Concept of Time Portrayed in Art

Modified: 4th May 2018
Wordcount: 3849 words
Arts Student

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Time is a determinant concept in forms of art where motion is a key factor in order for a narrative to be explored as it occurs, such as in video art, performance, and theatre. The concept of time is also an important parameter for a two-dimensional artwork, which can comprise time through movement or as a snapshot. On the basis of the above syllogism, this essay will determine the nature of time, through the moment, as a still/snapshot in a static artwork and as a sequence in forms of art such as performance.

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The concept of capturing time in art comprised subjects for contemporary artists such as demonstrated by Christiane Baumgartner and Marina Abramovic, whose works will be explored through this essay: how do two antithetical mediums, namely; printmaking and performance, deal with this same theme and what are the results of the two visual languages that arise in depicting the sense of time?

The antithesis of time itself is not only a parameter which is reflected in the mediums themseleves, but also in the content. In other words, the antithesis is also portrayed on a theoretical level. While Christiane Baumgartner uses the illusion of the motion continuity and thus the illusion of time by freezing it, Marina Abramovic deals with the actual and real aspect of time by extending the duration of an occurrence. Hence, there is a differentiated perspective in depicting and presenting the real time and the illusion of it, with time consisting of a weaving of reality and deception.


The issue of time comprises a parameter which, beside the natural sciences was also the object of research by predominately philosophy and anthropology and thereby the extension the art itself, as art was considered to be an essential cultural characteristic. In this essay, the concept of time will be presented via the perspective of perceiving time through the antitheses outlined above. Initially, time should be divided into two categories; such as in the philosophical and sociological frameworks; namely in its real form and in its non-real form that is not quite so obvious. For instance, acquirable time – the procedure of measuring time periods, is completely different from the procedure of perceiving time as a representative of or bearer of consciousness. The existence and at the same time the “non-existence” (lack of obviousness) of time is an object of research for the artists so as to define the sense of time passing via numerous optical dimensions. The model of perceiving time is formed every time by the aesthetic view of the artist.

Philosophy and sociology in many cases are related to the artists’ point of view and thus an interactive relationship in shaping or reconstructing thoughts, which include the phenomenon of time is developed. The contrariety in the approach on the other hand does not create gaps between the aspects of time but they assist in developing depth and assiduous assortment in determining time. However, the contrariety approach comprises a method of analysis; thus, within such a framework regarding contrariety in the perspective of the concept of time, art presents a visual codex and visual symbols and hence the antithesis in approaching and perceiving time can be comprehended.

One very good example is the concept of the time sense as it is understood by most people, specifically time or, the symbol that represents time; the clock is an invention that accommodates humans to divide or to plan their everyday lives. On the other hand, there is an application of the above syllogism which is not an invention of the human civilisation but underlies biological or natural laws which is the concept of human age that accompanies human beings during their entire lives. These two antithetical examples could be characterized as external and internal time. The first one is determined by the sound that is produced by the second-hand and the other by the heartbeat. The parameter of their antithesis, however, does not preclude their interaction, but rather it is a matter of visual perspective of their characteristics (Rudolf Arnheim, Art and visual perception: a psychology of the creative eye, University of California Press, 2004).

Time has had a significant influence in the world of visual arts. Artists have depicted various symbols for time in order to express its impact as a philosophical question that is reflected in the human existence, or important events in history in order to represent the passing of time. The antithesis will be the main subject of interest in this research and stillness-movement, internal-external time, and fluidity-futility will be some of the main points for analysis. The expressions of time concepts differ from artist to artist due to the different perspective each of them uses.

Salvador Dali (1904-1989), the Spanish surrealist painter of the 20th century, created in 1931 the work ‘The persistence of memory’. Time is the theme here, from the melting watches to the decay implied by the swarming ants. The title of the painting suggests memory’s ability to remain intact as time decays around it. Dali painted this work with the most imperialist fury of precision and the only nod to the real are the distant landscape golden cliffs in Catalonia, where he lived. (Alkis Xaralampidis, Art in 20th century, volume II, 1993).

