The Shape of Time Lecture

Coursework, Creative Arts 1.1 Experience Creative Arts, Creative Arts BA (Hons), Project 1: The Shape of Time

The Shape of Time is a lecture by Doug Burton that explores a range of works from across the Creative Arts disciplines. The commonality is that they all use Time as either a subject or material.

Overall, I found the lecture extremely stimulating. I came away with a sense of wonder and desire to explore a lot of the works in more detail. It made me realise there are so many pieces to do with Time I have never explored or even been aware of. I hope these notes are just a springboard for a much more detailed and focused study.

Summary of Works Mentioned

Throughout the lecture, a huge range of works was covered. Although part of me wants to, I cannot possibly explore all of them in detail now. What follows is a very brief summary of each so that I can come back to any later on.

Spear-thrower Reindeer Antler

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Image from British Museum

This is a piece of Reindeer antler that was carved as a mammoth about 14,000 to 10,000 years ago. Doug saw this as part of the British Museum’s exhibit on Ice-Age art. There is a very physical connection between the available materials around people and the art they produce. Whoever made this 10,000 years ago was influenced by the place they inhabited and the creatures they saw.

It is a reminder that time connects us, this is a link from us to the people who lived 10,000 years ago.

George Kubler – The Shape of Time

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George Kubler’s book is a philosophical look at time and art. In it, he states the connection of everything made today to art like the reindeer antler above. The example he uses is that there is a continuous series that runs from the stone tools of early man to the things created today. His view is that everything made now is a replica or a variant of what has been made previously. That there is a connection in time that must also contain lesser divisions.

This concept is interesting to me and seems to correlate with other ideas I have read for example Jung’s archetypes. That deep within us is a connection to the past and the people who have gone before us.

It does make me question what happens with less permanent forms of art, oral storytelling, art that is designed to last only a fleeting moment etc. Do these just result in a dead-end of the great art timeline?

Is time just confined to human memory and a sense of permanence?

Kubler’s book is definitely one I want to read more of.

Part 1

Robert Smithson – Spiral Jetty

Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty is in Utah, USA. It is a physical manifestation of time that can be experienced. It is as though time is embedded in the landscape. Smithson stated that he wanted to create a sense of pre-history in a modern era and connect disciplines together in a sense of timelessness.

This work is perhaps the most fascinating to me from the whole lecture and one I am definitely going to research more into. I am also drawn to his written work: Quasi Infinities and the Waning of Space in which he refers to Kubler. Doug made an emphasis on his use of the term actuality; a hidden void, an infinity; a frame of reference to a hidden void within a work. Again, this is something that interests me and I will come back to it in deeper research.

I think I am drawn to his work through the use of the spiral. Spirals are hugely significant in Celtic mythology and art, an area I am interested in. I would like to spend more time exploring the connection of spirals to time and their role in wider creative arts.

William Kentridge

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Felix in Exile 1994 William Kentridge born 1955 Presented by the Patrons of New Art through the Tate Gallery Foundation 1998

William Kentridge is a South African artist who connects time and drawings. He makes animations that transform as he creates them. Interestingly, he uses no storyboard, he just has the idea of the key images and all other rethinking is done as he makes the work. He uses charcoal as its tonal range is good for photos and is easy to change and erase. The camera is always fours paces away from paper and this process of walking gives him time to think, making it a physical process. The way he makes his work means that he only ever sees the present, he never looks at what the camera is producing until the very end of the process. His way of working, allows his ideas to evolve through the process of making. A lot of his work deals with the issues in his local South Africa, linking time very much to the place in which he is working.

With Kentridge, I am interested in his process. Making an animation this way using charcoal and erasing the images as I go is something I am drawn to trying out during this course.

On Kawara – One Million Years

On Kawara made One Million Years in 1999. It is perhaps the most obvious manifestation of time as a thing in this series of works. It is a book of dates where each page records 500 years. There have been performances where people have read out dates which Doug describes in the lecture as being quiet and unnerving. It very much places time within a human context as people can relate to their own lifespan being such a short period out of the million years in the book. Again, it is a link to this actuality that Kubler talks about, this void that is trying to be filled.

El Anatsui

El Anatsui is an African artist who transforms recycled materials such as hammered tin cans and bottle tops into abstract art. It is truly a representation of the labour related to time as some of the artworks are enormous in scale. The works have a link to Africa in the way the materials are all from African towns and cities. The works look like abstract paintings at a first glance but when you look closer you can see the painstaking use of materials to create them.

