Time, like all ideas of measurement, doesn't really exist. Time's elapsation, however, does exist. Your hair turns gray with the passage of time, and seeds you've planted become carrots months later.
In more than 60 works in the new exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Art, 32 artists address time's passage by documenting environmental changes, recording subjective experience, disrupting time's linearity and stopping or distending duration.
Curated by Linda Johnson Dougherty and titled 0 to 60: The Experience of Time Through Contemporary Art, the exhibit is also the result of a deep collaboration between the NCMA and the Penland School of Crafts in Mitchell County, N.C.
Artists frequently choose the process of accumulation over handiwork. Brazilian artist Caetano de Almeida simply sets paper on the window ledges of his São Paulo studio, holding them down by plastic stencils and French curves. Air pollution gradually browns the paper, leaving ironic floral compositions as whitespace where the stencils blocked the pollution: a lily or amaryllis photogram in smog.
Similarly, Los Angeles-based Walead Beshty creates glass boxes that accumulate a narrative of shipping damage. Made to the exact specifications of the inside of FedEx boxes, the sculptures are laminated so they hold their shape despite the shatters they sustain. Beshty FedExed one to the NCMA, adding the tracking information to the end of its title, and set it atop the box it came in.
Some artists combine accumulation and handiwork by enacting painstaking processes that require sustained attention. Lisa Hoke makes psychedelic site-specific installations out of thousands of brightly painted recycled plastic cups and household objects. Her wall-encrusting fancies of color and shape are exhilarating to behold, while also delivering a subcurrent of rebuke for the consumerist fantasy that powers that exhilaration.
David Chatt meditates upon his late father's nightstand, meticulously covering the lamp, alarm clock, reading glasses and prescription bottles with sewn glass beads. The tiny white beads make the objects on "Bedside Table" (2011) read as marble, the material of memorial. But when you think about the amount of time it took to make them, the fact of Chatt's sheer time on task carries a deeper, more sincere emotional significance than marble could.
Other artists register experience with different degrees of emotion. Peter Matthews puts himself into a trance state and stands waist-deep in water for hours to do his "ocean drawings." The scrawled results of "9 Hours in the Atlantic Ocean (England)" (2010) visually echo both the manic jottings of visionary artists and the weird trails that subatomic particles leave behind in atom smashers. A close reading, however, gives access to Matthews' impressionistic attention—the marks that a mind leaves on the world.
Photographers Vera Lutter and Michael Wesley make more objective records of duration. Wesley has developed a trademarked process to take iterative exposures over several years. "9 August 2001–7 June 2004, The Museum of Modern Art, New York" was made by a camera mounted to the side of a Manhattan building, recording construction changes in the vicinity. Environmental changes—sun, rain, and the air itself—leave subtler, more interesting evidence in the image.
Lutter takes traditional pinhole photography to a large scale and exhibits the results as negative images. She turned a shipping container into a camera to produce "Frankfurt Airport, V: April 19, 2001," taking an image ghosted with the trails of tarmac activity over several hours. Lutter's monumental pinhole image of the Brooklyn Bridge opens the concurrent Light Sensitive show at the Nasher Museum of Art.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres' work is also visible elsewhere in the Triangle right now. His pile-of-candies elegy for his partner Ross, who died of HIV-related illness in 1991, highlights the Ackland Art Museum's More Love exhibition. The NCMA shows "Untitled (Portrait of Dad)" (1991), which is thousands of white candies piled into a corner. You're invited to take one and eat it as you view the rest of 0 to 60, thus honoring Gonzalez-Torres' father with the pleasure of a sweet. His and Chatt's pale paternal memorials bring up the fundamental color-coding of time. Black and white are fearful night and joyous day.
Several other works in the exhibition are interactive. Asheville-based Hoss Haley's "Drawing Machine" (2010–12) comprises a mechanical arm that makes Spirograph-like patterns on a large sheet of paper atop a metal table. Sensors translate museum patrons' proximity into the motion of the drawing arm. You'll likely dance around the gallery, trying to game that translation. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's "The Year's Midnight" (2011) combines facial recognition and tracking technology to transform a viewer's image into a haunting yet funny smokescreen. It's darker humor: You play with your own gradual obliteration.
Plenty of other works take a playful tack. Tim Hawkinson turns a banana peel, a wooden board and a candle into working clocks—the wick ticks! And you may catch a little thrill as gravity slowly dismantles Tara Donovan's toothpick sculpture.
Other works are disturbingly serious. Chapel Hill's Stacy Lynn Waddell's burnt and branded paper and fabric work frankly confronts you with colonial violence, sustaining an echo against history. For Tehching Hsieh's self-portrait "One Year Performance: Time Clock Piece" (1980–81) the artist punched a clock every hour on the hour for a year, photographing himself each time, wearing a workman's uniform. Never sleeping more than an hour at a time, and never able to stray very far from his apartment, his exhaustion is almost tangible.
0-60 presents a deeply textured range of considerations of time, with poignant emotional and philosophical peaks. Elapsation may be inevitable, but there's always time to pay attention. These artists have left useful marks for us to mind.
This article appeared in print with the headline "March of time."