Time revisited: series one

Posted by Chris Wray on Aug 31, 2009 in art, essays |

In graduate school, I developed a series of essays and visual investigations on the concept of time. I thought it might be interesting to offer the following excerpts to my blog followers for your reflection and comment. At the risk of dating myself, nearly all my meaningful grad school work was done at the cusp of the digital revolution. High performance Mac desktops (remember the Mac II?) had just begun making their way into the graphic design scene. 3-D design software on the Mac platform was rudimentary at best, so I spent most of my creative hours building dimensional models in paper, foam-core and wire. I then photographed the models using an SLR 35mm camera with Ektachrome film (the significance of using Ektachrome slide film will be discussed in my next blog post).

My initial studies began with readings about the historical and cultural meanings of time. My body of work concluded with a more personal interpretation: time as a creative process and catalyst for growth.

Series One: Eastern and Western interpretations

I found the Eastern concept of time to be poetic and holistic. For example, the Chinese word for universe, (yǔzhòu), consists of compound characters that literally mean space-time. Chinese philosophers viewed the passage of time from eternity to present as zhòu and space in all directions, above and below as .

Our present-day Western notion of time as a linear concept was brought to us by the Greeks and Romans. The Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus noted that we never step into same river twice, for fresh water is ever flowing around us. This view contrasts with the Hindu concept of time that offers a more cosmic perspective. Hindus believe the process of creation moves in cycles and that each cycle is marked by four epochs: Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dwapar Yuga and Kali Yuga. Because the process of creation is cyclical and never ending, it begins to end and ends to begin. This concept has profound impact on the Hindu language. For example, the base language of Hindi is Sanskrit, in which the verb Bhū (see Table 4 in link) has dual meanings: “to become” and “to exist.” In practical usage, only the context of the sentence reveals which state is inferred. To put this concept into Western/Heraclitian terms, you are either already in the river” or you’re about to step into it. The Hindu concept of time draws our attention not the river’s flow, but the existence of the cosmic river itself.

I started my visual studies of time by interpreting Immanuel Kant’s concept of time, one which he believed to be purely a product of the mind. Formally, my study began with a simple and concrete notion of time as a mechanical entity—the clock—which is in keeping with Kant’s 18th century Western perspective. Yet my clock construction begins to transcend the purely mechanical embodiment of time and suggests time as a process. The clock’s solid hands and gears dissolve and become more poetic and fluid representations of motion. I also created some small motion study models, inspired by Eadweard Muybridge, the 19th century English photographer famous for his pioneering photography with use of multiple cameras to capture motion. The exploded and fractured planes in my work exploit the rich possibilities of light and shadow—the two elemental properties that give substance to the notion of time as observed by our earliest ancestors.

In my next post, I’ll share with you my second series of conceptual time investigations.

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