Furthermore, Fransis Alys (born 1959), a Belgian artist who lives and works in Mexico City, in his documented video performance ‘Paradox of praxis I (Sometimes doing something leads to nothing)’ deals with the concept of time in a different way from surrealism. Alys in this work expresses the futility of time and effort. The artist pushes a large block of ice through the streets of Mexico City for six or seven hours until it melts. It is a film about transformation, but it is also about the futility of human endeavor. It is an epic kind of uselessness that turns his apparently meaningless effort into an almost heroic event; nothing to something. The subtitle of the work is ultimately an idea which speaks to the frustrated efforts of everyday Mexico City residents to improve their living conditions. (Mark Godfrey and Klaus Biensenbach, Fransis Alys: A story of deception, 2010).

Performance too, which is very much related to the concept of time because of its nature, has presented a number of works which deal with the sense of time. As a time-based art primarily and by extension a media-based one owns its nature

The work of Christiane Baumgartner

Christiane Baumgartner was born in Leipzig, Germany in 1967. Her work deals mainly with specific aspects of time concepts; speed and standstill. The images are taken from her own video stills and the chosen format is that of monumental woodcut, mainly black and white. Her aim is to combine in a way two mediums; a traditional, printmaking, with a contemporary one, video art. As the artists herself states: ‘It’s about bringing together the different mediums of the video still and the woodcut, about combining the first and the latest reproduction techniques to produce an image’ (Catalogue Alan Cristea gallery, London 2011).

What her subjects often deal with is the movement between figuration and abstraction and the space between with speed and the passage of time recurring themes throughout her work. What she is mostly interested in is ‘the shifting within the woodcut and the way it changes the image and becomes a blurred, non-figurative image’ (Catalogue Alan Cristea gallery, London 2011). For instance, in ‘1 Sekunde’ (fig. 3) the image disappears at points and becomes blurred through the representation of speed. Other digital images are taken at a very low resolution, 3 dpi, and as a result the printmaking effect creates an abstract image, as occurs in ‘Deutscher Wald’ (fig. 4).

Speed, both in terms of subject matter and technique is something she has always been interested in. Many of her works are images taken from highways or tunnels because their inherent movement has been something that attracts her. Through this rationale are made works such as ‘Lisbon II’ (fig. 5) or ‘Solaris I’ (fig. 6). Technically, the final work is the result of a procedure that takes significant time. The first step is to film the subject in which she is interested in and afterwards, she selects an image from the film which she thinks is the appropriate for cutting.

‘The main point is to figure out which image I will end up bringing into the world. I will devote so much time to making it and give it so much significance in terms of scale, that I have to choose it very carefully. The fact that I am using a technique in which it will be reproduced more than once further influence my decision’. (Catalogue Alan Cristea gallery, London 2011)

Her main subject of interest is urban development and how life is affected by the environment. This material world was produced for humans, but at the same time has made life become an aspect in which a main point is speed. Cars, computers, busy highways, and people running, are the common images that exist in big cities. That is why in her work bridges, tunnels, and roads appear so frequently. In a world which is governed by speed, Baumgartner tries to slow down the way information is processed, to better reflect the way people live nowadays.

‘There is so much movement in our physical lives than 20 years ago. But also the time of information and communication has speed up in an extreme way. Because we are expecting such quick responses to our communications we miss the time for the thinking process and also to really prioritize’. (philagrafika, blog,

By choosing woodcut as a medium of expression, she asserts that is it her way of representing the contemporary situation. Her prints, which take a long time to make, effectively slow down time by extending the moment of the constitution of the image from a brief second, which in this case is the video still, to entire months, until the final work is ready.

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Baumgartner has created a visual language which needs to be viewed from a certain distance from the work so the image can be revealed. This language is consisted of horizontal lines which cut the subject in pieces so as to produce the illusion of movement and speed. When the viewer stands close to the work what he or she observes is actually thick and thin linear forms that reflect the virtuosity of the printmaker at a technical level. However, when the viewer keeps a distance from the artwork, then the entire theme is revealed. Specifically, the motifs assist the observer to comprehend the utility of the medium in relation to the forms in presenting the illusion of movement and thus, time itself. The visual language that is used makes the work of Christiane Baumgartner representative of the contemporary point of view in depicting motion and time. This is a very common perspective not only in fine art but also in contemporary media and video art. The work of the artist is the result of the contemporary perspective in depicting issues and concepts of time, through a more simplified aesthetic.

