What does time mean to you? Is it the ticking of a clock? The rhythm of a dance? The oscillation of a cell?
The prospect of curating a selection of objects and artworks on the theme of ‘time’ for The World is in You was a daunting one. Time is something which pervades our lives – it influences everything we do. And yet, we rarely think about it consciously. Isn’t time just something that ticks by in the background?
The issue of time is arguably one of the most important philosophical and cultural concerns of the 20th century. As the 19th century drew to an end, what had formerly been a cacophony of local times was unified in to one global, totalizing standard time. It was (and is) the time of the British Empire – Greenwich Mean Time. As the 20th century dawned, philosophers debated what various theories of what time is and what role it plays in our lives. Is time simply mathematical – the regular ticking of the clock? Or is it something that varies with individual perception? And can a ‘true’ time be found? With the publication of Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity (which posited that time is relative) – these debates around time were again thrown in to chaos. When the atomic bomb was detonated by the United States on the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, time stood still. Atomic power still drives the clocks on your phone and computer. Since 1947, the Doomsday Clock has counted the time left until a man-made global catastrophe.
In exhibitions, curators tell stories through artworks and objects – it is an inherently material medium. So how can you materialize something as ephemeral as time? The driving concept behind The World is in You is that our bodies are an interface between us and the world. We transform the world through our actions, but it transforms us in turn. The sunlight we see, the food we eat, the experiences of our ancestors, even the gravity of our planet – all come together to shape who we are. Therefore, the entangled body is at the center of all of the artworks and objects in the exhibition. In this way, an exhibition theme on time can become one about body time – time at it is embodied, the rhythms of our cells, the ticking of our body clocks.
Time in this sense is not metaphorical but very literal. We are, as artist Isabella Martin suggests in her newly commissioned work, ‘Time Animals’, living beings who are in large and small ways bound to the time of planet Earth. Scientists who study circadian rhythms (known as chronobiologists) are demonstrating how the 24-hour light-dark cycle is hard wired into our brain, our organs and our cells – controlling the timing of everything from small metabolic changes to very obvious behaviours like eating and sleeping. If you want to think about how you are a temporal being – just think about what it feels like to work all night or take a long plane ride. Your body knows its ‘time’ to be asleep and awake – and to fight against this is a losing battle.
Time has been an important theme in art for centuries and continues to have an enduring interest for contemporary artists. In the Renaissance, images of hourglasses and sundials were a reminder to spend your limited time on Earth well. Tempus fugit – time flies. A phrase you are as likely to find on a clock than a gravestone. Clocks abound in modern and contemporary art – some of the most famous being surrealist artist Salvador Dali’s melting clocks in his temporally inspired ‘The Persistence of Memory’ (1931). Time has been imagined as something restrictive, something freeing, something personal, and even something oppressive. Works on memory, remembrance, expectation, and productivity all draw inspiration from concerns around temporality and its role in our lives.
In The World is in You I am delighted to be able to show one of my favorite pieces of art around this theme – Marcus Coates’ 2016 work ‘Self Portrait as Time’. In this filmed performance, Coates used his finger to follow the minute hand of the clock over 12 hours – using his body to enact the regular time keeping of a clock and entering into a trace like state. He said of the performance, “At times the distinction between me and the watch disappeared and I fully believed I was moving the second hand and had the measure of time.” Looped over 24-hours, the artwork also acts as an accurate clock. It is mesmerizing to watch and you can’t help but imagine yourself trying to keep up with the clock!
A very different kind of self portrait as time is to be found in the work of Susan Morris. In the exhibition we are displaying one of her incredible tapestries which depict her lived experience of the cycles of day and night, rest and activity. Titled, Nightwatch_Lightexposure, 2010-2012, the work is woven from data recorded by the artist’s Actigraph watch over several years which represent levels of light exposure. Morris has collaborated with chronobiologists and is interested in how light and light pollution is impinging on our lives in modern society. The active, busy and bright hours of the day stretching into the formerly dark nights – ‘the ends of sleep’, as Jonathan Crary has argued. In the tapestry, it is possible to discern the curves of the changing seasonal light patterns Morris was exposed to over a three year period. Each thread represents a day. If you look closely enough, you can find days where the artist travelled across time zones or forgot to make a recording – represented as ‘blank’ threads. The work is, according to the artist ‘the diary of a body embedded in a particular socio-cultural environment.’ It is body time.
My own background is as a historian of science and medicine and a specialist in the ‘modern’ period – from about 1850 to the Second World War. This research interest runs throughout the exhibition – as I consider the ways that much of what its like to be alive in the 21st century is derived from the infrastructures and experiences of people from this earlier time. From the introduction of artificial lighting to the development of almost simultaneous communication technology – people living in the 19th and early 20th centuries were among the first to feel the pressures of modern life. The introduction of electric life completely revolutionized the way we spend our days – working and socializing later in to the evening, and pushing sleep into a smaller and smaller part of our 24 hours. While you might argue modern technology has allowed us to claim more of the day for ourselves, it also allows our time to be commodified. As the first factories were lit by artificial light in the early nineteenth century, there was almost no limit to how long people were expected to work. Scientists wondered – what are the limits of the human body? What does it mean to be tired? Can we not work forever?
I am delighted that for the exhibition we have been able to borrow from the Arbejdermuseet (Copenhagen’s Workers Museum) an emblem of the fight for workers’ rights and the 8-hour working day: their iconic ‘8 Hours Work, 8 Hours Freedom, 8 Hours Rest’ banner. This banner was carried as a part of May 1st demonstrations in Denmark in the early twentieth century as workers around the world agitated for the 8-hour work day. Today the fight for a balance between our working and private lives is still as contentious as ever – we are still debating the 4 day working week, the right to home working, and the right to switch off. We still have to ask, who owns our time?
You can find these and so many more wonderful artworks and objects in the exhibition. For my own part, I hope that people will leave the exhibition curious about how time affects their day-to-day lives – and perhaps inspired to reclaim some of their time for themselves, to value and prioritize their sleep, and to pay just a little more attention to the rhythms around us in nature. Much of how we live our lives now assumes that time will just go on forever – each day the same as the last, in a linear march in to the future. But if curating time has taught me one thing, it is that time isn’t this simple, linear, or just one thing. To have time is a privilege, and our planet seems to be running out of it at a terrifying rate. Time is a scarce and valuable resource – how do you want to spend it?
The World is in You is on at Kunsthal Charlottenborg in Copenhagen between 30 September 2021 and 16 January 2022. For more information on visiting please visit: https://kunsthalcharlottenborg.dk/en/exhibitions/the-world-is-in-you/
For more about my postdoctoral research into the histories and cultures of ‘Body Time’, please visit: https://www.museion.ku.dk/body-time/