This is a 2010 documentary by Werner Herzog about the Chauvet Cave in France that was mentioned in a Grayson Perry book I am reading. In the cave are paintings that are at least 30,000 years old and due to a landslide that sealed the cave off thousands of years ago, they remain in almost pristine condition, as though they were in a time capsule. The cave is heavily protected with very few visitors being allowed to enter in a bid to preserve the paintings and evidence around them.
The paintings themselves are incredible and this documentary is one of the best looks we’ll ever get to see of them. Many of them feature animals that would have been native to France at that time. There are horses, mammoths, lions, rhinos, deers and only one part drawing of a human female.
There are a few panels of handprints made from red ochre that are thought to have been by one man. In the documentary, they show how they identified it as one male artist who was probably about 6 feet tall and even concluded the order in which he made the prints.
The art of the animals is amazing. There is a sense of movement about them and layers of animals that have been painted on with the 3D surface of the cave taken into consideration. The combination of the surface contours and the way that the light would change in the cave with torchlight almost gives them an animated feel as though they move across the cave.
The Documentary Style
As well as the fascinating subject, Herzog’s film itself is a piece of art. He gives us an insight into a place most of us will never get to visit. However, it isn’t just a documentary about art. Herzog makes us think about huge topics, humanity itself, about the nature of time, God, religion, conservation, materialism and so many other contemplative questions throughout. The cinematography is beautiful. even considering they had to film in a cramped cave with limited access walkways. The music chosen to accompany each section gives it a religious experience feel about it and he does his best to make the place feel as alive as if you were in the cave with him.
One of the big questions asked is if we can ever tell and understand who these people were who painted the images in the cave. We think we can relate to them purely as they are humans like us, but in doing so, we take so many of our modern western perspectives with us. Can we ever understand the artists as people across such an abyss of time? It makes us question what is important to us and how that might be regarded 30,000 years from now. The objects we treasure and the art we make, will that be understood so far into the future? Or will it be misinterpreted? Will anyone even care so far in the future?
There is argument through the movie that it is spirituality that connects us all across epochs. Herzog argues that instead of being homo sapiens, we should be homo spiritualis. There is some evidence the people in the cave made the paintings in a spiritual way. There is a very specifically placed skull with what seems to be incense around it that indicates the cave was used a spiritual place. We assume as modern westerners at times that art is purely decorative or expressive but there is a very interesting point in the film that if you talk to people like indigineous peoples about why they make art, they will reply they are not making art, it is the spirits that are making art. So, could it be a link to spirituality that links humans of all types, all ages and all eras that is the link in art across time.
What is time? Linear time is wrong. As you go further, time loses its structure. Quantum gravity is at the bottom of what we know and things get complicated! Time is a sequence of moments that is ordered. We intuitively assume it has a direction. The past is known as we can remember it – history. There are traces to evidence it happened. We have memories. The future has nothing, we can measure it with clocks, we have no concrete evidence it will happen. Time is a good concept for our daily lives but it stops working when we look ahead. When we look ahead, the properties don’t work. Time is layered.
How do we measure time? Clocks measure time, but they don’t all measure the same. If one goes higher, it measures different. Atomic clocks with precision can measure this error. Your head is older than your feet!
General Relativity Einstein predicted and showed that mass slows down time. This means closer to masses like the Earth, time is slower. Hence why our feet age slower than our heads. In our experience, the difference is not noticeable but we can measure it and on an astronomical scale it becomes more important. There is no single time in the universe.
What does now mean? We always see things in the past, there is no meaning of now outside small distances because of the speed of light. It takes light time to travel so when we look at an object we are seeing how it looked in the past. Again, significant for astronomical distances. There is no meaning of now outside of the bubble. We are told what is real is now, but how can it be?
Thermodynamics and Entropy The past is different from the future. Only one equation in the whole of physics shows this. The 2nd law of thermodynamics with the concept of Entropy (S). Entropy fundamentally is a statistical measure of disorder. Entropy always flows from ordered to less ordered. So it distinguishes past from future. The order is in the eye of who is looking; the order depends on what you are categorising e.g. colour, size. The past looks ordered only because of how we observe it. So, why was the universe ordered in the past? It looks ordered to us as we are the ones categorising it. To someone else with a different set of organised criteria, it may not look it. So, does it really relate to time?
