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Jean Fisher


Considering time
Time passes. At least, as mortal beings subject to the inexorable unfolding of a narrative between two points, origin and death, this is how time may seem to us, and it conditions the way we represent it. Time is the intimate bedfellow of death as the persistent enigma of existence. Accessible neither to experience nor to representation, death is, as the poet Rilke writes, ‘that side of life which is not turned toward us, nor do we shed any light upon it.’

Would it be fair to say that it is (western) consciousness of death as an end of human time, of history, that makes time accountable that makes of time an arrow, divisible into an infinite number of homogeneous instants or points set on a journey from which there is no turning back? May it be that, in measuring or spatialising time, consciousness seeks to overcome the enigma of death, or at least to ensure that death’s advance approaches at a proper pace. In any case, for Giorgio Agamben, the elements for a different concept of time ‘lie scattered among the folds and shadows of the western cultural tradition.’ 2

Time passes. Yet our perception of it does not at all follow neatly the representation of time’s arrow. The duration of an event may seem ‘like an eternity’, or pass ‘in a flash’, or — to be more concrete for a moment — face to face with the muzzle of a mugger’s gun, I am suddenly out of time, enfolded in a world where everything moves in slow motion. Time’s duration, it seems,dilates and contracts.  And, yes, it turns back on itself. If were linquish our anthropocentric demands we enter other dimensions of time whose cyclical rhythms inhabit infinitely the interstices  of the world, and which the human apprehends as sacred time.

. . .

Creative time
The studio is the space of an intimate detachment. It undergoes cycles of chaos and order. Periods when physical matter, in the sheer weight of its infinite possibilities, threatens to overwhelm the artist are counterpointed by those in which, from this delirious encounter with the material world, a form, or body of relations, begins to unfold and the space is evacuated of all that would distract from its contemplation.

Seeking a path through chaos to order, the artistic process comes close to the condition of two opposing but inseparable activities — the one profane, the other sacred — that we call play and ritual. But as the former kills time, as it empties ritual of sacred meaning and reduces it to mere form, so the latter regenerates time through its cyclical repetition. (‘The real function of ritual is to preserve the continuity of lived experience.’)

The artist in her studio surrounds herself with disparate and rather incidental elements of the material world: bits of nature and culture — fruit and stones, buttons and pieces of cloth, balls and shiny metallic kitchen utensils, and so forth — items chosen to perform in little spontaneous acts for reasons that may be quite obscure. One thing is clear, removed from its everyday context  and thrown into the artist’s play of relations, each object loses its identity, its quotidian form and meaning, to the event to which the artist subjects it. Neither is there necessarily any intention on the part of the artist to make of this play with objects a determinate ‘whole’: rather, the demand of the work, I imagine, is to avoid closure and seek the limit at which the play of relations is suspended between ‘something’ and ‘nothing’: an act of maintaining a state of openness before the game’s various possibilities fold in on themselves, when the work would then congeal into an ‘image’ or ‘representation’.

Hence ‘nothing’ may come of this game with objects; which is to say that play proper does not produce a form with any distinct or transmittable meaning. If the resultant gesture refers to anything it is to the passing event of play itself — a ‘remainder’ to be put aside for another time. And yet in the kind of play that is the creative process a transformation may take place...


1. Quoted in Maurice Blanchot, ‘The Work and Death’s Space’, in The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, London, 1982, p 133.

2. Giorgio Agamben, ‘Time and History’, in Infancy and History: Essays on the Destruction of Experience, trans. Liz Heron, Verso, London and New York, 1993, p 100.

3. Agamben, ‘In Playland’, op cit, p 69.

Extract published for solo exhibition catalogue, present.....passing, Angel Row Gallery, Nottingham, 1998.

© Judith Cowan 2022
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