Time Based Art

Jan van de Cappelle: ‘A River Scene with a Large Ferry and Numerous Dutch Vessels at Anchor’, 1665. Oil on canvas. 122 x 154.5 cm. National Gallery, London.

“Everyone knows that envy is usually aroused by the possession of goods which would be of no use to the person who is envious of them, and about the true nature of which he does not have the least idea.

Such is true envy – the envy that makes the subject pale before the image of a completeness closed upon itself … It is to this register of the eye as made desperate by the gaze that we must go if we are to grasp the taming, civilising and fascinating power of the function of the picture”

Jacques Lacan, from ‘The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis’ ed. Macey,D. Penguin Books, London, 1994, page 116

For example Jan Van der Capelle’s: ‘A River Scene with a Large Ferry and Numerous Dutch Vessels at Anchor’, 1665. which I have mentioned before, another old friend in the National Gallery, London. I know nothing about boats, or water, or 17th century Holland and am not that keen to know more, so why can I happily sit in front of a painting of such things? Are we envious of these complete worlds that function quite well without us? In front of this painting recently I drew up a list of other possible reasons for sitting there:

· The pleasures of melancholy: it is a painting about boredom – ships becalmed waiting for wind – the only thing that moves are two birds to the right. Why is an image of boredom, not boring? It is carefully composed, low horizon, close tones, strong verticals and horizontals create an image of stasis.

· My feet hurt, there is a convenient bench in front of the painting.

· The illusion of depth is intrinsically pleasing? Although not mathematically derived there are clues to Albertian methodology, the left foreground boat lies on the diagonal that would check the tiles of a Renaissance pavement,

Leon Battista Alberti: ‘De Pictura and Elementa’ 1518, from 1435

the distance from top mast to horizon is similar to that of the bottom of the canvas to that same distant boundary; ie a symmetrical recession of ground plane below and boats above. As James Ellkins points out in his highly recommended book, ‘The Poetics of Perspective’ the creation of most fictive spaces owe little to true perspective, but van der Capelle has made a convincingly ordered static world, is that what makes it ‘lookable’?

· Do we have an instinctive appreciation of harmony? All paintings have to be balanced and we enjoy that harmony or balance in the arrangement of forms and colour. Are these harmonics permanent though, as in the Golden Section and Pythagorean harmonics, or are they culturally conditioned? Colour and tone very possibly, is the balance of form in a later Dutch artist (Mondrian) equivalent?

Piet Mondrian: ‘Composition C (no.III), with Red, Yellow and Blue’, 1935

· I have an hour to wait before my train home; one way or another paintings conquer time.

· We like stories, all paintings contain possibilities, what has happened, what is happening, what will happen next? (time again)

· Enjoying the skill of the maker must be part, but that skill also builds intellectual content. The curvature of the earth as seen on that painted horizon, the careful positioning of each object on a constructed surface, but a surface that equally and disquietingly, has it’s own sense of depth. Depth and distance in a crowded world, images of quietude, map making, exploration, colonisation, trade and narrative combine in an object about luxury, the past and the future (time again)

Jan van de Cappelle: ‘A River Scene with a Large Ferry and Numerous Dutch Vessels at Anchor’, 1665. Oil on canvas. 122 x 154.5 cm. National Gallery, London

· An image of quiet for an unquiet world.

· This room itself is quiet though, perhaps that is why I choose it. Few others bother with a room full of static, Dutch landscapes, the rest of the gallery is frantic with pleasure seekers.

· As those other rooms prove, looking at art is a communal activity, do we derive satisfaction from such a joint process? Perhaps we receive sustenance from those accumulated gazes, like the notion of a church as a prayer repository.

· This is a modern spiritual space, art as worship? Icons? Great God Culture? A thing that takes us from the dull here to the transcendent there? To the blue horizon in a satisfyingly complex manner?

· Historical interest and identification across the centuries. After a twenty minute wait on my train into London and ten minutes stuck on a tube station this afternoon, earlier problems with transport seem easy to appreciate. (time again)

· I see an old thing therefore, as Antiques Roadshow tells me, a thing of financial value so worthy of respect.

· Is there a parallel with fishing, another very popular activity that often involves no actual activity? Is looking at a painting an opportunity to:

“Turn off your mind relax and float down stream

It is not dying, it is not dying

Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void,

It is shining, it is shining.”