Models of Time On the quantum level, it is probability only. Time is the counting of change. We can see this back in Aristotle. Newton introduced the idea of time passing but we now go back to a more Aristotelian model.
The brain and time The brain works by anticipating the future and remembering the past. It is a time machine. Does this make time a truly human construct? St Augustine wrote on this back in his Confessions. For example, we only ever hear one musical note at a time but our brain acts as a memory store for the ones we have just heard to piece it together in a phrase. We cannot think without time. In Search of Lost Time – Proust covers some of these themes. Time is always emotionally charged. The Buddhists describe this as the sense of suffering due to impermanence. Time is the root of our suffering as we never beat it.
Perhaps Time is the Greatest Mystery
Perhaps Time is the Greatest Mystery. The universe unfolds into the future, dragged by time, and exists according to the order of time.
In those same books, I also discovered that we still don’t know how time actually works. The nature of time is perhaps the greatest remaining mystery.
Why do we remember the past and not the future? Do we exist in time, or does time exist in us? What does it really mean to say that time ‘ passes ’? What ties time to our nature as persons, to our subjectivity? What am I listening to when I listen to the passing of time?
What we call ‘ time ’ is a complex collection of structures, of two layers
Because the mystery of time is ultimately, perhaps, more about ourselves than about the cosmos.
I believe our knowledge of time has reached: up to the brink of that vast nocturnal and star-studded ocean of all that we still don’t know.
Let’s begin with a simple fact: time passes faster in the mountains than it does at sea level.
Time passes more slowly in some places, more rapidly in others
This modification of the structure of time influences, in turn, the movement of bodies, causing them to ‘ fall ’ towards each other
The Earth is a large mass and slows downtime in its vicinity
If things fall, it is due to this slowing down of time. Where time passes uniformly, in interplanetary space, things do not fall. They float, without falling
time passes more slowly for your feet than it does for your head.
Things are transformed one into another according to necessity and render justice to one another according to the order of time
the whole of our physics, and science in general, is about how things develop ‘ according to the order of time ’.
The equations tell us how things change as the time measured by a clock passes.
times that change relative to each other. Neither is truer than the other.
Times are legion: a different one for every point in space.
Einstein has given us the equations that describe how proper times develop relative to each other.
Time has lost its first aspect or layer: its unity.
If the world is upheld by the dancing Shiva, there must be ten thousand such dancing Shivas, like the dancing figures painted by Matisse …H
Past and future are different from each other. Cause precedes effect. Pain comes after a wound, not before it.
We cannot change the past; we can have regrets, remorse, memories. The future instead is uncertainty, desire, anxiety, open space, destiny
Time is not a line with two equal directions: it is an arrow with different extremities.
Rebellion is perhaps among the deepest roots of science: the refusal to accept the present order of things.
All of the sons of Adam are part of one single body, They are of the same essence. When time afflicts us with pain In one part of that body All the other parts feel it too. If you fail to feel the pain of others You do not deserve the name of man.
poetry is another of science’s deepest roots: the capacity to see beyond the visible.
Rudolf Clausius. It is he who grasps the fundamental issue at stake, formulating a law that was destined to become famous: if nothing else around it changes
heat cannot pass from a cold body to a hot one.
This is the only basic law of physics that distinguishes the past from the future.
one of these equations distinguishes the past from the future.
In the elementary equations of the world, 5 the arrow of time appears only where there is heat.fn1 The link between time and heat is therefore fundamental: every time a difference is manifested between the past and the future, heat is involved. In every sequence of events that becomes absurd if projected backwards, there is something that is heating up
Only where there is heat is there a distinction between past and future.
‘ the second principle of thermodynamics ’
heat passes only from hot bodies to cold, never the other way round.
heat passes from hot to cold, and not vice versa: by shuffling, by the natural disordering of everything. The growth of entropy is nothing other than the ubiquitous and familiar natural increase of disorder.
If we think about it carefully, every configuration is particular, every configuration is singular, if we look at all of its details, since every configuration always has something about it that characterizes it uniquely. Just as, for its mother, every child is particular and unique
Yes. If I observe the microscopic state of things, then the difference between past and future vanishes.
In a microscopic description, there can be no sense in which the past is different from the future.
the difference between the past and the future refers only to our own blurred vision of the world.
there is nothing intrinsic about the flowing of time. That it is only the blurred reflection of a mysterious improbability of the universe at a point in the past.
