There are a lot of striking, even somewhat disturbing works in “0 to 60: The Experience of Time Through Contemporary Art,” which is on display at Raleigh’s N.C. Museum of Art until August. But what might be the most vividly weird piece is “The Year’s Midnight” by the Montreal-based artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer.
Inspired by the 17th-century John Donne poem “A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day,” it’s based on the saint who plucked out her own eyes because she “only had eyes for God.”
It’s an interactive work that isn’t complete until the viewer enters its camera’s field of view. Stand in front of the screen, and you’ll see your image change. Your eyes will move from their sockets down to the bottom of the screen, and the empty orbs will begin to smoke. It’s cartoonish, and also a little creepy.
“The project is about who is the observer and who is the observed,” Lozano-Hemmer said. “It’s about blindness, faith, all those gooey art things. And it has a history of previous viewers as more and more eyeballs accumulate at the bottom of the screen, and a sense of smoke and cinders from where people’s eyes were. The element of time is that memory.”
As is true of a lot of the works in “0 to 60,” the piece’s link to time is not immediately obvious. But that was by design.
“Rafael’s work does not exist until you interact with it in real time,” said Linda Johnson Dougherty, curator of contemporary art and co-organizer of the show. “That’s where the element of time comes into his work, that real-time interaction.”
“0 to 60” began germinating during a scouting trip to New York City that Dougherty took in 2009. At a Guggenheim Museum exhibit called “The Third Eye,” she saw Tehching Hsieh’s “Punching the Time Clock,” based on pictures of the performance artist punching a time clock every hour on the hour for a solid year – meaning he did not sleep for more than an hour at a time that year. And at a Lower East Side gallery, Dougherty encountered “Oil Stick Work” by Irish artist John Gerrard, an ongoing project showing a grain silo in Kansas being painted at the rate of one square meter a day for 30 years (it will be finished in 2038).
Time as art
That got Dougherty thinking about the concept of time, and its artistic manifestations. As the idea took shape, she began working with Jean McLaughlin, director of the Penland School of Crafts in Spruce Pine, N.C. They came up with six categories for works in the show: real, virtual, historical, recorded and manipulated time, and the passage of time.
Eventually, they assembled more than 60 works from 32 artists. Most pieces date from after 2000, and 17 are new. Both of the pieces that started Dougherty’s time-based train of thought – Gerrard’s “Oil Stick Work” and Hsieh’s “Punching the Time Clock” – are also in the exhibit (the latter is the oldest work in the show, from 1980-81).
The works range from clocks of various sorts to high-concept pieces. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled (Portrait of Dad)” pays homage to his late father with his weight in small white candies piled in a corner. Richard Hughes’ “Untitled” consists of slices of several clocks put together in such a way that it’s almost impossible to find a comfortable viewing angle – there’s just no getting to closure with this one.
“Time is obviously not a new concept for artists to deal with,” Dougherty said. “There have been numerous variations through history, from still-life paintings where every object symbolizes the passage of time to Salvador Dali’s melting clocks. Why are so many contemporary artists obsessed with time?
“I think it’s because everyone is. So much of current life is about accelerating time and expecting everything to be instantaneous. Online instead of newspapers, microwaving food, drive-in restaurants, they’re all about the acceleration of time and lack of patience. Artists pick up on that.”
A new taxonomy
“The Year’s Midnight” is one of three “0 to 60” pieces from Lozano-Hemmer.
He creates anti-monuments.
“But in contrast to things like fireworks, anti-monument pieces are interactive,” Lozano-Hemmer said. “Through sensors, they’re activated by voice or other things. And they’re called ‘anti-monuments’ because they don’t represent specific moments in history, but ephemeral and short-lived moments of the people who participate.”
As an example, Lozano-Hemmer cited the huge 22-searchlight light sculpture he did for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Participants could manipulate controls to do their own light designs in the sky, and even download the image as captured by webcams.
As for sub-sculptures, they’re also interactive and often large-scale, but usually indoors. “The Year’s Midnight” and Lozano-Hemmer’s other two “0 to 60” pieces both qualify. “Last Breath” consists of a pump and brown paper bag that inflates 10,000 times a day with a breath captured from Cuban singer Omara Portuondo. After she dies, this piece will have her final breath go on display at the National Museum of Music in Cuba.
There’s also “Pulse Index,” which captures participants’ fingerprints and blows them up to nine-foot images projected onto three walls by seven projectors. The piece stores 10,000 prints at a time, and each one gradually shrinks in size as it cycles through before it’s ultimately erased – “a reminder of our fleeting existence on this planet,” Lozano-Hemmer said.
Of course, the idea of having one’s fingerprints stored conjures up uncomfortable notions of surveillance in our current age of identity-theft paranoia.
“When people confront electronic art, there are two common impressions,” Lozano-Hemmer said. “One is that it’s playful, a game. The other is that it’s ominous, predatory surveillance. My work falls right on that boundary. There’s the empowerment of participation, but a reminder that these technologies have a predatory genesis. We are in a cultural condition of surveillance and mistrust. Those elements are not as disparate as they might seem. Oftentimes we are controlled through play, and control can be quite playful.”
After “0 to 60” finishes its run at the Museum of Art, Lozano-Hemmer’s “The Year’s Midnight” will stay behind. Dougherty made a point of acquiring it for the museum’s permanent collection, although its ultimate resting place has not yet been determined.
“I do plan on putting that out in the gallery somewhere,” she said. “I haven’t decided where yet, but it will definitely be up.”
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat
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