A Time to Mourn –Temporality in the Plastic Arts, Part I

One of the challenges of my thesis (for which I have not posted an abstract), is that I bear the burden of proof in attempting to demonstrate that not only music, but all art, involves temporality; rhythm even. The philosophical justification for this assertion comes from Giorgio Agamben’s The Man without Content, where he quotes and expands on Holderlin in saying that

“Everything is rhythm, the entire destiny of man is one heavenly rhythm, just
as every work of art is one rhythm, and everything swings from the poetizing
lips of the god.”

My suspicion is that this assertion is also theologically significant. However, before I can unpack why and how this is the case, my challenge is to demonstrate in what sense Agamben’s assertion is in fact true of art in general. Thankfully, I am able to draw upon others who are more familiar with art history than I am. I owe the following analysis of Anish Kapoor’s sculpture, Marsyas to Judy Raines.

Behold, Marsyas

Tate Photography. Marsyas, 2002: Installation at Tate Modern. See www.tate.org.uk/modern/exhibitions/kapoor

Inspired by the massive Turbine Hall in the Tate Modern museum in London, Kapoor engineered a sculpture of colossal proportions to fill both the height and the length of the hall in 2003. As an artist, Kapoor believes form to have metaphysical memory, and so seeks to make art that moves the viewer past the material object itself through her interaction with it. Marsyas accomplishes this primarily through its size, leading the viewer to confront her limit. Made of a PVC membrane stretched taught over three steel rings, this sculpture is so enormous that it is impossible for the viewer to see its entirety from a single vantage point. It cannot be mastered. Rather, it can only be known through a series of encounters that require bodily strain and participation. Marsyas is so gigantic, that it feels as though it imposes itself into one’s own space. It cannot be ignored. It is absorbing, demanding and unnerving. It is an extremely tactile experience of how one can be absolutely confronted by the other. It is an unsafe object in the sense that it refuses to undergird the enormity of the viewer’s imagined self, but confronts her with her hubris. At the same time, however, it contains an element of safety. One of the three steel rings is positioned over a bridge such that the viewer can walk under the sculpture. This takes some trust in the engineering of the extremely heavy sculpture, especially given that it is engineered to give the illusion of floating in mid-air. However, what is remarkable is that one feels a certain enveloping safety under this ring. The same object that is unnerving and dangerous is also gentle and safe.

So far, so spatial. How does this help me? Well, there has been at least one viewer who has been confronted by Marsyas, not in terms of space, but time: the composer Arvo Part. Coming out of the Orthodox tradition in which the trumpets of judgement play a prominent theological role, Part was confronted, not by Marsyas’ size as such, but by the enormous red trumpets of eternity, signalling his judgement. He became immanently aware of passing time; that his time was ending. For Part, Marsyas was eternity breaking through time. The line between time and timelessness became blurred. Through this encounter, Part came to believe that the context in which it is appropriate for us to confront our time and our death is that of eternal time, or timelessness. We can only bring ourselves to look plainly at our limits in the context of that which is both overpowering and gentle; the unsafe God in whom we might find safety.

So this is perhaps one example of the way in which plastic art might exhibit a sort of rhythm. It is the manifestation of the eternal in the forms and materials of the temporal, such that temporal reality is in turn caught up into the eternal.  We speak, for example, about the rhythms of the liturgical year, and week, in a similar way. It’s the movement back and forth between human limit and human participation in divine time. It is a part of what we mean when we call something ‘incarnational.’

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3 comments on “A Time to Mourn –Temporality in the Plastic Arts, Part I

  1. Theophilus says:

    As a musician, I have found that among the visual and plastic arts I have found it easiest to appreciate those works that I cannot apprehend all at once, just as a musical work cannot be apprehended without allowing the time necessary to perform the work to go by. Sculptures, video, and very large static pieces have accordingly been easier for me to appreciate than, say, most paintings and other small, two-dimensional static pieces. So far I have not found a way to collapse this difference; hopefully you will find more success.

    The discussion of rhythm also strikes me as a particularly post-Romantic phenomenon. For most of he eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, harmony, rather than rhythm, was the dominant framework by which music was perceived; in earlier centuries this role was played by melody. But beginning with the rise of mostly Eastern European composers like Bartók and Stravinsky in the early twentieth century, rhythm moved to the foreground as a structural and syntactic device within the art music tradition and beyond. I wouldn’t be all that surprised if pre-twentieth century art criticism might have made similar things about all things being harmonic, rather than rhythmic. The presence of numerically low ratios in both musical tuning systems and many great artworks would suggest this.

    • Lexi says:

      Thank you Theo, that is really helpful. It is good for me to hear from musicians and artists who work with these concepts from the inside, whereas I am mostly trying to understand art as an outsider. You’re observation above about there being different dominant frameworks in different periods is very interesting. Do you perhaps have any books or other sources that I could refer to on this? Are you also perhaps cautioning me to take Agamben with a grain of salt, since the tendency to attempt to understand all art in terms of a single structural device has proved to be unhelpful, as it has not been nuanced enough?

      • Theophilus says:

        Really, the notion of harmony-as-interpretive-framework goes back to Pythagoras, who found that the mathematical proportions of musical intervals were the same as the proportionate lengths of the orbits of the celestial bodies, and believed that this was not merely coincidental. The Wikipedia piece on musica universalis offers a pretty decent overview of this concept, as well as its long history. After the Renaissance, there wasn’t such a strong, coherent single theory regarding how musical notions might interpret other things. Anton Webern’s little book “The Path to New Music” offers a reasonable overview of how melodic, and then harmonic, thinking dominated Western art music up to the early twentieth century, although he proposed that music ought to develop by synthesizing harmonic and melodic elements, rather than take the rhythmic path that has proved to be more popular.

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