The consequence of this discovery for our basic intuitive perception of time is the most devastating of all.
Time passes more slowly for the one who keeps moving
For everything that moves, time passes more slowly.
Nobody had imagined previously that time could be different for a stationary watch and one that was being moved.
Not only is there no single time for different places – there is not even a single time for any particular place
‘ Now ’ Means Nothing
The light takes time to reach you, let’s say a few nanoseconds – a tiny fraction of a second – therefore, you are not quite seeing what she is doing now but what she was doing a few nanoseconds ago.
The truth of the matter is that we need to give up asking the question
The notion of ‘ the present ’ refers to things that are close to us, not to anything that is far away
Our ‘ present ’ does not extend throughout the universe. It is like a bubble around us
As humans, we distinguish tenths of a second only with great difficulty; we can easily consider our entire planet to be like a single bubble where we can speak of the present as if it were an instant shared by us all.
The idea that a well-defined now exists throughout the universe is an illusion, an illegitimate extrapolation of our own experience
there is no such thing as “ the same moment ” definable in the universe
A partial order establishes a relation of before and after between certain elements, but not between any two of them.
The temporal structure of the universe is very similar to this one. It is also made of cones.
defines an order between the events of the universe that is partial, not complete.
The expanded present is the set of events that are neither past nor future
Every event has its past, its future and a part of the universe that is neither past nor future, just as every person has forebears, descendants and others who are neither forebears nor descendants.
Light travels along the oblique lines that delimit these cones. This is why we call them ‘ light cones
This is the structure of spacetime that Einstein understood when he was twenty-five years old
When a gravitational wave passes, for example, the small light cones oscillate together from right to left, like ears of wheat blown by the wind.
In this way, a continuous trajectory towards the future returns to the originating event, to where it began.
This is because the mass of the black hole slows time to such a degree that, at its border ( called the ‘ horizon ’ ), time stands still
So, to exit from a black hole, you would need to move ( like the trajectory marked in black in the following diagram ) towards the present rather than towards the future!
More than a hundred years have passed since we learned that the ‘ present of the universe ’ does not exist. And yet this continues to confound us and still seems difficult to conceptualize
If the present has no meaning, then what ‘ exists ’ in the universe? Is not what ‘ exists ’ precisely what is here ‘ in the present ’?
‘ How long is forever ? ’ asks Alice. ‘ Sometimes, just one second, ’ replies the White Rabbit.
Time is elastic in our personal experience of it.
On the one hand, time is structured by the liturgical calendar
For centuries, we have divided time into days. The word ‘ time ’ derives from an Indo – European root – di or dai – meaning ‘ to divide ’.
Sundials, hourglasses and water clocks already existed in the ancient world
It is only in the fourteenth century in Europe that people’s lives start to be regulated by mechanical clocks.
Gradually, time slips from the hands of the angels and into those of the mathematicians
For centuries, as long as travel was on horseback, on foot or in carriages, there was no reason to synchronize clocks between one place and another.
It is in the United States that the first attempt is made to standardize time.
In 1883 a compromise is reached with the idea of dividing the world into time zones
Einstein worked in the Swiss Patent Office, dealing specifically with patents relating to the synchronization of clocks at railway stations.
The rhythm of the day followed by night also regulates the lives of plants and animals.
Diurnal rhythms are ubiquitous in the natural world. They are essential to life,
Living organisms are full of clocks of various kinds – molecular, neuronal, chemical, hormonal – each of them more or less in tune with the others
The diurnal rhythm is an elementary source of our idea of time
In the ancient consciousness of humanity, time is, above all, this counting of days.
counting how things change.
Aristotle is the first we are aware of to have asked himself the question ‘ What is time? ’
time is the measurement of change.
Time is the measure of change: 8 if nothing changes, there is no time.
the existence of a time that is uniform, independent of things and of their movement which today seems so natural to us is not an ancient intuition that is natural to humanity itself. It’s an idea of Newton’s.
Legend has it that Leibniz, whose name is still occasionally spelt with a ‘ t ’ ( Leibnitz ), had deliberately dropped the letter from his name following his belief in the nonexistence of the absolute Newtonian time t.
Don’t take your intuitions and ideas to be ‘ natural ’: they are often the products of the ideas of audacious thinkers who came before us.
