaning, whereby the material and the form produce a surplus that ‘overstates’ what it attempts to represent.

It is curious to note that, while our time is sliced, crammed and spoken for, artists are producing large-scale works that require significant temporal investment. Duration suggests hard-core commitment, a submission to wait and endure. But the audience rarely commits to the full duration of these installations.8One of the full-time invigilators of the Clock, when shown at White Cube, London, commented that the average visit time was 25 minutes. Often more time was spent queuing that seeing the actual work. However, 2 individuals came fully prepared and remained in place for the entire 24 hours. The work is over-abundant and generates a kind of surplus – the part not witnessed by a given member of the audience. Perhaps the audience’s time-commitment is not confined to the space of the event. Prior to our visit we read about it, discuss it on social media, and build up our expectation whilst queuing before admission. The work’s duration begins before it is physically witnessed (and continues afterwards), and while the viewer’s experience may be briefer than desired, it may be precisely due to the temporal and material surfeit produced by the work; after all, ‘the margin of surplus itself feels like life’.9James Wood, How Fiction Works, Jonathan Cape, London, 2008, p.69. Finally, duration in the artwork does not have to be quantitatively experienced, since this is the one aspect we already understand and live.