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Depicting Time: conveying the ephemeral in art

Updated: Sep 25, 2023

I've always been fascinated by our relationship with time - I'm not entirely sure where it comes from, but I suspect that a degree of nostalgic melancholy is just part of my make-up. I find it a struggle to rationalise that as my life changes - usually for the better - with these changes come a deep sense of loss: loss of a previous life; loss of alternative lives; alternative choices; and a sense that (now in my middle-age) these possible lives are slowly collapsing into a single trajectory. It's the trajectory that I've chosen and would choose again. But still.

So within my artistic practice, I've tried to grapple with time - and our relationship with time - in number of different ways. Art theory will tell you that different mediums deal with time in different ways. Music, for example, is dependant on time - for tempo, for rhythm. There can be no music without time, and equally, time is traced by the progression of the composition. Film is quite unique in its ability to both expand and compress time through manipulation of the medium. And visual art... well, visual art traditionally has been seen as a freezing of time - the making of something static which would ordinarily move, decay, or change through time.

This is an idea that I have been working with quite explicitly in my mixed media art works. My clock works, for example, pull apart the very mechanisms we use to convey time. In a very physical and almost destructive way, they embody the impulse to stop the progression of time in its natural order. The components of the watches and clocks are suspended away from one another, prevented from documenting the persistent ticking onwards of time. Even in the way that they are constructed - built up three-dimensionally over a series of clear layers - gives the impression that gravity is only a moment away from snatching away this composition.

Art work by Anna Masters, watch and clock parts suspended against a white background
Zurvan, art work by Anna Masters

I'm also often drawn to working with charcoal. It's actually one of my favourite materials to use in the depiction of time. There's a theory of time (I forget who said it, but I'll update in due course) that says that nothing can ever return to a previous state; that the very passage of time leaves things permanently changed, whether physically or contextually. (Incidentally, there are also theories that say that time perpetually repeats itself, and also theories that time doesn't exist at all, but that's a post for another day). From the perspective of human experience, at least, we can probably agree that with every moment, things are permanently changed - whether that's because of physical change, contextual change, or perceptual change. I will never be able to relive the past moment because even if I were to go and make myself a new cup of tea, sit at the same spot, delete everything I have just written and start afresh, my thinking has already changed from the moment I first sat down to right this. I've also just scratched my hand - those skin cells will never be the same skin cells. And my tea, no matter how well I have perfected the art of making tea, will not be the same cup of tea. I digress. My love of charcoal comes from the fact that it elucidates this idea. Once charcoal is applied to a white surface, you cannot return the surface back to a pure white. Take a look at this video of the making of a recent piece, Sussurro - the background of the work is permanently marked by the charcoal even after it is rubbed and washed away.

Here's another example. This piece is '11 Years Unfinished', and it deals with changing and repeating feelings of grief. It's a text-based performative piece. The work is a scroll of paper upon which I progressively write and rewrite, erase and smudge away the same repeated passage. Each time the piece is exhibited, the text gets longer, the grief is 'performed' again. So whilst the words are the same, endlessly repeated, the paper cannot return to its original state. It is permanently changed from the expression of grief, and continues to change as these expressions change.

And this piece leads me onto time-specific artworks. It's an idea that I've long played around with; that an artwork might exist just in one place, in one time, and it is the remembering of the artwork rather than the material artwork itself which marks the passage of time. Ephemerality is, of course, its own expression of time, and it operates in opposition to the traditional view of visual arts as a freezing of time. Here, the art work is marked both by a purposeful freezing of time, and the purposeful destruction of that illusion. It eludes to the idea that we might have some agency over our relationship with time; that time is something we might manipulate as well as something that manipulates us. Here are some images of Dream Forest - both in its completion and its destruction. This piece was constructed during the first week of an exhibition, so the audience could watch it grow, and destroyed in the second week of the exhibition - also available for the audience to watch.

I hope some of this resonates. Let me know your thoughts. Anna x

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