That which seems intuitive to us now is the result of scientific and philosophical elaborations in the past.
Remember the clocks in Chapter 1 that slow down in the vicinity of a mass? They slow down because there is, in a precise sense, ‘ less ’ gravitational field there. There is less time there.
Time thus becomes part of a complicated geometry woven together with the geometry of space.
the residual temporal scaffolding of general relativity, illustrated in the previous chapter, also falls away if we take quanta into account.
The time measured by a clock is ‘ quantified ’, that is to say, it acquires only certain values and not others. It is as if time were granular rather than continuous.
A minimum interval of time exists. Below this, the notion of time does not exist – even in its most basic meaning.
Time Clock involved punching a time clock every hour for a year.
Physically demanding year-long immersive art.
Challenging the limit of possibility in terms of endurance
There is often a disconnect between performance and its representation in text, photography and art. How can you possibly write about punching a time clock every hour for a year to the same degree as experiencing it?
Also when you’re looking at someone’s life works over say 30 years, how do you summarise that? Or put together one exhibition? in other words, the task of translating time into space.
His works are about passing time. Time Clock and Outdoor Piece.
Amelia Groom writes – the 133 times that Hsieh failed to punch the clock out of a possible 8,760 are a vital component of the work as they highlight the conflict between corporeal time – the time of circadian rhythms, for example – and clock time. And though the time-lapsed film of the performance (a stop-action record made up of the 8,267 photograms taken when Hsieh did punch the clock) condenses the time of the 365-day performance into a six-minute film, it also registers an otherwise barely detectable corporeal time as the artist’s hair grows and his face bears greater signs of fatigue with the passing of the year.
Relentless productive work of capitalism. Every hour of the day, not just 9-5, represents how work seems to spill over into all hours of the day now.
Hsieh’s performances address pure time, the constantly renewing time of the present in which we all live, not any particular time or moment in his life.
I had the pleasure of attending the launch event for Holding Time which is an experimental art project around motherhood and breastfeeding.
I was interested in the event because of the subject of motherhood and breastfeeding which is very close to me, but also because the title intrigued me, especially with looking in-depth at the ways artists use and portray time for this unit.
The project involves photographs, animations, conversations, presentations and a lot of collaboration and aims to inspire a new generation of families to find their way back to breastfeeding, which is as old as humans themselves.
There are different ways the concept of time is interwoven into the work. There is a moving animation of Breastfeeding mothers that evokes images of an ancient breastfeeding circle.
There are also the photographs that are incredibly powerful themselves as a rich tapestry of diversity and variety in breastfeeding. The idea that this photo captures a very intimate moment of time between mother and child.
There is also a deeper exploration of time. Becoming a mother can sometimes make women outsiders to “normal time”. A woman can go from working full time and having a very time defined role to having their world turned upside down. Breastfeeding still even in 2021 makes it difficult for some women to return to the world of work, they can lose part of their identity and with it feel like linear time has stopped for them.
I find the technique describe by the artist Lisa Creagh fascinating.
Each mother was photographed every four seconds. These stills were then used to create short sequences, animated in ‘realtime’. The use of one frame per four seconds disrupts the time illusion typically created through the acceleration of 24 frames per second. The Cosmatesque Timepiece offers a PreIndustrial alternative to our linear timekeeping through a scale-based timecode that grows as time ‘passes’.
This ‘right-brained clock’ is based on an ancient Cosmatesque design, found on the floor of the Sistine Chapel contextualises the breastfeeding mothers within an older decorative tradition, recontextualising motherhood and breastfeeding in particular as an active, rather than passive activity, by disrupting the dominant western understandings of time.
We use art and materials to make sense of the world around us. A fragile pursuit. Brings together everyday materials to build immersive experiences and ultimately occupy memory. To start a piece of work we often have to wipe the slate clean to begin.
Why and how do objects acquire value for us? Mass-produced objects that are designed for use not aesthetic. Can the way we interact with them create some kind of value in them? How do we breathe life into inanimate materials? Blur the boundaries between mediums and blur the experience between being in art and being in real life. See the art in everyday life.
We experience time through materials, so what happens when the line is blurred? Experimented with animals moving on film. If we try to remember one thing that happened in a year – that one moment we remember expands to fill the whole time. One image can grow and haunt us.
Confusing over what is an image and what is an object – made the interior of a planetarium.
