Sarah Sze´s mixed-media work, Timekeeper, overwhelms the space it inhabits at Copenhagen Contemporary, despite it being a desk-size installation in the middle of an impressive exhibition hall. Sound, still and moving image, and found objects place the sculptural ensemble in an undefined spatial dimension, with no beginning or end, making it impossible for viewers to apply a traditional reading of the work. Part of the artist´s larger oeuvre, defined by a critique of the contemporary age of information and digitalisation of knowledge, Timekeeper is a witty play with perception and scale, employing technologies of impermanence to build an art piece that strangely speaks of permanence.
As announced by the title, the concern of the piece seems to be with the possibility of measuring, recording, and containing time: What man-made object could keep time? Can anything of what we build be ever free of the humanity we unavoidably endow it with, so that it could stand the test of time? The fragility of this installation (wire, mirrors, paper, flickering lights) speaks of its capacity to attain permanence, predicated on the possibility of infinite (re)contextualisation: the art piece is out of time and space; therefore, it could be in any time or space, containing elements of this and any number of other possible worlds.
The conceptual tension between analogue and digital is central: digitally stored information is projected both on screens and on small, torn up pieces of paper; projectors are, in turn, covered in paper collages, like protective layers, suggesting an inverted process of assigning value and strength: an imminent future where the digital is ubiquitous might as well implode, having the world rely once again on analogue solutions. Our history survived thousands of years recorded on paper – what will become of the history we record digitally today?
The labyrinthine characteristic of Timekeeper points to an underlying presence of the illusory; the solidity of objects is countered by a multi-layered illusion of their functionality. Projected images and sounds are in a loop, speaking to the illusion of endlessness of the digital space and its capacity for storage; organic elements (plants, fruit, eggs) turn out to be made of plastic, suggesting the artist´s realistic doubts in the capacity of the living element to survive or regenerate in this man-made setting.
Images of natural phenomena (bodies of water, fire, footage of the universe, explosions) were recorded and are being reproduced by digital devices, their scale reduced to fit our capacity for spectatorship. This bending of nature to fit the human scale seems part of the larger criticism of technology: sand is being stored in plastic bottles scattered around the table, a statement to the process of disintegration and decay, probably the most visible effect of time passing. Plastic bottles need approximately 500 years to decompose in nature and become nothing; sand, in turn, is the consequence of hundreds of years of corrosion of natural elements: something, in this case, decayed and became something else. The work of man seems incapable of replicating the one feature that makes nature spectacular: the capacity to regenerate.
A constant ticking of a clock is part of the installation, a familiar, yet uncanny sound, which points to the very act of making and experiencing art: an artwork is the kind of physical and conceptual space that is expected to be able to suspend time, yet this installation embraces this daunting reality of time always flowing, recorded and replayed at multiple levels: projections of a clock registering time in different parts of the world are shown all around the installation. The multiplicity of time experienced in various versions is doubled by the singularity of the individual, which raises questions of how we perceive our own timely life: do we inhabit one, or several timelines? Are we simultaneously being ourselves and our non-selves, as we embody this possibility of being in this time, as well as in another?
Timekeeper is a riddle, an illusion, a play with senses and meaning, in a manner that challenges the historicity of our contemporary experience: What is authentic? What is the role of art and the artist in deciding what and how should be preserved and recorded in time? How do we cope with anachronisms at the heart of conflict, suffering, poverty, or genocide in our world today? Leaving the art hall came with a feeling of unease: of not being able to answer these questions, and not really knowing whether they are the right questions to ask. Time will, probably, tell.
Timekeeper is open at Copenhagen Contemporary until 3rd September 2017.
Words: Elena Stanciu