The Art of Time
Clockbox : Adrian Gollner
2000 and Counting : Gerald Ferguson and Tatsuo Miyajima
National Gallery of Canada
Clockbox. Image copyright www.adriangollner.ca
"You feel overwhelmed by the stuff you feel obligated to do," says visual artist Adrian Gollner. The burgeoning "time management industry", the omnipresent day-timer, feeling rushed or that time is running out - all these are signs of our time- and speed-obsessed culture. "My time is so broken up," Gollner notes, "That I don't know, perhaps as a way of metering it, or slowing it down or taking control of it, I started buying clocks."
Like all human beings, artists inhabit specific historical time. On its own continuum, their work could be anchored (or shackled) to a specific moment or be free of the construct of time altogether. It's an odd paradox that the work of so-called "great artists" is frequently described as "timeless" or "universal" - outside space and time - and yet so often directly references a particular place and historical moment.
ClockBox by Adrian Gollner, 1999. On stepping over the threshold of the narrow long tomb-like space, the tick-tock and clicking of the clocks becomes louder. At about 4' wide, there's no space to create some distance. Eighty-one analogue alarm clocks of various makes and periods line the walls at eye-level, the oldest dating from 1877. With a lip hiding the tiny lights illuminating the clocks, black matte paint enshrouds the entire space. The ticking is not in sync, and the clocks indicate different times, mirroring perhaps each individual's unique perception and experience of time. Depending on where you stand, some clocks sound louder, appear to mark increments smaller than seconds or at tick away at different rates.
It's difficult to recall another experience of visual art so instantly and overwhelmingly evocative of mortality and the mystery of time. Despite the incessant discordant clamour, the machines knock each second on the head, sending it to its death, collectively counting down to what end? It was like being stuck in a disturbing state of both timelessness - death or non-existence - and hyper-consciousness of time passing - life unfolding.
"Each of these things was on someone's night table," says Gollner. Beginning to collect clocks in the early 90s, he now owns 150 analogue alarm clocks as well as travel clocks and electric alarms. "They're little bits and evidences of people monitoring their time - having to get up in coordination with everyone else with the industrialisation of North America. And within that," Gollner adds, "there's this weight of personal history, of everybody trying to sort of sync."
ClockBox, shown recently at the terminal.Gallery in Arts Court, stands as a sharp counterpoint to Thousand Road, 1991. Incorporating fundamentally similar elements, they couldn't be more different in affect. Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima borrows three principles from Buddhist philosophy: constant change, connecting with everything and continuing forever. Using one thousand red and green light-emitting diodes (LED) counters wired together, he's constructed two long banks of counters, each one counting from 1 to 99 and sending signals to other units, endlessly. While the counters appear to change every second, unlike Gollner's clocks the digital technology means the previous number or "time" cannot be read.
"There are two reasons for not indicating '0'," writes Miyajima. "One is to express the Buddhist concept of 'emptiness'", and secondly, "darkness is momentarily produced so that a more dynamic rhythm is obtained. Darkness is of course, also a symbol of death." On the other hand, zero's absence could also be read as the absence of death, a testament to time's endlessness. Ironically modern mathematics, physics, nor Miyajima's piece would exist without the Indian concept of zero. The binary code used by computers, for instance, is made up of zeros and ones.
"For one reason or another, numbers crop up quite a lot in the art of our century," says Diana Nemiroff, Curator of Contemporary Art at the National Gallery and curator of 2000 and Counting. "I think that there's kind of an intuitive link between numbers and time."
"The other thing that sometimes happens [in contemporary art] - and this we can see in the Miyajima piece - is that it changes over time. If you stay there, it won't be the same in 30 seconds as say it was when you first walked in."
Wrapped in almost total darkness, broken only by a small lit-up exit sign, the some 70-foot long banks, lie side by side. Depending on the angle or height, they look like runway tracking lights, cars' taillights in a traffic jam, or even a skyscraper at night. With the silence broken only by the machines' low hum, the affect is supremely calming. Here time feels like a river, a continuum flowing resolutely but gently - not the enemy, to be captured quickly before it slips away. It is experienced as lateral, the opposite of the linear emphasis on time in ClockBox.
Using a shimmering mound of coins resembling some dragon's hoard, Gerald Ferguson's 1,000,000 Canadian Pennies, 1979, melds numbers, time and art in a circuitous series of ironies. Weighing in at about 3 tons, the $10,000 worth of 1999-minted coins, courtesy of the Royal Canadian Mint, form a gigantic circular pile on the floor. "They could be collected over a period of time, and it'd be coins mixed, with all different dates. I'd like that," says Ferguson, "The fact they were all in use - but this [getting them from the Mint] is just a convenient way to do it. It's an awful lot of pennies - about one twelfth of the annual production."
"The pile is in itself a reflection of the commoditisation [of art], art as an investment, etc. etc." says Ferguson. Or a reflection of the relationship between artists and poverty - a piece of art literally worth at least $10,000 made with borrowed pennies. "The numbers are over the top," notes Ferguson. "It's kind of absurd. A million of anything is such a large number. Who's seen a million of anything in an instant?"
The exhibit's introductory panel describes it as "the right to display one million pennies. After the exercise of this right, the three tons of copper coins may be returned to the bank for 'storage'". Itself designed by an artist, the Canadian penny was created as a unit of money. Ferguson borrowed one million units - or pieces of art - to create another work of art. Ferguson states that as a bank deposit, they would accumulate interest. But paradoxically they also accumulate interest, albeit a different kind, as art in an art gallery.
In an irony of ironies, over time, in a gallery 1,000,000 Canadian Pennies may also accumulate monetary interest if its value increases beyond the value of the coinage itself.
Published in The Ottawa Xpress