Book review: Contemporary art and time (2016)

Towards the end of my PhD research, I noticed that quite a few interesting works in my area have been published by Presses Universitaires de Rennes. In particular work that has come out of Université Rennes 2 sounded promising, and, indeed, there is a lot going on. The reason for its comparative invisibility is that the scholars publish exclusively in French, which is a real shame, because I believe their work could shake up English-language scholarship in some areas. Now that I’m living in Rennes, I see the potential even clearer. It’s not just Rennes 2, which is pretty successful in its scholarship (in my area). Rennes is also home to a branch of the famous ESRA (Ecole supérieure de réalisation audiovisuelle / Ecole de cinéma, de son et film d’animation) as well as the EESAB (Ecole européenee supérieure d’art de Bretagne), where a lot of good stuff is going on. So, in some ways it didn’t surprise me when I read in the Avant-Propos of L’art contemporain et le temps: Visions de l’histoire et formes de l’expérience, edited by Christophe Viart, that there is a special research group located at the EESAB looking into “forms of time”. What more does someone like me need!?

The books subtitle is Visions of history and forms of experience, and it’s a great round up of thoughts on the matter, well-researched, well-focused. What I personally enjoyed a lot was to read about time in art in general. I had been primarily focused on time in film for a long time, but I became interested in time, especially duration, in other art forms as part of my research into the representation of (post-) trauma. So L’art contemporain was a great addition, and a wake-up call for me to keep looking into these things.

Christophe Viart’s introduction got me hooked because of a curious anecdote, or rather a description of an artwork by Alighiero Boetti: a simple light bulb in a box. The light bulb lights up only once a year, for a mere 11 seconds. No one knows when that will happen. Quite evidently this has an effect on the visitor’s experience of time. It’s one of those artworks of which you could say that nothing was happening with it, or to it. It’s boring. But that brings us back to an earlier post of yes-boredom and no-boredom. Do you accept standing in front of the box, which contains the light bulb, with the pretty high chance that you won’t see it lightening up? Or do you just walk past it and dismiss the whole idea behind it?

Boetti’s lightbulb is a superb introduction to the book, which is varied in its foci. It ranges from an investigation of Du temps de l’art au temps de l’oeuvre by Jean Lauxerois to Relectures postcoloniales de la temporalité et de l’histoire de l’art by Emmanuelle Chérel to Le temps suspendu, written by artist Bernhard Rüdiger. It’s this mixture of researchers and artists which I value the most, because it is important to me to give artists a say, too. Scholars tend to ignore artists and just pretend that their reading of an artist’s work is the right one, because they have read about it and think that they found the key to understanding, say, a sculpture, a painting, or even a film. I know from experience that all this reading can carry you away and you don’t see the actual work. So hats off to the editor for including a chapter by Rüdiger, which is, I have to say, a thoroughly interesting take on time, image and sound. It’s a chapter on shocks and on trauma, albeit not as foregrounded as you might expect it.

Rüdiger describes the processes behind his work, and how he arrived at a solution to the discrepancy between showing and not showing. He spent several months in Jerusalem in 2000 and noticed that he couldn’t take photos. He just couldn’t. Something inside him prevented him from doing so. He was convinced that regardless of what type of photograph he would take, the photograph would turn into a cliché. I will not describe his entire process here. The chapter is well worth reading if you’re interested in Rüdiger’s work. The result of months of thinking about the problematic became a very special engagement of image and sound, a strange combination of visibility and invisibility: sound recorded as an image (see picture above). Again, a curious starting point to think about time, duration, and the way the viewer/gallery visitor experiences it.

Another thoroughly interesting chapter is Jacinto Lageira’s Voir, revoir, pré-voir, which is perhaps the most complex chapter in this book, demanding, at least of myself, a second and maybe even a third reading. I find his argument that plastic art creates time quite fascinating, something that we possibly never think about. But it is true that those art works never adhere to either historical time or biological time. They have their own time, they create their own time, which is at odds with the viewer’s lived time. I believe, even though Lageira does not mention this at all, his chapter lays the foundations for an interesting debate about boredom at the centre of which we always find a simple discrepancy between two different and opposing experiences of time.

One more chapter I would like to highlight. The book is overall great, but I cannot describe it all. It would be an endless post. Worth mentioning, however, is the chapter Relectures postcoloniales by Emmanuelle Chérel. Colonialism changes a peoples’ experience of time. This is very often neglected in studies on post-/colonialism, as far as I can see. Chérel argues that post-/colonialism requires a redefinition of time and space, and quite rightly so. As I discovered in my own research on trauma, and as Chérel argues a little earlier in the chapter, the postcolonial period is not just a temporal marker in a history written by European powers. In effect, past and present always interact, especially in postcolonial times. The postcolonial is exactly where our idea of a linear historical time fails (which would bring me back to trauma here but I really need to finish this post!).

