Time and art

Last weekend I saw an exhibition at Wellington’s City Gallery by William Kentridge – I managed to see it twice before it closed on Sunday. It was a five-track video installation and a machine (kinetic sculpture) called ‘The Refusal of Time’. This is the cover of the handout brochure.

DSC04132   Kentridge is a South African artist – this project was commissioned for Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany in 2012. According to the brochure the project developed out of discussions with science historian Peter Galison about the history of the control of world time (among other things). The ‘refusal’ of the title relates to both a refusal of the European sense of order imposed by time zones and a personal refusal – “everybody knows they are going to die but resist the pressure that places upon them.” Most of the imagery used in the film evokes the period around the late 19th century and early 20th century. I enjoyed the exhibition. It seems easier to depict ideas about time in a moving image film than in a two-dimensional painting, but artists have been doing that for centuries, with symbols like the hour glass or skulls to show the passing of time and the ephemeral nature of life.

D Bailly Vanitas1651

Self-Portrait with Vanitas Symbols, 1651, David Bailly (1584–1657), Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands

This painting by the Dutch artist David Bailly, for example, is hardly subtle – not only is there an hour glass and skull, but a snuffed out candle, flowers, a spilled glass of wine, soap bubbles, and portraits of himself as a young man and an older man. However, at the time he painted it he is the age of the older man and not the young man as he appears to be – another play on the passing of time.

Notions of time and how it can be depicted have long interested me. This image below shows a few relevant books on my bookshelf. The one by Clark Blaise ‘Time Lord: The remarkable Canadian who missed his train and changed the world’ (Vintage, Canada, 2000) is about the establishment of Greenwich standard time, so very relevant to Kentridge’s ‘refusal’ of a European sense of order imposed by time zones.


I was told by an aunt that John Harrison (1693– 1776) the inventor of the marine chronometer, was an ancestor of ours. She told me this long before Dava Sobel published her book on him, called ‘Longitude’, so I don’t think she would have heard of him by reading about him. I have found Harrison ancestors but I don’t know if they are connected to JH. However, the story did make me more interested in him and his inventions when I visited Greenwich some years ago. Of course, there is also a connection with New Zealand in that Captain James Cook on his second voyage to this part of the world used chronometers based on Harrison’s models.


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