ASPECTS AND ELEMENTS OF TIME
Presented at the Mid-America College Art Conference
Copyright 2001 Mary Stewart
Abe Morell quietly sets up an view camera in an empty room in New York City. Except for a single circular opening, he carefully blocks the light coming in the windows. Ghostly and inverted images of the surrounding city begin to appear on the walls as the room is transformed into a camera obscura. At just the right moment, Morell releases the shutter.
Using an oversized wooden trowel and a generous mass of thick plaster, sculptor Carlton Newton draws a massive circular form in space. The resulting sculpture is as physical and gestural as a calligrapher’s mark. When shown, the protruding handle of the trowel will accentuate the action by which the sculpture was made.
In 1998, Nancy Callahan and Diane Gallo created Storefront Stories in Cherry Valley, New York. A combination of words, images and everyday objects was installed in an unused storefront window. Every ten days, the installation was changed, presenting the next chapter in a story. Over a six week period, an entire narrative was revealed to the town’s people.
What is the connection? What do these artworks have in common?
In each case, time is an essential “material” from which the work is made. The moment chosen by Morell, the gesture created by Newton, and the series installations created by Gallo and Callahan use time as deliberately as plaster, photographic chemicals, or the fragments of text.
Indeed, as we look at the works by both contemporary artists and by masters from the past, we find that an understanding of time can strengthen any object, image, or idea. From the Bayeaux tapestry to the Oath of the Horatii, from the Elgin marbles to Lightning Field, time has always played a major role in all areas of art.
At the Foundation level, how can we encourage our students to observe, manipulate, explore, and express time? As with 2D and 3D Foundations, a discussion of the essential elements of time can provide a beginning point.
I would like to suggest that duration, tempo, scope, intensity, setting and chronology may be the essential elements of time.
Duration refers to the running time of a film, video or performance. Simply exploring the expressive potential of 10 seconds compared to the 30 seconds can be revealing to students. Plot duration, the amount of time that elapses during a narrative, is equally charged with possibilities. As recommended by Aristotle, both classic Greek drama and the plays of Shakespeare are dominated by stories which occur over a two or three day period. Even though the characters often refer to previous events, the time frame for the specific action in such plays as Romeo and Juliet, Oedipus Rex, and Medea, is brief. By contrast, 2001: A Space Odyssey, begins with prehistory and moves into the future: a duration of many millennia.
In either case, at the Foundation level, brevity is a virtue. Short duration requires careful selection: every second counts.
Tempo refers to the speed at which time passes. Despite the apparent constancy of real time, our perceptions of events in our lives vary widely, depending on the nature of the activity and the rate of change. I ask you, does time move at the same speed during a root canal appointment in a dentist’s office and during a beautiful afternoon at the beach?
Within the world of a film, the director manipulates tempo through the kind of shots taken and the manner in which shots are combined. Editing, which so determines the rapid tempo of a chase or the slow tempo of a funeral, can heighten or deaden the emotional impact of a film.
Scope refers to the extent of action occurring within a given moment. The earliest films, such as The Arrival of a Train (1895) show a single event from a fixed viewpoint. With The Great Train Robbery (1903), director Edwin S. Porter realized that simultaneous action–on the train, in a telegraph office, and at a dance, could be combined for dramatic effect. Scope demonstrates the essential connection between time and space.
Intensity refers to the level of energy in a performance or the quality of observation of an event. Intensity can actually determine the success or failure of a performance. For example, a highly charged delivery of Row, Row, Row Your Boat may be much more compelling than a “flat” or timid performance of the most wonderful soliloquy from Hamlet. Editing and changes in tempo are often used to increase intensity.
Chronology refers to temporal order. In real time, a foot race begins with the athletes lining up in position (action A), the firing of the starting gun (action B), the running of the race (action C), and the conclusion at the finish line (action D). In a sequential art form, these action can be organized in various ways, from a disorienting ABACADA pattern to the familiar ABCD pattern of the actual race. Memento and Minority Report are two excellent examples of complex uses of chronology.
Setting includes the physical and temporal location of a story, props and costumes and the use of sound. The physical setting of an event can have an extraordinary impact on meaning. An action which is appropriate in one context may be appalling in another. A drum major, will be applauded as he struts down the street on the Fourth of July. At a different time of day (such as Monday morning rush hour) or in a different location (such as a synagogue), he is likely to be arrested.
The temporal setting is equally significant. Most of the action in Gone With The Wind, is derived from a romantic conflict involving Scarlett O’Hara, Ashley Wilkes, and Rhett Butler. While each of the three characters is compelling, the love triangle itself is commonplace. It is the temporal setting of the story during the Civil War that shifts the story from soap opera to epic.
When exploring time, asking a few basic questions can help your students develop their projects.
TIME: 1. on what day, year, or century does the story occur? How does it change when set in 1066, 1929, or 2001? 2. what is the length of time covered in the story? an afternoon? a month? a century? 3. what season is it? what time of day is it? what does the sky look like? 4. will an expansion or contraction of time improve your story?
PLACE: 1. what is the geographical location? Maine? Italy? Somalia? 2. what are the characteristics of the location? is it arid? a jungle? noisy? Claustrophobic? 3. does the story occur in a specific setting, such as a child’s tree house, a circus, or a slaughterhouse?
CHARACTERS: whose story is it? a 9-year old girl? a 16-year old boy? a psychotherapist? a thief? what is the point of view? Does the main character tell his/her own story (first person narrative) or does someone else tell the story? how does this affect the result? what are the strengths/weaknesses of your characters? Without vulnerability, the characters will have no problems to solve.
CONFLICT: what problems occur? why? how do the characters respond 2. are conflicts between individuals, or between individual and society, human and machine, human and nature? How is the conflict resolved?
EDITING: What are the most significant moments in the narrative? In what order are they presented?
Time-based mediums, including comic books, Web sites, photographs and film are a major part of contemporary visual culture. Students are generally stimulated and challenged by time-based projects. If we want to connect our Foundations curricula to contemporary art and design, adding time-based work is the first place to start.