The simplicity in using the medium and by extension, the thematic development in a composition also reflects the will of the artist to establish a relationship between the steady artwork and the viewer. In other words, she is trying to make the visual ability of the viewer actively participate mentally in the world she reconstructs. Hence, the concept of time is a parameter that connects the artist and artwork with the visual and mental ability of the observer. This is a conceptual tool in order for the artwork to communicate the illusion of motion portrayed to real time. This kind of reality is a vital factor for human beings because it produces subconscious images and memories.

Due to the fact that Christiane Baumgartner’s works deal with the conceptual aspect of time in unreal time, she contributes to perceiving this issue from a point of view that functions as an antithesis. In a two-dimensional space she creates the illusion of a three-dimensional theme and in the end she also adds a fourth dimension (time), so as to reveal both the theoretical background of the concept and the sociological extension of it as it is formed in the contemporary life.

The social character of Christiane Baumgartner’s artwork reflects in a way the contemporary model of life. Although the real time remains the same, the contemporary life in the modern societies goes faster. The human itself has created the speed in order to compress life inside the urban environment. Time compresses a contemporary citizen like motion in art is displayed through compression of lines. If a viewer observes the rush hour in a city then he or she will realise how in a mental form, motion is similar or equal to time. Namely, a passing person is a parabolic symbol of passing time. This is why the immediacy of the medium is related to the complexity passing time. The steadiness or the immobility that the medium itself includes is altered by the motion that is depicted. In the same logic, the steadiness or the immobility of environment is altered by human motion itself. All these examples reflect the antithetical nature in perceiving time. In one print of Christiane Baumgartner a close observation will be a starting point to perceive moving time in a still depiction while she underlines the fact that she uses “a slow medium like woodcut to express a fast idea”.

The work of Marina Abramovic

Performance art contrasts to the above perspective regarding time via a static or still medium. Performance is a branch of artistic expression whose basic elements that create its nature are time and space, the presence of which along with the active involvement of the artist and essentially, the audience’s presence or interaction is vital. Performance as a visual art incorporates the characteristic of time as a dynamic aspect of its nature. Thus, the medium itself includes the reality of the duration of time as an important parameter which is used extensively by the performance artists. It is like a tool for the performer in ‘depicting’ the issue or the concept of his interest by using his or her presence.

Marina Abramovic, born in 1946 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, has been a representative artist since the 1970’s, the starting point for her career in performing arts. Her work of this type of expression indicates her perspectives of many aspects of her personal experiences but mainly her intellectual enquiries. In many of her performances there are references to the concept of time regardless of the fact that time itself is included in the medium. For instance, in the ‘Relation in movement’ (1977) Abramovic and Ulay moved in a circle direction repeatedly by driving around a square in Paris for hours. They kept driving until it got dark. The only existing lights were those of the car. There was continuity and duration to this action until the next morning. The couple had different tasks to accomplish; Ulay followed the back wheel and Abramovic loudly stated the number of the accomplished rounds. Additionally, the next morning revealed the black marks that the wheels had created in the ground and they tried to follow those marks. Another significant point which is not a usual one was the lack of audience. Only passers-by witnessed the event.

The main idea of the performance was to present the repeated movement in physical and mental level. Namely, they presented in a symbolic way the mind’s circles around an idea or thought. The concept of time enters this performance as an idea that is divided into two subcategories: the obvious time that comprises the duration of the night that the performance took place, and the time which was emphasised every time Abramovic shouted the number of laps completed. In the first case, the artists dealt with time as a frame to present their performance which was main aspect of the length of the performance. In the second case, time took the form of the space and the movement together. In other words the artists defined on the basis of both space and movement the nature of time. Each lap comprised the value of time according to their perspective. The symbolism is still the same, but the gravity of the importance in perceiving time is not solid and this was determined by the artists. Marina Abramovic and Ulay on the basis of ‘relation in movement’ developed another performance of relevance to the present research, entitled ‘Relation in Time’ (1977).