If you’re reading/speaking French, and you’re interested in the intersections of time and art, it’s certainly worth buying L’art contemporain, or getting it through your library. And you should keep an eye out for publications from this research group at ESSAB, just like I will do 🙂

Review: On Slowness – Lutz Koepnick (2014)

The contemporary hype around slowness in all its forms has filled shelves in bookstores for several years now. Most of these books are a kind of self-help strategy for stressed-out people, who wish to slow down their lives. I tend to flick through them only to return them to the shelf again. I don’t really believe in these books, because I think that a book alone cannot slow down your life. The only slow books I have read where written by the wonderful Carl Honoré, whose books are superb and not self-help manuals as such. On the contrary, they make you smile.

With recent (academic) books on Slow Movies and monologues on specific filmmakers, such as Béla Tarr, I thought Lutz Koepnick’s endeavour to write a book on slowness in contemporary art was daring. If you remember, I had a rather unpleasant experience with Ira Jaffe’s book, so I hoped that someone would finally do some valuable and serious work on slowness. For some reason it feels as if everyone wants and does write on slowness (in whatever field) without really bringing something new to the debate. Writing on slowness runs in circles, which is not helpful to its reputation as being ‘boring’.

Koepnick’s book is the refreshing work that the field needed. It’s a pleasure to read and this is mainly the case because it is unique in its approach. Current literature considers slowness isolated from speed. While writers all agree that slowness stands in opposition to speed, it is almost impossible to find a piece of work that argues along the line of slowness being a part of speed. Without speed there wouldn’t be slowness and vice versa. It feels as though Koepnick has put this at the heart of his work, and it is this that makes reading On Slowness so very refreshing.

Think of Futurism, for instance. Futurism was perhaps the beginning of our contemporary obsession with speed. Now we have Slow Art, Slow Cinema, Slow Education. Futurism introduced the complete opposite of everything. Futurist thinkers loved speed. It was an exciting thing to experience. This is how the story goes anyway. What I found remarkable, and this stands at the beginning of Koepnick’s book, is that the author approached Futurism from a slow angle, seeking instances of slowness in an age of high speed. Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus found its way into the book, the angel with the open wings standing amidst a speedy flow of progress and history. The angel is not slow, but the angel stands for stillness. In fact, throughout the book, Koepnick does not so much argue for the use of the word slow. More important to him is the fact that ‘slowness’ opens a complex relation of opposing temporalities, the result of which we can find in the artworks he focuses on in his book.

The idea is to see ‘slowness’ in speed. As already pointed out, we tend to forget that these aren’t entirely separate from each other. An example for this is Koepnick’s in-depth study of open shutter photography, which I personally found the best chapter of the entire book. In open photography, both speed and slowness come together. Koepnick approaches this form of photography from the angle of slowness. He refers to the work of Michael Weseley, for instance, who is known for his spooky photographs of train stations. Say, there is a train from Cologne to Berlin. He would set up the camera on the platform at Cologne train station and open the shutter when the train leaves. He would only close the shutter when the train had arrived in Berlin. The result is spooky, but stunning. Another example is the work of Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto. His photographs of cinema auditoriums are the result of a very similar approach. He opened the shutter when a film started to play on the screen, then closed the shutter at the end of the film.

Photography is known for its instantaneous nature. Then there is time-lapse photography, which brings home the idea of photography as being a ‘fast’ form of art. Where do we position open shutter photography? When I read through Koepnick’s arguments I was amazed by this. It made perfect sense to see this as slow photography. But then, is it really? You still capture speed, you capture movement over a long period of time, so in some ways Weseley and Sugimoto use slowness/time to capture speed/movement. Thus, Koepnick’s suggestion that different temporalities are connected in slow works becomes most explicit and obvious in his chapter on photography. He does not go into detail about the actual speed that is captured on the ‘slow’ photographs. Yet as a reader, you can go through the process in your head and you can see that open shutter photography, while being slow at first sight, is actually just one form of time. It is a complex construct of different temporalities. Using one word – slow or fast, regardless – is not entirely correct.

In another stunning analysis Koepnick combines speed with slowness. Tom Tykwer is known for his fast films, especially Run Lola Run (1998). How would you describe the film? I would describe it as a ‘film on speed’, in many ways. And yet, Koepnick makes it his task to see the corresponding slowness in the film, analysing the slow-motion scenes as well as the fact that Tykwer’s characters never have the latest technologies, which we would now regard as contributing to today’s speed. It is those small things that I never thought of. For me the film is fast and a perfect illustration (as far back as 1998) of the growing speed in and of society. But this isn’t what it is exclusively.

Koepnick sees the unseen/invisible in his book. He shows that there is no such thing as ‘just slow’. Slowness is rather one form of temporality which contributes to the complex, multiple layers of time we are confronted with every day. The funny thing is, I have argued a similar thing in my thesis in regards to Lav Diaz’s concentrationary universe, in which he shifts freely between ‘slowness’ and brief interludes of shocks that seem to speed up time. So we’re both on the same page. It’s just not as clear in my words as yet.

Not all chapters have the same quality, but Koepnick’s book is a real must-read if you want to learn more about slowness in contemporary art, or about temporality in art in general. It is an insightful study of how time is dealt with in several art forms – photography, cinema, video – so there’s something for everyone.

On Slowness, by Lutz Koepnick (2014) – now available on Amazon.