Shadows, images and real objects all get blurred
Painting is the representation of the interior images we have. We store memory as images. Images appear in our memory. Afterimage:
Painting reminds you of the limits of photography. Looked at an image and then tries to create what it would look like on the retina as an afterimage. Merging of mediums. Takes sculptures and makes them in sketches and graphics and vice versa. Is the idea of art to remain in the memory and then continue to generate ideas?
Peter Kalb is an associate professor of contemporary art at Brandeis University. The book Art Since 1980: Charting the Contemporary “charts the story of art in contemporary global culture while holding up a mirror to our society.” “The political and cultural transformations of the early 1980s developed a new era of accord between communist states and western-style economics. The art world has since been reconceived and today we see record-breaking sales of contemporary art and a dramatic rise in the number of students taking courses in the visual and performing arts. Kalb approaches art from multiple angles, addressing issues of artistic production, display, critical reception and social content. Alongside his analysis of specific works of art, he also builds a framework for readers to increase their knowledge and enhance critical and theoretical thinking.”
My immediate thought when finding out about the author and then skimming through the artists mentioned is that the whole chapter is a very white western male perspective.
The excerpt we were given is from Chapter 11: The Art of Contemporary Experience. It is difficult to find a copy of the whole book to understand how this chapter fits in the rest of the book.
My overall summary of the chapter is that it is a reflection on how we experience creative art, both how the artist intends the experience and how a participator actually experiences it. There are many interesting points to consider throughout the chapter. I think one of the things that stands out to me is this idea of subjectivity and objectivity. Is there really any experience that is truly objective? So much of what we experience is based on our own perceptions. Even though on a biological level, the mechanism behind the senses may be the same from person to person, there is such a range of how that is actually interpreted. Light with the same wavelength may trigger the exact same response in the retina but how that is processed by the visual cortex is so different. At what point does that difference occur? Taking the colour example, the colour can seem different when it is next to other colours, it can evoke different memories in different people, there are people even who have certain smells associated with different colours. There may also be people who have colour blindness who see a completely different colour. Maybe some don’t see colour at all. We have different colour preferences too. Why do we all interpret something that has a very physical property such a wavelength, so differently? Is there a true and real colour? Culture and society also have a huge impact, we associate different colours with themes. Green for example is the environment but then may differ in different cultures. As stated in the opening paragraph, they are in perpetual flux too. Time constantly changes our perspective and like mentioned later in the chapter, there is a reminder that we can never experience a first again. Once we have seen something the memory of that will always have an impact on how we view it the second time. Perhaps this is what time is, a hard line that is drawn where we can’t go back to experience something again. This makes me think about people who have memory loss, are they experiencing something new again? Or is there always some residual memory there that impacts their experience, even if it isn’t conscious?
The chapter looks at different ways that different artists have tried to consider this experience and how they have tried to test the ability to measure experiences accurately. They “demand viewers layer their sensual apprehension of form with an intellectual analysis of content”.
The chapter (and book) focuses on the post-1980s as it is felt this is when we as a society became more self-conscious. What was it about the 80s and 90s? Post-modernism : “Postmodern art drew on the philosophy of the mid to late twentieth century, and advocated that individual experience and interpretation of our experience was more concrete than abstract principles”.
This idea of examining what we see isn’t new. 18th-century Baroque art challenged the idea of the present with the ethereal realm of the divine.
The 1960s – Light and Space art aimed to allow people to view just the abstract effects of lights, colour and space and be free from specific cultural references. Is this truly possible? Or are we always influenced by culture and history – unconscious bias?
James Turrell is someone who creates art where shadows, reflections and solid objects are all equally real. It isn’t about fooling the eye in an optical illusion way, it is about letting people view something and reach their own conclusions.
We know our senses aren’t always accurate and there are people who suffer from memory loss. In these situations, how do we regain our bearings? This is something Eliasson tries to play with. Your strange certainty deliberately confuses. Water stops mid-air, fake electric storms are created. You know when you see it that it isn’t a real storm but the sense of wonder is no less powerful.
“Light and Space artists heighten our awareness of the human being as a sensing body”. We rely on our senses more than we realise – when they are taken away we often notice what is missing. For example, how different food tastes when you lose a sense of smell.