As Lennon wrote in “Tomorrow Never Knows”

· Maybe it’s just showing off, demonstrating high status cultural knowledge. Is that sort of knowledge still high status? Wouldn’t it be better to know all about financial derivatives or the offside rule in football? (something I know  even less about than boats).


The key here is I think the term multi-layered, multiple layers of fictive space, multiple layers of narrative, multiple layers of paint in an image that is apparently undemanding. An image that slowly draws you into its depths. (time gentlemen please)

Peter Paul Rubens: 'A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning', 1636. Oil on Oak. 131 x National Gallery, London

Friday Afternoon, National Gallery, London

Sitting in front of this painting, can we recognise a sense of freedom, a release from working to commission? This is, or so we are told in critiques of late Rubens’ landscapes, a painting made entirely for pleasure. It is certainly not one of Rubens’ machines, no muscular quantities of flesh and evident classical narrative.

“Man, why’s there so many dogs in all these paintings?”

“I don’t know, maybe the Brits liked dogs”

“Look there’s one with that man with the gun”

“And see in that one over there, the one with all the fat women, the dog under the tree, and there’s an ostrich!”

“Man, that’s not an ostrich”

“What’s it then?”

“I don’t know, but it’s not an ostrich”

“Maybe that dog will eat it”

“Maybe, then we won’t have to know what it’s called”

The panel is made from many odd sections (twenty apparently), some of the horizontal joins are increasingly obvious. Earlier explanations believed this unorthodoxy showed Rubens adding new parts to the painting as ideas occurred; a genuine development not an allotted task. Recent research (e.g. Christopher Brown: ‘Making and Meaning/ Rubens’ Landscapes’. National Gallery Publications. 1996)  thinks this unlikely. It would be difficult if not impossible to add, prime and work in sections of oil painting, the already worked paint would be disturbed at the very least. Adding sections of panel is not like, for example, Degas sticking on extra bits of paper to his drawings as he expanded an idea.

Edgar Degas: 'Woman Drying Herself', 1880's. pastel on several pieces of paper. 104 x 98 cm. National Gallery, London

The reason for all the small sections then? Rubens was paying for it himself, the artist went for the cheapest option, something knocked up from oddments in the panel makers shop: lots of bits.

But, to be honest, after looking for so long at this large painting in such a public place, I still think it is a public painting, made for this sort of reception. You could say that the strong brown washes (the Burnt Sienna like colour, probably Cassel Earth) over white lead underpaint in the foreground have the effect of lighting the trunk and fallen branches from underneath; like footlights on a stage.

Peter Paul Rubens: 'A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning', 1636. Oil on Oak. 131 x National Gallery, London. Detail: The Foreground

I’m sure this has more to do with paint ageing, than a deliberate attempt to reinforce the artificiality of the painted world, far too Post-Modernist. Nonetheless, the fact that one could hold such a notion about the work, emphasises that it was an image made for public consumption.

Was there any other type in this period?  Van der Capelle (looked at in the last post), is often described as a ‘Sunday Painter’ in that, as a wealthy man (the family firm made money in the dye trade: carmine) he did not need to sell his work. Unlike for example Rubens, and like for example, Cezanne supported by his father’s money.

The Ground Plane

Van der Capelle’s paintings look very similar, but I hope my digressions on the ground plane recently showed that something else going on, some wish to follow a line of enquiry. There is none of that same sense of personal investigation about Het Steen, personal display perhaps but not personal discovery. Rubens is not finding anything that he had not known before, unlike Cezanne or possibly van der Capelle.

Look at the ground plane in Het Steen, unlike the van Der Capelle,

Jan van de Cappelle: ‘A River Scene with a Large Ferry and Numerous Dutch Vessels at Anchor’, 1665. Oil on canvas. 122 x 154.5 cm. National Gallery, London.

Rubens ground plane is entirely and deliberately solid, and for a reason. This is land that Rubens would like to us to believe generations of Rubens have traversed; there is certainly an ancient hill fort aspect to our viewpoint. It is also land, Rubens would like us to believe, generations of Rubens will traverse after him; in fact it was sold not long after his death.

“Eurgh, my feet hurt”

“We should really report in”

“What time is the meet?”


“Moving on then?”

Timelessness and Pictorial Space

Another question: How does an artist go about creating this sense of timelessness in a scene which, through the contemporary dress of the carter and companion and hunter, is clearly set in 1636?

