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Visual Art and the Perception of Time

What is time?

Without a physical presence, can we really be sure it exists? And if it doesn't exist, how do we see the symptoms of time unfalteringly through every year, day and second of our lives? And in fact, what does a year, a day or a minute even mean? Within the philosophy of time, there are three distinct modes of thought:

  • that time is a real entity

  • that time exists only in the mind

  • that time exists only as a measure of change - i.e. in relation to eternal changes

This last theory suggests that time is dependent on a physical context - that it's the growth of a plant or the ageing of our bodies or the crash of a wave - which gives meaning to any concept of time. And these material changes, such as the rate at which a distracted six-year-old eats a lovingly prepared dinner*, can be measured against a more regular, predictable material change - such as the swing of a pendulum, or the rotation of the Earth. In a world in which nothing changed, there would conceivably be no time - or at least, no discernible time.

Three-dimensional artwork of clock and watch parts suspended on clear nylon
Close up of 'Ceaseless', 70x70cm

This got me thinking: if all the clocks were to inexplicably start ticking at a different rate, what would that do to our perception of time? If it appeared to us that the world now turned in 22 hours instead of 24, would it seem that time itself had slowed, or the rate of the Earth's rotation had increased? Would we feel compelled to stick rigidly to our 24 hour day even as the days and nights fell out of sync with our clocks? And what new narratives around time would we find ourselves constructing?**

The degree to which various measurements inform the way we think about time and space is something that interests me - it feeds into a sense of the world that all things are definite, and ultimately, masterable.

The visual arts are one of the ways in which we can challenge our perceptions of the nature of time. Within the frame, an artwork can present an unchanging image and, without any evidence of change, time seems to become non-existant. In this way, the world presented within the frame is a world apart from time - it reflects a version of reality back to us which cannot ever become fully realised.

Yet in the context of a world that continues to change - and to wear visible evidence of that change - time almost becomes amplified. An artwork which is 'of' a time - whether that is in its imagery, methodology or materiality - acts as a gateway to a past time. Its very staticness, unchangingness, becomes evidence of how much has changed outside of the frame. An artwork can become a portal to a time which is no longer readily accessible to us. It is in this way that the visual arts can both obliterate and amplify time in the same stroke.

Within my own artworks, I exploit this peculiar quality of the visual arts. I deliberately use select markers of time - clock parts, fleeting petals, and even gravity - and I manifest conditions in which they are frozen. The process of making the artworks creates a state which is almost uncanny; the gears are halted, the petals do not decay, the butterflies are frozen mid-flight. The materials are all suggestive of time in their unique ways, and their removal from a world of change brings the pause into sharp focus.

Of course, the pause is an illusion. The world outside of the frame continues to evidence and document its change. But in a world where it feels like time is becoming increasingly restless, impatient and demanding, perhaps it is in the counterbalance of the pause that we can reclaim rest, peace and reflection.

Close up image of clock and floral artwork, showing clock face, skeleton leaves, dried petals and watch parts suspended on clear nylon
Close up of A Time for All Things, 150x150cm

*It's a precise 36 minutes and 52 seconds

** As an interesting aside, there was a point in the 18th Century that the French observed a 10 hour day, with 100 minutes to the hour and 100 seconds to the minute. Whilst it makes sense as the decimal system translated into other units of measurement, the use of two different time systems would have made international navigation - which relies on the measurement of time - very difficult, and the imperial system eventually won out. You can still occasionally find rare examples of ten hour clocks, which look slightly uncanny to our imperially-trained eyes.

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