Your colour memory by Eliasson is a curved wall that changes colour. Due to the way the retina deals with light colours, as the colour of the wall changes, there is an afterimage. Each viewer’s experience is dependent on when he or she entered the piece, and the combinations of colour and afterimage will be different for everyone. This reminds me of the music piece where it is up to the composer and no piece is the same. John Cage’s Piano Concert (1957) there the order and inclusion of parts is at the performer’s discretion. So each performance will be different.
Ernesto Neto challenges the duality of body and mind. “body-minds that we connect the things in this world, in life- the way we touch, the way we feel, the way we think and the way we deal.”
Neto’s understanding of the mind-body, his perception of the world we encounter, either in the artwork or outside it, is as a “cultural-physical” entity. That art should be about trying to create experiences.
Roni Horn’s Things that happen again is one of the most interesting pieces mentioned in the chapter. It is two identical copper cones that are placed in two different rooms that are next to each other. The piece needs time and memory
You go into a space and see a simple disc. It doesn’t look like much: it isn’t until you walk in and see that it is a three-dimensional cone-shaped object which is familiar but has certain subtle formal qualities which make it different, which take away from it being familiar. It becomes memorable. Then you go into the next room and enact exactly the same experience, but of course, it’s unexpected and it’s so many minutes later; it’s a slightly younger experience in your life. Whereas when you walked into the first room, you had the experience of sometl1ing unique, you can’t have that a second time.
It is a very insightful way of highlighting that everything we see we are influenced by past experience. This idea of things being identical is a paradox, you always have one that is here and one that is there. Time and place have such an important role in something’s identity.
Another artist mentioned in the chapter I am fascinated by is Mark Dion and his work On Tropical Nature. Perhaps it is because I resonate with him mixing biology and art and his idea of interdisciplinarity between the two. It is early environmental art. I also am intrigued by his references to the way we want to classify and categorise everything. It seems a very human need. Like the historians who want to categorise time into distinct periods. Dion gathered different curiosities from his trips and placed them together, leaving the viewer puzzled as to why they were together. It makes us think about why museums choose the collections they do. Who gets to decide what is valuable enough to put on show. If you look at children and the way they treasure the strangest of things at times, it can often seem illogical too. But isn’t every categorising illogical and influenced by someone? It reminds me of a scene early in Stalker where the three men are talking in the bar before they set off to the zone. One tells the tale of an artefact in a museum that was found to be fake to trick archaeologists. Before this was discovered everyone viewed the item with “oohs and ahhs”. After the discovery of its deception, it was deemed worthless. Why do we place value on some items and not others? Is art really the influence of galleries, is this the same thing the Land Artists were running from? Some things also lose their value when placed in a gallery or museum. Like the hemlock tree in Dion’s Vivarium. It can no longer contribute to the greater environment even though it can be grown inside for decades
Description: “A guide leads two men through an area known as the Zone to find a room that grants wishes.”
This is a movie that was mentioned in Doug’s intro lecture that intrigued me when I first heard about it. It is loosely based on the sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, which I intend to finish reading too.
The movie is from 1979 and is directed by Andrei Tarkovsky whose films I am aware of. Stalker has been one I have wanted to watch for a while and I was not disappointed.
The movie is slow, dreamlike and the long camera shots pull you into the film in a very experiential almost hypnotic way. The background is haunting and makes you feel uncomfortable at times.
The sepia like tones used and the muted colours of the zone add to the atmosphere created by Tarkovsky.
In terms of plot, it is simple and there isn’t the high-speed action of modern sci-fi but that is what makes this movie so enthralling. The slowness makes you feel like you are watching it in real-time and you see the existential struggles of the three characters as they play out.
It is a philosophical movie about what happiness means, what it means to be human, about what we yearn for. At the same time, it is a movie about time and what passing time means.
Time remains a mystery to us. From the dawn of humans, it seems to have fascinated us, and humans of all eras seem to have been occupied with marking its passing but we still don’t understand it or can be even sure if it exists. Through science, philosophy, and the creative arts, we can explore time and what it means to us but any true definition still eludes us. On many levels, it appears to be a purely human construct that comes about from the experience of change, sensory or otherwise. Perhaps it is the mysterious nature and our lack of fundamental understanding that leads it to be a source of inspiration across the creative arts? Will exploration in this creative way lead us any closer to what time actually is? This reflection takes a look at how the sciences, philosophy, literature, film, art, and music engage with or use time to explore our understanding and experience of it.
