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Out of Time
Shortly after seeing Andy Warhol’s epic Empire 1964, a silent black and white record of New York’s Empire State Building shot at twenty-four frames per second and projected, for eight-plus hours, at sixteen frames, filmmaker Jonas Mekas wrote of Warhol’s ‘celebrating our existence by slowing our perception’. Warhol’s minimal variation opened up time, feeding the illusion that we are seeing more: time appears distended as we watch. Warhol’s generosity here is on a par perhaps with that exercised in his multiple portraits screened on a single surface—the Elvises, or Marilyns—but now the tragic edge that underlay his redemptive gestures is more apparent. Writing on the 1964 Flower paintings in 1970, at a time when it was not certain Warhol had a practice with a future, John Coplans noted how their ‘flash of beauty…suddenly becomes tragic under the viewer’s gaze’. Warhol filmed the building from daylight to dark, mimicking the film image’s own passage into oblivion. Arrested in a flash of light, the image, like the landmark, passes into darkness.
Empire opened ‘Out of Time’, the Museum of Modern Art’s most recent re-installation of its Contemporary Galleries, a task undertaken as part of its ongoing revision of contemporary art. A show hung on the idea of ‘exploring some of the tensions in recent experiences of time’, the exhibition was more simply and correctly a survey of work from the past forty years loosely concerned with time. Included among the artists were Jeff Koons, William Anastasi, Vito Acconci, Janine Antoni, Robert Morris, Bill Viola, Pipilotti Rist, Jane and Louise Wilson, Gerhard Richter, and Luc Tuymans, an impressive enough roster but the work included here generally lacked the phenomenological depth of a work like Empire. This quality, which only ever exists as potential, as something to which the viewer must attend and give time, was largely absent from the show. In MOMA’s telling, that old time is almost over.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in Martin Creed’s 2001 Turner Prize-winning Work No. 227: The Lights Going On and Off 2000. Here, a gallery’s lights have been programmed to turn on and off at five second intervals—light, darkness, light, darkness, etcetera and etcetera. Creed has made a practice out of trading on older precedents that can claim some nominally conceptual intent—Richard Artschwager’s textured punctuation points, or the minimal gesture that treats the context of viewing as subject of the work—but he always trades down, miniaturising them. Other works of Creed’s can be more engagingly experiential, like Work No. 200: half the air in a given space, in which viewers must make their way through a room filled with inflated balloons containing half the air inside the room, but Work No. 227 takes all of a little over ten seconds to get. Creed has suggested art should take itself less seriously; brevity may be one way to do this.
While Creed’s work here was the best example of the kind of dumb literalism invited by deliberations on temporality, it was not alone. Mona Hatoum’s + and – 1994-2004, a circular tub of sand alternately striated and smoothed by a mechanical arm, was a good companion piece. Any examination of post-sixties art and temporality must return to the issue of indexicality, but ‘Out of Time’ merely signalled this in a cursory inclusion of work by Acconci, Anastasi, and Morris, along with Janine Antoni’s more recent reprise, Butterfly Kisses 1996-99. Anastasi, Morris and Antoni were installed together as a group to emphasise formal similarities, a procedure that works brilliantly upstairs in ‘Transforming Chronologies: An Atlas of Drawings’, the Museum’s two-part re-installation of the Drawing Department, but in this case failed to acknowledge the particular kind of comparative scanning in series demanded by a lot of work invested in indexicality. Eleanor Antin’s Carving: A Traditional Sculpture 1972, her photodocumentation of bodily changes while dieting, comes to mind here, but perhaps the gridded installation of its 144 images would have taken too long to look at.
Rineke Dijkstra’s eight piece photoseries of Almerisa, a young Bosnian asylum seeker living in Amsterdam, made over eleven years (1994-2005) is a distant acknowledgement of this earlier mode of working; its choice of subject matter—the results of historical displacement, the process of acculturation in dislocation—is on a par with the show’s shift from experiential time to historical time. History here figures as a narrative of denial—Carrie Mae Weems on slavery, and repression, the Wilson sisters on East Germany’s secret police. And, in October 18, 1977 1988, Richter’s suite of paintings centred on the Baader-Meinhoff group, specifically on their mysterious deaths in custody, the possibility of historical narrative appears entirely foregone. Baleful and knowingly ponderous, these paintings take on not only their nominal subject matter, but also the possibilities of painting as an historical medium. Time here weighs heavy, as Richter intended, affording no relief. In a show which otherwise contains too little that profits lingering, this is an appropriate ending.