In ‘Relation in time’ a static situation is described. The couple Abramovic and Ulay are sitting facing back to each other with their hair tied together as a symbol of their connection. The duration of their performance lasted 16 hours in a gallery without any audience and only during the 17th and hour were the audience allowed to watch the performance. The couple was still sitting motionless for this final hour. During all this time there were only few changes in their presence. According to Lilian Haberer “their shared plait, their external connection, their umbilical cord, works loose as the hours pass”. She continues in the same sense to explain that “there is a contrast to the outward connectedness in their inward separateness, their different feelings” (Lilian Haberer, Collection: Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany).

Abramovic and Ulay’s approach is revealing because of the fact that time takes the form of destruction, ruination, spoilage and damage. As an example of this destructive operation of time, the couple presents the human relationship which is the main subject of their performance. The direct reference to the ugly face of time in the human life represents the inner fear of all human beings. This type of continuity causes the objects and the living creatures to age and become old. The relationships and the parameters that enrich them are also under the fear of spoilage. The old man as a symbol of the age of time has now given its place to the more conceptual ones. Like Abramovic and Ulay present, time is not an annoying feeling. The impact of time in living creatures as a natural procedure leads them to fall despite its ugliness. It is as natural as death itself in a symbolic or literal way. In the case of Abramovic, ‘time no longer leads down a threatening path of aging, death and ending: it is reproducible’ (Klaus Biesenbach, Marina Abramovic: The artist is present)

This approach concerning time also involves sociological and philosophical understandings. If we consider the philosophical nature of time as a route to death or a procedure that leads human beings to physical and mental decay, then it is a rational conclusion that it also affects human social unity. With sociological determination, this model of understanding time has a significant behavioral impact. This syllogism transforms the concept of time from an ordinary system of measuring into a system of interpreting life. The performance reveals these parameters and gives multiple dimensions in interpreting the inner intellectual process of social life as a diachronic phenomenon. The perspective that is created makes the viewer redefine his or her position in the society. Admittedly, this rationale is a main idea in many performances produced by Abramovic and the personal experiences make the philosophical inquires more obvious via art.

In her latest performance at MoMA ‘The artist is Present’ Abramovic performed the longest work in her performing career. She sat motionless for more than 700 hours in total, seven hours every day the museum was open, for more than 3 months. In this performance she was sitting silent and motionless at a table in the museum’s atrium inviting visitors to sit silently across from her for how long they chose to, making the performance interactive and becoming in this way participants in the artwork. She will not talk or respond to any of the participants, but their involvement in the process is essential and fundamental element for the work to be completed. ‘The artist is present’ is one of her most representative time based works as it deals with the long duration and the passing time remaining motionless and speechless.

Most of her works contain a kind of mystic energy from which she derives great power in order to concentrate and remain motionless. In ‘Nightsea Crossing’ she ‘describes staring into Ulay’s eyes and from a certain moment on seeing only a blue, blind, empty screen in front of her, like the length of her arm, to achieve an empty timeless stare’. (Klaus Biesenbach, Marina Abramovic: The artist is present)

‘The artist is present’ features, according to Biesenbach, as many of her works do, ‘in the endless act of sitting’, which is a central aspect to her art. Biesenbach continues: ‘in contemporary times sitting has taken the form of political protest’ (Klaus Biesenbach, Marina Abramovic: The artist is present). Durational sitting is the principal of ‘The artist is Present’ which finds Abramovic sitting at a table and waiting for the visitors to get involved in the occurrence. The table here has a symbolic and a parabolic meaning. It functions as a stage and at the same time refers to another motif in her work, which considers images from the ritual daily familial gathering during mealtimes and the routine of a motionless life as time passes and its marks become obvious.

The main idea in this last performance is the impact of time in the contemporary life. How much time one disposes in order to participate in the artwork is a personal decision and it depends on the way people nowadays divide time. In a world that is governed by speed, every moment is important. Hence, how willing is each of us to let time pass by is a matter that Abramovic’s performance deals with. Abramovic says ‘you have to give me your time in order to see the work…’ (Klaus Biesenbach, Marina Abramovic: The artist is present) and this is true in any aspect of contemporary life; we have to give time in order to do anything. Biesenbach underlines that ‘while there is no empirical duration established for MoMA’s visitors, the moment one sits in the chair, he or she participates in an unspoken agreement with the artist to enter into another perspective’ (Klaus Biesenbach, Marina Abramovic: The artist is present)


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