When I think about what time is, my first thoughts take me back to learning about time as a young child. From an early age, we are taught to “tell the time” on a clock and the concept of time is broken down for us into units of seconds, hours, years. We mark the passing of time by learning about seasons and expectedly count down the days to birthdays and Christmas. All through high school science, we treat time as a fundamental measurement, we use equations with t in them to calculate the time in the standard unit of seconds. We use it to measure the speed of something, how much an object accelerates, and other basic calculations. Then, when we get to a certain level of science learning, we discover Einstein and how he blew the notion of time to pieces. Through his work on special and general relativity, we know that there is no absolute time. Time is not constant like we intuitively assume. There are mind-boggling ideas of time being slowed down by mass and it changes depending on how fast an object is moving. That in fact time is linked to space through the concept of ‘spacetime’. The more we learn, the less we seem to understand and we yearn for those simpler days of moving hands on a clock to learn how to tell the time.
As Carlo Rovelli talks about in The Order of Time (2019) and his Royal Institution lecture, time’s properties mean very strange things occur, such that our head ages at a faster rate than our feet! Scientists now are pretty unanimous that there is no actual concept of “now”; what we consider now is actually not now on a distant planet lightyears away. Just take that as an idea, the fact that we are measuring a distance using a time measure of a year shows how intricately linked space and time are. We also know that the only equation in the whole of the body of science that even considers time to have a direction is the second law of thermodynamics. For everything else, we can seemingly work with time that does not need to flow from the past to the present to the future. It is only through our understanding of entropy needing to flow from the past of order to the future of randomness that we consider time to have this directional nature. The more we discover in science, especially on the quantum level, the more our intuitions about time are proved wrong. Is it this when we turn to other disciplines outside of science?
There is no question that science must work alongside philosophy especially when dealing with time. Time is one of those bones of contention that has been argued about for centuries. In the Hellenic period, there was a split between those who saw the world as a static place (e.g. Archimedes) and those who saw it as essentially flux (e.g. Aristotle). Aristotle was a great thinker about time, it is from him that this idea of time being the counting of change started and science has come back to this model of time. Philosophers have battled to find the answer to the question “what is time?” and like the scientists, no definitive answer has arisen. Plotinus considered the nature of time and stated “Time is the moving image of eternity” and “time is not something separate from soul, not the same as soul; it is the energy of the soul”. This Neoplatonic view has heavily influenced many in the creative arts such as T.S. Eliot who I will consider later in this reflection.
Various religions have their interpretations of time and how it was created by whom. Some see time as a linear process with a creator God starting time and that we follow a line from His creation along the timeline that He has mapped out for us. Other religions see time as a more circular path. In Buddhism, the idea of time and as a result, impermanence is what results in suffering. Ancient religions such as the Celtic Druids held time as important, the root of many festivals still celebrated today, was in the marking of time, with huge structures such as Stonehenge built to mark the seasons and the wheel of the year.
Literature has always tried to explore time. The most famous literary novel exploration is probably Prousts’ In Search of Lost Time which is a fictional piece of work heavily influenced by thoughts of philosophy of time. Other pieces of work such as Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude explore how time feels to pass. Children’s literature too such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland explores time more fantastically with some of the best-known quotes about time.
Poetry too not only explores time and the human perception such as the famous line ‘Stop all the clocks’ by WH Auden, but perhaps in a more direct way than longer pieces of prose, they use time as a poetic method.TS Eliot is one poet who, as mentioned earlier, due to his philosophical background contemplates the nature of time, and many of his poems reflect this. Some emphasise the individual experience of time such as his earlier ‘Prufrock and Other Observations’ and the experience of timelessness, others look at the fundamental nature of time, particularly in his later poems, the question of time is increasingly religious such as in ‘A Song for Simeon’. There is a lot of evidence in the poems that Eliot is influenced by Plotinus’ view of time. In his earlier poems, there is a consistent emphasis on daily routine, the cycle of the morning, afternoons and evenings and this comparison of the external world of time passing and the human consciousness of time.
