I’m thinking about time – by Sarah Long

A mediation on Time by Sarah Long following Meadhbh McNutt’s ‘Should artists write?’ online workshop at Centre for Contemporary Art Derry – Londonderry in January 2021.

‘How is one to give a name to what he is still searching for? To assign the naming word is after all, what constitutes finding’1

I am thinking about time. I am staring at an exhibition flyer and lying on my bed. Wolfgang Tillmans’ Rebuilding the Future at IMMA. The exhibition ended in the early days of 2019. 2019 – a time that seems somehow irrelevant from the cause and effect trajectory we are now travelling through.This is a timeline that has its origins in the plague; shooting forwards to the Spanish flu, the SARS outbreak, right through like an arrow into the Swine Flu. The image on the flyer is a black and white reproduction of Tillmans’ photograph ‘Elephant Man’. An Elephant never forgets.

Wolfgang Tillmans is a German photographer. He looks back into the past and with this image we are haunted by the ghost of the iconic Caspar Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea Of Fog painting. Emblematic of the late 18th century Romanticism movement, the painting depicts a theurgical reconciliation of man and nature. Through a beautiful duologue, man achieves a kind of prelapsarian harmony. A refusal to engage with the Industrial Revolution, at that moment thriving. Here we are confronted with a natural order that does not follow clock-time that belongs to the beyond. A sublime experience. A greatness that cannot be measured. The sky and the sea. A timelessness.

What is time?

Time is money.Time waits for no one. Here is time the giver and the destroyer. Here is time as a metonym for ontology. As a metonym for God. One of the main features of the Romantic movement was the awe of nature. It is easy to be in awe, filled with surprise and fear, when Mother Nature has reminded us of the grand time-zone in which we live. The world has been forced to ground to a near halt because of the pandemic.Time has slowed. Time has stopped. As I am filled with the Romantic idea of nature, I wonder if Tillmans was in fact looking back when he created this image. Maybe Casper Friedrich lives, presently, in the artist’s mind’s eye – is present with him always. Maybe the past isn’t something that disappears. Maybe it is a plot that is unfolding together. A giant narrative with little threads spinning in and out but in parallel to one and another. I often wonder if Romanticism could be considered in the same way that Postmodernism is; an attitude, an outlook on the world. That an 18th century verve could be beating, could be tick-tocking in the hearts of live people occupying the earth right now. Generations of neo-romantics, born and reborn again. The German painter, Gerard Richter believes Caspar Friedrich could still be with us;

‘Caspar David Friedrich is not a thing of the past. What is past is only the set of circumstances that allowed it to be painted: specific ideologies, for example. Beyond that, if it is any ‘good’, it concerns us – transcending ideology – as art that we consider worth the trouble of defending (perceiving, showing, making). It is therefore quite possible to paint like Caspar David Friedrich  ‘today’.’2

Back in my room, in my today with my 24 hours, this clock time doesn’t make any sense. Nor does my body clock make sense at the minute. It is as if the debate between physicist Albert Einstein and philosopher Henri Bergson has been restaged and revived with the audience favorites – the angel and the devil – and upon my two shoulders they have both lost. The pendulum oscillates between two extremes. A pendulum in between my two shoulders.I have a compulsive habit of pulling batteries out of clocks. The sound infuriates me and I in turn infuriate everyone else by freezing them in time. Tick tock, tick tock. My uneasy relationship with time has become heightened during lockdown. Time has become abstracted to me. I remember as a child wondering how each second could be counted the same. If you were counting to sixty surely it was going to take you slightly longer to say the two syllable word ‘four-teen’ over the one syllable word ‘one’. It would only be a slight difference but it would be a difference. If we were all to count together, yes we would create some kind of metronome and yet it would be slightly out of sync. I am a little more than slightly out of sync now. Obviously, I didn’t understand that there wasn’t someone living inside a clock whispering a little countdown, but it makes sense to learn now that time is subjective in both the timeline of physics and the timeline of philosophy. My subjective body time has disappeared into the night. So I can’t claim some kind of spiritual realignment with the diurnal rhythms because of the lockdowns.

 Of course I am thinking about time. Time moves slower or faster depending whether you are stationary or moving. As we head towards a year of rolling lockdowns, my body’s cyclical movements are absorbed by the bigger circle in the bigger picture. The cyclical movements that played such a huge part of our creation and realisation upon this earth. Circadian rhythms. A circadian rhythm is a natural, internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle and repeats on each rotation of the Earth roughly every 24 hours. It can refer to any biological process that displays an endogenous, entrainable oscillation of about 24 hours. These 24-hour rhythms are driven by a circadian clock, and they have been widely observed in plants, animals, fungi, and cyanobacteria. My body has refused to go by daylight hours and I while away the wee hours of the early morning wandering around my house tea in hand absent-mindedly thumbing a book. As a woman I used to own the months. The physicist Carlo Rovelli explains time simply; ‘In the ancient consciousness of humanity, time is, above all, this counting of days’.3 My body was the reason why we collected and counted the days in this way. Now I am not sure what relationship my body has with time or with anything. The blue screen causes it to hum further and further away from natural rhythms. 