Answer: the deep pictorial space and elevated viewing point help a great deal. Think of a different painting, Rubens: ‘Samson and Delilah’, which you can just see from the bench in front of Het Steen.

Peter Paul Rubens: 'Samson and Delilah', about 1609, Oil on Oak, 185 x 205 cm. National Gallery, London

It is made by the way, from six very carefully jointed and prepared oak panels, with the grain running perfectly parallel in all of them. Although Samson is a timeless story and the some of the clothes are vaguely timeless, the animal skin notwithstanding, it is set in a claustrophobic now. The long past and future are suitably indicated, but not really part of the show. The contemporary armour helps, but that ‘nowness’ is set, because there are no depths for the eye to travel to, therefore no indicated depths of time for us to wander about in.

The action in Het Steen is in the immediate fore and near mid-ground, the rest of the view though, is equally clearly painted, and clear for us to potter across. It is not though,  the mere scene setting landscape you can see on the flanking Judgements of Paris.

A young man pushes an older man (father?) in a rather splendid wheelchair (all wicker back and cane edged wheels) to position him centrally in front of the painting.

“A view of Het-Stern, whatever a hetstern is”

The older man points with his stick at the horizontal crack running between cart wheel and trunk. They wonder between them what could have caused this. The younger man points out the hunter, the older points to the fallen tree and says:

“I suppose it looked like those once” waving at the oak and birches in the mid ground.

“I suppose so”

The younger man wheels the chair away, he has Rebel Rock Radio embroidered on the back of his shirt, and big head phones around his neck.

This morning I saw some drawings by Robert Bevan (The Camden Town artist better known for his small painting of horses and horse markets) made during time spent in Pont-Aven.

Robert Bevan: 'Poplars by the Road, Brittany',early 1890's, charcoal on paper, 33 x 40 cm.

Heavily influenced by Gauguin, these drawings of trees had enormous energy and strength, not dissimilar now I come to look at them, to the lively forms of the trees the old man has been indicating with his stick. The different areas of sunlight and the curving masses of the painted leaves are full of movement and, well, youth really.

Peter Paul Rubens: 'A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning', 1636. Oil on Oak. 131 x National Gallery, London. Detail The Trees

On the other side of the bench, a young man is drawing in his sketchbook, not the usual insipid copying, but strong lines of figures, thick and black and energetic. So different for example to the art student I saw recently, laboriously copying the biro lines made by Boetti’s assistants, and getting them wrong.

Alighiero Boetti: 'Al Mondo Il Mondo', 1972-3. Biro on Paper, 159 x 164 cm. Archivio Alighiero Boetti.

In the Boetti, the biro lines are entirely vertical, in hers they were both horizontal and vertical. Boetti’s ‘Mettare Al Mondo Il Mondo’ series are strong, thought provoking images, a record of the labour involved in making art, hers were not.

The young man behind me continues to draw, I realise that he is drawing people as they walk past, reflecting their vigour in this room (Room 29) of vigorous painted figures. The focus of his drawing is moving round the bench and will get to me soon; time to go.

