Reprinted from Art Toi Magazine, November 2021
For those alone, time seems to be in excess at the moment. Time we never thought we would have, nor get back from those things that usually rob us of it – work, commitments, socialising; technological and interface compressions – has suddenly been delivered in loads. Courtesy of Covid-19, lockdown days are designed around working through great thicknesses of time to make them feel lighter, more air filled, bearable.
Before lockdown days, we were in accelerated postmodern time. It did its best to deny us a sense of experiential, organic life calibrated by the arc of a day, logged by transiting light, the trill of birds at sunrise, the barking dogs at dusk – the perceptible rising and lowering of noise as a day dawned, peaked and waned. Time, defined by the confident roundness of itself, signalled by the 12 hours on the clockface, was suddenly, brutally reconstructed. Postmodern time was given a new face, one that fluttered and spooled in a demented fashion. 24/7. Global time. Military time. Digital time. We were asked to synchronise watches – well, smartphones – and prepare for the marathon that never stops in a world switched on to endless loops of news and infinity cycles in which the sun, and the things that happen under it, are always keeping us awake. An endless set of communications requiring immediate answers. A second-by-second tumble of images from other people’s lives sending us into tunnels of cross referencing. We thought it was the information age, but it was actually mass distraction – we were in a time-warp of temporal disintegration.
People too young to remember the fads of meditation, and the application of concentration, started to talk about slow movements, presentness, mindfulness – all the nesses that helped postmodern people slow down, get off the colour-wheel-of-death that whirls around, around, around on computers. Because even a moment of stillness had become frightening to those whose existence had been programmed to run like a rat on a wheel.
But suddenly, we have been thrown back into old time. The beginning light of day seeps in through cracks in curtains, and at the day’s end, light disappears in the glow of Netflix series. In between we walk, cook, fossick for essentials – we wander along similar routes hoping for some oddity to create interest. We are forced into quietness, sometimes stillness, reveries. This is called solitude. Solitude is being alone, but it is not necessarily loneliness, though it can sometimes drift there. Solitude is a more active and deliberate state of self-immersion, seclusion – separateness. Not everyone enjoys it. The extroverted for instance. But for those who can tolerate this quietening of mind and pace there can be gifts of thought and awareness.
Many artists have pursued the subject of solitude. The Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi, for instance, created numerous small paintings of solitary women, sitting and standing with their backs turned on the observer, caught in a moment amid the tonal enigma of near-empty rooms. Scenes mute and still. The silence of these paintings and their atmosphere of purity deliver extraordinary power and mystery. In his noiseless arrangements of somnambulant space, delivered in the vague grey colour of dreams, contemplation is sent back into the viewer through the sheer reticence of the scene. Hammershoi’s resolute, yet gentle refusal to provide drama, narrative or resolution tempts and permits the viewer’s self-reverie to occur.
Like many emerging from Denmark’s late existential Enlightenment period, Hammershoi was likely thinking about philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s idea that while life can only be understood by looking backwards, it but must be experienced and lived forwards: ‘. . . life at any given moment cannot really ever be fully understood; exactly because there is no single moment where time stops completely in order for me to take position [to do this]: going backwards.’ But capturing the single moment was Hammershoi’s skill. His use and illusion of light provides movement within an instant of solitude that indicates the shifting of time and the fleetingness of thought. His domestic settings indicate the ordinariness of the day in which that revelation exists.
Writers have also understood the transit through a day and its changeability as a metaphor for the experience of life: an episodic movement forward while looking backwards to comprehend what has delivered them to a singular moment – opening, like Hammershøi’s doors, thresholds to questions of being. Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway occupies a single day in which the central character is perpetually looking to the past as she pushes herself forward through London’s streets into shops, to make a party, to cover silence, noting the glistening and dull luminosities of things, all the while narrating her inner reminiscences and realisations to get through the forest leaves of existence – and to reach a conclusion.
James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), a book moving episodically through a day, is constructed of encounters and situations in which memories act as motivations and impetus, seeking answers through shadows thrown by light. Casting his ‘manshape’, protagonist Stephen Dedalus looks upon his body negative and asks, ‘Who watches me here?’ It is himself of course. Light etches the shape of a protagonist as elongated time, suddenly terminated, mortal. Tangible yet elusive.
More recently in Ian McEwan’s day-in-the-life novel, Saturday (2005), neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, a man of total control and professional certitude, is caught in the spiralling postmodern events of a world whose past and future are now centrifugally sucked into a moment in a manner that would terrify Kierkegaard but confirm the ‘event’ (événement) of French philosopher, Alain Badiou.
In their own way, each novel investigates the seepage from private to public and back again and attempts to show time as being both past, present and future, as is the quest of any who want to explore what Martin Heidegger named Dasein – his proposition of being-in-the-world, an individuated yet collective contemplation because, unless one is hermit, the world will be in the being.
Time in art has changed significantly since the small world views Hammershoi delivered to viewers who peer into but remain outside the scene. In contemporary installation practice, for instance, the viewer is now situated within the artistic proposition – immersed, engulfed, surrounded. The viewer has become part of the subject of the work. This is the case with Ugo Rondinone’s major project, vocabulary of solitude, 2014–16, a work that brings together the solitary and public in synchronic time in an interrogation of being-in-the-world.
When encountering vocabulary of solitude an audience might reasonably think the project is about clowns. It is and it isn’t. There are many, life-sized, distributed throughout the atrium, each occupying its own zone of personal space. They sit, lie, slump, lean and assume the poses of waiting out time. Dressed in highly patterned colourful costumes adorned with neck ruffs of dayglow tufty-fluff, each wearing the mask of the classic clown blanc – a Pierrot type, inclined to pensive ennui – they are a rainbow community of outsiders, all similar yet different.
Rondinone situates them in a space bathed in light that is filtered through the spectrum colours of the rainbow. Washes of colour flood the floor, the walls, the ceiling – a harlequin atmosphere is produced, a magical place of gaiety tinged with the melancholy of stillness. The audience is invited to meander around and between these sentient personas. Caught in their own sculptural stasis, the clowns will never return curious gazes, nor interact with the delight some people might express. Motionless, mute, they exist only to provide a metaphor for thought. Like Hammershoi’s turned-away women, they activate something in the viewer rather than be active themselves.
The visitor might then realise that they are the mobile agents, travelling in another time zone in which these entities are eternally still; and that the sunlight, although slower than themselves, radiating through the coloured windows, travels at a different pace as it incrementally plots the passing of time. The minutes, hours and days, as Woolf said.
Rondinone talks about striving to make an art that can revolutionise your whole being. His vocabulary of solitude is about the search for authenticity, about giving that to the participant viewer and about being oneself in the world, in a community but holding onto to oneself, holding tight to your dreams. And each of the clowns ‘performs’ this function of existence for the viewer. Each is delegated a task to mark time. In reverie, to ‘hope’, ‘dream’, ‘feel’, ‘wish’, ‘remember’. In actions, to ‘wake’, ‘look’, ‘hear’, ‘sleep’. In senses, to ‘taste’, ‘hear’, ‘smell’, ‘touch’. The clowns ‘sit’ and ‘cry’. All are assigned a purpose to experience and endure a day as it glides slowly through its colourful passage, and each casts a clown-shaped shadow that asks, ‘Who watches me here?’ in solitude, in time.
 Søren Kierkegaard, Journalen 167 (1843), Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter, Søren Kierkegaard Research Centre, Copenhagen, 2012, vol 18, p 306.