Cycles … cyclar  … How did we get it into our heads that time was an arrow construct when our bodies seem to know all along that things did not quite run along this straight line. We run in circles occasionally spiralling out into the…  

There are many things we have forgotten and are just now remembering. We have trouble remembering our evolutionary story and every day we try to recollect. We return to the same information in search of new meaning to piece together the codes and clues that our bodies have left us…

I return to the photo . It is an image that I have written about before. In fact I actually keep it pasted to the bookshelf in my room. The last time I wrote about it, I wrote a piece of creative text, a little ode to this image that has spoken to me time and time again. I remember attending the exhibition. Visualising the name of the exhibition ‘Rebuilding The Future’. Time as a layer of bricks. Time as something set in stone. Stone. Chalk created from the pressing down of matter. The words of Heidegger appear now in the present ‘Origin always comes to meet us from the future’.4 I had all the time in the world to wander around IMMA. My friend was running on her own time with a bus schedule that was much more pressing than mine and our two time-lines bounced against each other. 

It is serene. I know that they say that a photograph is the interruption of time but this feels different. He stands in front of the sea, there are no mountains as in Friedrich’s. Maybe he is remembering. Maybe a watery, sea memory has emerged in one of his wriggling DNA strands, perhaps the one that retains our aquatic-life, squiggly-tail coding. Perhaps he is recollecting. Half of the image is the sky. Greyed out now. The original that I saw at the exhibition was in colour, but the image that stays in my mind’s eye, now and forever, is the greyed out black and white image of the flyer. It is as if the colour photograph never existed. As a photographer Tillmans has an interesting relationship with time. Photography; the urge to stop time. A photograph; an interruption of time. And yet I wonder if it does something different. It speaks of this funny thing; time. Tilmans works with time, works in time.Works with time. Works in time. Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida spoke of how the eyes that he looked at now in a photograph were eyes that had looked at the Emperor.5 The eyes that you look at now are dead and yet they saw the living .

‘The man lying in the shade at the top of the hill is not only there, on that piece of earth that his body embraces. He is present to those hills that he perceives. He is also in the faraway cities as someone who is absent. He rejoices in his absence. Even if he closes his eyes and tries to think about nothing, he feels like himself in contrast with the background of the immobile and unconscious heat in which he bathes. He cannot suddenly spring forth into the world in the pure ipseity [selfness] of his being without the world suddenly springing forth in front of him’6

I keep coming back to this photo. It is as if something will reveal itself to me about what it is that is so mesmerizing. Day after day, something new does occur and I take this new revelation further into the future with me.  

Perhaps it is foolish to think that I will be able to fully calculate what it is about this photo that captivates me. It is a monument, in many ways, to ipseity. Romanticism the heralding of a new religion : the self. Now, we are told that this indulgence in the self may have been a dangerous move. Capitalism can attack us more easily when we are vulnerable and alone isolated. Consumerism does well when it pits it against one and another. We have lost our community and our strength. How do we reconcile this failing with the ideas of Romanticism? The rejection of the Industrial Revolution? The return to nature that has now been sold to us time and time again. 

And then I look at the photo and it all fades away into nothing again. Unimportant. There is something more powerful at play here. A recognition of our insignificance in the grand scheme of things. The absurdity of our time pieces. The silliness of a bus time table and the folly of thinking things, our things, would bend to our will, to our time forever. There is another story being told here, another timescale that exists ; we are here and that is all. 

I have never seen the actual painting in real life. Its reproduction in many forms has greeted me in many walks of life. Impressive even in its mere echo, its mere memory recreated, rebounding through time; to the here, to the now, to Tillman’s photograph. There is a boundary in front of our new man. We still don’t remember exactly how we got here. A scarf obscures his face. There is much we have forgotten. The power of wind. The strength of the sea. 

In the film The Elephant man we are left, at the end, with a quote from Lord Tennyson; ‘Nothing will die’.

When will the stream be aweary of flowing

Under my eye? When will the wind be aweary of blowing

Over the sky? When will the clouds be aweary of fleeting?

When will the heart be aweary of beating? And nature die?

Never, oh! never, nothing will die?

The stream flows,

The wind blows,

The cloud fleets,

The heart beats,

Nothing will die.

Nothing will die;

All things will change

Through eternity.

Tick tock. Tick tock. We don’t know why it isn’t tock tick, tock tick. We follow the grammatical rule of ablaut reduplication, it is right because it sounds right. The explanation echoes somewhere within us. We feel time, we know time, if we could just remember…

  1. Heidegger, Martin, On The Way To Language, HarperCollins Publishers, NY, 2010 p. 20

2. Morley, Simon, Sublime: Documents of Contemporary Art ,The White Chapel Gallery,The MIT Press, 2010 p. 11

3.Rovelli, Carlo,The Order of Time, Penguin Books, 2018, p. 56

4. Heidegger, Martin, On The Way To Language, HarperCollins Publishers, NY, 2010 p.10

5. Barthes Roland, Camera Lucida, Vintage, London 2000, p. 3

6. de Beauvoir, Simone What is Existentialism?, Penguin Random House UK, 2020 p. 25

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