A fully immersive art experience in every sense. It starts with online booking, then a woman in wellies and clipboard ticking off names, in front of a large rusted metal door in a carpark at the back of a warehouses just of Kingsland High Road, East London. You have to walk past a McDonalds and all the excitement of Hackney street life to get there. ‘There’ is Edgelands, the car park is one of several hemmed in blank urban spaces, derelict and graffitied (including oddly a memorial to a Chechen freedom fighter). In the distance the sound of Ridley Road market (“come on love don’t be shy, everything for a paand”) around the wastes are stacks of cardboard for rough sleepers. But we must go; our group of slightly baffled art enthusiasts are being hurried through the door by a tall figure in black with a strange voice.
Down steep stairs into darkness, dampness and oddness. We are recruits for a job with Bunker PLC apparently. We fill out application forms in almost complete darkness, chivvied by strange figures with headtorches, who fit waterproof slippers over our shoes, later we will get into full waterproof ponchos. Scientific glass vessels full of beautiful, crystallised plant life provide light. We watch the company film, full of appropriate corporate cliché, in another room, hurried down many dark, wet mouldy corridors from low ceilinged space to space. We find out more about the company, set up after cataclysmic climatic events in 2012 (we are in the future now). Life evolves underground: human pollination; urban vertical farming; genetic modification by plunging the hands deep into bloody chest cavities; a hands on art work then.  The combination of film/ sci fi/ dystopia/ comic references echoes throughout the hour underground and in every one of the rooms; crystallised books by Ballard in one room, references to Tarkovsky on a white board in another. The conviction by the actor/ artists is total, as is the whole set up.
The usual fear of role play promotes the wish to see this art work on many levels. As a walk through film, a theatrical polemic about climate change, an artwork that derives from performance and installation traditions of the 1960’s. I suppose you could say that critique has been implicit within performance art since Oldenburg’s anti materialist Happenings and is certainly present here. You could also point out that a future in which nothing works is a common feature of much contemporary art work. Noticeably none of these futures involves digital technology, imagine Blade Runner without all the toys, or the replicants for that matter.
But you could also say that what links many of these works is a common understanding of the role of time within the artwork and in the way that the viewer encounters it. There is more to this than the simple process of setting the work in the future, as seen in both ‘Bunker PLC’ and ‘whiteonwhite’ (see previous post).  Could we say that, in using an overarching narrative: the role of this imaginary corporation in a future society that has undergone cataclysmic change; the search for meaning by a geophysicist in a post Soviet city, both works fluently create sequenced packages of time that are apparently linear, but are in fact circular? Time that appears ‘representational’, in that it is subject to the usual chronological rules that exist this side of the picture plane: diurnal (A diurnal cycle is any pattern that recurs every 24 hours as a result of one full rotation of the Earth).But time that is in fact subject to systems set up by the artist/s.
In the Bunker, although our narrative packages are physically divided by rooms in which the different activities occur, including the relaxation room/ bar at the end where loud music is played at us. Drinks, by the way, have been served throughout in different forms, there is a level of humour/ wit/ fun in this work that is admirable and adds to the sense of understanding this on many levels. Although the way we move through the scenarios appears linear, they could work in any direction. I did try to move away from one room, only to be approached by a very fierce actor/ artist squeaking “Task? Task? Have you completed your Task?” at me; impressively staying in character throughout. In ‘Bunker PLC’, in common with ‘whiteonwhite’, we make the overarching narrative complete in our reaction to the sequences of activity we participate in, and the connections we make between them and what we know of the outside world.
How does that fit into what I have been struggling with in my encounters with an earlier art work (Het Steen, see earlier posts)? We left the notion that art needs to be a physical object behind in the 1970’s. Nonetheless, the way we encounter, for example the glued together boards covered with green and brown paint that is called ‘A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning’, bears more similarities with these two recent works than you might think. Granted they are not art objects, In an art object, traditionally a flat piece of static painting, time can be encapsulated in the ways in which the artist has laid material on the surface: slowly drawn line; thick violent gestural paint; visibly layered surfaces etc. Time can also be manipulated conceptually ‘through the picture plane’ as it were, on the other side of the Albertian window. So, for example in Het Steen we see the horse pulling the cart with its two occupants to our left, the sun will rise, the hunter will shoot the ducks on the far side of the fallen tree. In other words the representations are presented for us to read as mental images that we can happily accept as a narrative sequence subject to the usual rules of diurnal time.
As I think I have established in earlier post, it is how you traverse the mental image of the landscape that tells the viewer about the qualities of that landscape. ‘Bunker Plc’ the artwork is both a physical landscape – a Second World War bunker- and a conceptual landscape- ‘Bunker Plc’. We traverse the conceptual landscape according to the rules we are given by the imagined protagonists. So what have we established? That these works (‘Bunker PLC’, ‘whiteonwhite’) are also ‘landscape’ in that they involve traversing a landscape (physically and conceptually). They involve presenting time, on the far side of the ‘picture plane’, as a diurnal chronological process sequenced through traditional narrative structures. But, beneath the immediately visible layers of pictorial space, in the formal features of the composition so to speak, are far more complex, contemporary, non linear time based processes. Playing with stories is as old as humankind, it’s fascinating to see how artists are now working with them in such a multilayered referential and, crucially, easily accessible manner.
It occurs to me as a postscript that: Het Steen, like most painting is the work of a single ego, and as many post Pollock (Griselda not Jackson) will point out, white and inevitably male. Whereas both Bunker Plc and whiteonwhite are collaborative works, film is inevitably so and such a substantial installation must have demanded continuous negotiation. Both contemporary works seem to be largely put together by women, Eve Sussman as well as the rufus corporation for ‘whiteonwhite’ and Jo Shaw & Olivia Bellas, as well as the other women artists and actors involved in Bunker Plc.