“And indeed there will be time For the yellow smoke that slides along the street, Rubbing its back upon the window-panes; There will be time, there will be time To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet; There will be time to murder and create, And time for all the works and days of hands That lift and drop a question on your plate; Time for you and time for me, And time yet for a hundred indecisions, And for a hundred visions and revisions, Before the taking of a toast and tea.” (TS Eliot)
There is a sense of preoccupation with time and its control but also patterned by the cycle of seasons. It leads back to this human conflict between us wanting to be in control of something and understand something that seems to just pass us by and nothing we can do can alter that. In Four Quartets memory becomes a far more powerful key, retaining in time, timeless moments. This links to the idea that Rovelli talks about in his Royal Institute Lecture, that it is really our brains that are the ultimate time machine of deciphering what is past, present and future.
There is a strong exploration of the concept of time in art and photography. Both in terms of exploring the nature of time and using time to help portray the meaning behind the picture. We use time to date art, such is our need as humans to categorise things due to the time in which they were made. We can do this in art by looking at the materials used but also the style and techniques that were used at the time of the creation. For example, we can look at a cave painting and know it was from a different era to an impressionist piece. On the next level, we can help deduce from a painting, what time of year or even time of day a painting is portraying. For example, in Canaletto’s View of Venice with St Mark’s (1735) he conveys that it is late afternoon by painting long shadows that stretch across the square. It is this linking to a certain time of day that helps give Canaletto’s work a strong sense of place as time is such an important theme to portray. A piece that isn’t linked to a time would not appear to have as strong of a connection to the real place. However, Van Gogh subverts this and deliberately paints the night sky in Café Terrace at Night in vibrant blues, violets and greens which seems to highlight the concept of the time of day being night even more. As well as time being used to indicate the time of day in paintings, there are examples of symbols that are used to discuss the idea of time. One such symbol is the skull which is used to indicate the time of passing into death. One interesting use of this is in Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassador (1533) which has a large distorted skull in the foreground. Could this be an early sign of the ambiguity of time? More traditional symbols appear in Vanitas paintings. We see skulls, candles, hourglasses to indicate time throughout still life compositions. In Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott (1888) three candles appear on the boat with her to show the passing of time on her journey.
The bizarreness of time has been explored in art too. The most famous example is probably Dali’s The Persistence of Memory (1931) which is said to have been influenced by Einstein’s work of a similar time on relativity and the nature of time. Einstein described how time bends due to gravity and Dali made the step to showing if time bends, do watches too?
Photographs too often are set up with the premise of capturing “a moment in time”. By the very nature of them, in contrast to moving film, a photograph is a snapshot of time. However, there have been cases of photographs not necessarily portraying the moment in time the viewer is led to believe. One example is Capa’s The Falling Soldier (1936) an early war photograph that depicts a soldier falling backwards after being shot and is said to depict the moment of his death. However, the image is controversial as it has been suggested it was staged and that it is instead a posed photo. Another example perhaps of time not always being what we think it is!
The use of special effects play with time. In the media of film, we can view things faster or slower than we perceive them normally. With super slow motion cameras, we can slow events that happen in milliseconds right down to see in more detail than ever before the mechanisms of things such as explosions.
Few would disagree with the idea that music has a special relationship with time. This time connection is not without parallel in other expressive arts; drama, film, dance and performance art all involve time performances. We know that the ear is a better device than other sensory organs for extracting many types of temporal nuance from perceptions. Music parallels science in that musical events have a unique time ordering. One is that musical time, except that, found measured out in the metronome markings of scores, has a subjective, experienced, psychological component. This much-discussed subjective impression of time is affected by various qualities of the musical texture, notably activity level, and to a lesser extent, timbre, pitch, etc. This dichotomy between clock or objective time and experienced or subjective time has had considerable discussion in music. Musical time is designed by the composer and articulated by the performer, not empirically received by the listener as the result of natural processes governed by physical laws. Some composers have subverted this, such as John Cage’s Piano Concert (1957) where the order and inclusion of parts are at the performer’s discretion. Music also continues to show this fascination we have as humans as marking the passing of time. The classic example is Vivaldi’s popular ‘The Four Seasons’ which honours similarly that the ancients did the passing of the seasons and the magic which is the wheel of the year.
Through this rather jumbled reflection of some of the ways, humans interact with the concept of time has confirmed to me the wonder of the human mind. We can take something that on one level seems so intuitive to us and expand our knowledge radially to the point where we realise that we don’t understand anything at all. Time is truly an interdisciplinary topic that shows the importance of all disciplines working together to form collective knowledge. We can never truly understand anything if we narrow our focus on one academic subject. At the same time, do we ever truly understand anything?