Fiona Tan, Saint Sebastian, 2001

Time Zones: The Discipline of the Interval

published in VECTOR, 2005

Curated by Jessica Morgan and Gregor Muir, Time Zones is the first major exhibition at Tate Modern (6 Oct 2004 – 2 Jan 2005) devoted entirely to film and video, featuring works of ten international artists from around the world: Fikret Atay, Francis Alÿs, Yael Bartana, Yang Fudong, Anri Sala, Bojan Sarcevic, Wolfgang Staehle, Fiona Tan, Jeroen de Rijke and Wilhelm de Rooij. Using a range of techniques and strategies, the artists deal with issue of time, juxtaposing different temporal registers, condensing or freezing time, slowing it down contemplatively or towards inertia. However, the use of time as a subject and a material in contemporary art is not new. Since Andy Warhol’s films Eat and Empire (1964), Bruce Nauman’s Pulling Mouth (1969), Nam June Paik’s video Global Groove (1973) or Rodney Graham’s Halcion Sleep (1994), “to make time” has been emerging as an urge and a fascination to reshape our conception of the moving image. Making time is making sense, whether there is narrative or not.

In their understanding of time, the works in Time Zones reinforce the complexity of the issue. “Time Zones” can mean, equally, particular places at a particular time or a specific tempo of some specific places. We are caught between being and becoming, here and there, at the same time. Video is no longer a vehicle for narrative; instead, we are. Moving continuously between extremes, we are making the event possible; and this discipline of the interval is, in fact, the imperative and the sense of the exhibition. It is important, in this respect, to acknowledge the integral role video art has played in disrupting the institutional sanctity of the white cube. The traditional relationship between author, viewer, and subject gives way to spatial experiences that reconstitute the parameters of time and place. Video has also problematized standard curatorial practices presenting a new set of challenges, particularly how to display video works neither as film nor static objects, but as moving images equally open to interpretation. Time Zones succeeds in opening the physical and conceptual spaces of the Tate Gallery, creating a permeable ambient, where the main experience is the simultaneous and fragmentary nature of time.

The exhibition opens with Fikret Atay’s Rebels of the Dance, drawing attention to the clashes that comes with globalisation. The video shows two young boys performing a traditional dance within a cash machine lobby. The scene could be seen as an act of defiance against the new and harsh corporate reality of the artist’s hometown of Batman, Eastern Turkey. Since the mid-1950s, when Batman became an oil-refining region, the Kurdish population has come under the strict control of state security. However, the local citizens suffer from high unemployment, their needs being systematically ignored by big business. The mutual understanding between the two boys is a symbolical way of protest against the capitalism’s brutal ingression in the peaceful rhythm of an old community.

Another film dealing with the tensional co-existence of past and present belongs to the Dutch artists Jeroen de Rijke and Willem De Rooij. The film presents an overgrown cemetery, behind which loom white and severe silhouettes of several skyscrapers. The action is minimal, only some figures gradually appearing in the graveyard and loitering among the tombs. Beyond the manifest opposition between life and death, as stages of our passage through time, Untitled contains references to the history of colonialism and capitalism. The city in the background is Jakarta, and the graveyard is the burial site of the wife of the first president of independent Indonesia, Achmed Sukarno. Despite the physical proximity, the rupture between the fast expansion of the city under the colonial regime and the untouched remains of its own past is still visible.

For the German artist Wolgang Staehle the past and also the traditional perception on time are embodied in an eleventh-century monastery in rural Germany. The present is objectified by the image itself, a live web-cam picture transmitted continuously via the Internet. The only changes within the image are those of light and weather, while a counter at the bottom reveals the changes of the image, marking date and time. If the measure of the past was religiosity, the religiosity of the present is the measure itself. If the past built the history, the present consumes it.

Besides the approaches of time as function of social and cultural transformations, the most poetic films of the Time Zones selection belong to the Chinese artist Yang Fudong and Fiona Tan, from Indonesia. Both share the nostalgia of the past as an age of irreversible innocence. As video itself becomes an object of the past, this temporality is itself transformed, so that we get an effect of a “past-within-the-past”. Yang Fudong’s work Liu Lan shows a young man in a western suit arriving at a lake, where a woman in traditional dress, sitting on a boat, is doing needlework. The man boards the boat and a journey begins. Even if the man abandons himself to the dreamlike temporality of the woman, the two remain distant, as living in two irreconcilable worlds. Only love could alleviate the tension, but Kronos seems stronger than Eros. The fear and the atmosphere are the same as in Marguerite Duras’ novels, The Lover and Hiroshima, mon amour, or in Régis Wargnier’s film Indochine.

Fiona Tan examines the experience of time as an allegorical passage from childhood to adulthood. Her film Saint Sebastian portrays an annual festival in Kyoto, Japan, that brings together the finest young archers to celebrate the beginning of their maturity. The video is divided into two projections, one on either side of a single screen. As in a Baroque Flemish still life, one focuses carefully on details such as the participants’ elaborate costumes, while the other shoots the feverish moment when the arrows fly. The aim is not victory, but the awareness that victory needs belief and sacrifice; the belief that we can universalise our gestures by acting responsibly, and the sacrifice of any nihilism that could stop us. Considering this, the video seems a tribute equally to Kant and Nietzche, while the Saint Sebastian legend is reactivated as an archetype of this understanding towards both maturity and immortality.

Based on another two temporal categories, Francis Alÿs’ video Zócalo is a twelve-hour documentary following the progression of the shadow of a flagpole in the main square of Mexico City, for the course of a day. The video combines a completely neutral filmmaking style with the flâneur’s subjectivity, as the artist himself states: “I spend a lot of time walking around the city. My position as an artist is one of an itinerant – constantly trying to situate myself in a moving environment. The concept and elaboration of a project generally happen during the walking time.”1

To conclude, what actually remains beyond space and place, duration and event? Where is time? Intellectually, somewhere between Beginning and End; visually, it is just real time. And since we live in an age when global events are shared worldwide in real time, real time is all we have.

1 Francis Alÿs, cited in the artist biographies in Longing and Belonging From Far Away and Nearby, SITE Santa Fe exhibition catalogue, (Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1995), p.184.