This is another technique I am interested in trying.

Katie Patterson – Future Library

Katie Patterson’s Future Library is a very intriguing and emotional piece of work. It is a forest planted in 2014 with 1000 saplings that will grow between 2014 and 2114. Each year for the hundred years, an original piece of writing will be produced and locked away until the forest is ready to be felled, then the works will be printed. The choice of 100 years gives the piece a human scale, it is just out of reach of most people’s lives but short enough to not to be too far in the future. It is a wonderful public art piece where people are encouraged to walk amongst the trees and the art transforms with time. I love the ecological impact, the link to science and this is definitely one I want to research more.

Christian Marclay – LOOK 2019

Christian Marclay’s LOOK from 2019 appears simple and mundane at first glance. It is a celebration of the overlooked, things we pass every day without paying too much attention. We realise that time is passing through us and we can never stop it. It is a series of photographs and short movies which are collaged together to make longer pieces.

James Turrell – Roden Crater

James Turrell’s Roden Crater is in Northern Arizona. He is aiming to produce the world’s largest piece of land art. He is almost bending time using the gravity and geography around him.

Part 2

Aldo Tambellini – Retracing Black

Aldo Tambellini pioneered interdisciplinarity in the arts. In his work, he focused on the colour black. The substance is black – the colour, the pigment, the space, the black of culture all interwoven together. He made drawings scratched into 32 mm film that was static and animated. He connected media and concepts such as painting film to focus on black as a thing in itself. It really does feel like they come from the beginning of time.

Robert Macfarlane – Underland

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Robert Macfarlane’s book ‘Underland’ is about the things we take for granted as we go over the surface of the planet. It is about the connection between people and the material of the earth and how they combine over time to create the narrative of the book. It provides the sense that we are part of the legacy of time and we always have an impact on what lies beneath us.

What I find most interesting about Doug including this book in this lecture is that the book is a non-fiction piece of writing, it is about the ecology and geography of the planet. At first glance, I wouldn’t expect this in an art lecture which makes me want to read it to find out more about the style of the writing.

Katrina Palmer – The Loss Adjusters

The Loss Adjusters by Katrina Palmer was an Artangel commission piece about the story of Portland Stone. Katrina got inspired by looking at a stone alcove and was writing a story based on it when she started wondering where the stone came from to make it. She ended up visiting the island where the stone was quarried and found it to be a treasure island full of objects left from the removal of stuff. As she walked around she thought of stories of all the pieces and this was built into a narrative.

Roadside Picnic – Strugarsky

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Roadside Picnic by Strugarsky is a science fiction book that also inspired the movie Stalker. It is based in Soviet Russia and incorporates the politics of the place and how time and reality are subverted according to the West.

I am very much interested in reading the book and watching the movie adaptation to see how time is covered and used in the book and film.

Tacita Dean – The Green Ray

Tacita Dean’s The Green Ray is a 2001 film about the ‘Green Ray’. This is the last ray of sun to refract below the horizon during sunset and it can look green. The ray has importance to sailors and not everyone sees it. It is this sense of expectation of a moment of time that is the theme of this short film. There is also a vivid description in the narrative of the memory and place for viewing the ray. The Green ray is elusive but gives us a glimpse into our own experience of the world around us.

Tacita Dean is also of importance to this course as she co-authors the required reading ‘Place’.

This short film is one that I very much want to research more into. The sense of expectation and waiting appeals to me.

Richard McGuire – ‘Here’

Here is a graphic novel by Richard McGuire that focuses on a room in a house. It holds our attention on one spot and in doing so it reveals moments in time. It is the same spot throughout the book just with a different scene. It allows cultures and time to pass before our eyes and there is a deep connection through time. It is a book you can dip in and out and find something new each time.

Jenn Nkiru – Hub Tones

Hub Tones is a 2018 film by Jenn Nkiru which bridges the intersection between time, culture and place. It is full of cross-cultural themes.


Artists engage with Time in many different ways. It has definitely given me a lot to go away and look at and so many pieces of work and artists that I have never engaged with before. It is difficult to know where to start as I want to look at so many in-depth. What will follow are posts focusing on the ones that have interested me the most and the research that have come out of looking at them in more detail.

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