Art That Takes Its Time

Let the bigger things in life take over for a moment or two

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Photo by petradr on Unsplash

Some art is about sitting still, quietly, with little but the passing of seconds and minutes. Sometimes hours. These artworks can be inspiring and occasionally unnerving too.

In our restless, hurried world, a moment’s respite into a place of silence may seem like an attractive idea.

When in 1954 the American composer John Cage first performed a piece of music titled 4' 3", spectators found the experience of peace and quiet less reassuring. Cage’s piece consists of four minutes and 33 seconds of pure silence, bookended by the ‘performer’ with some gesture (the opening and closing of a piano lid, for instance) to indicate the beginning and end of the score. In the setting of a concert hall, where people go to hear music and witness a performance, the effect must have been unsettling to say the least. Cage, who draw inspiration from Zen Buddhism, was interested in exploring the aesthetic possibilities of auditory nothingness.

Some years later, in 1963, Cage organised a performance in New York of Eric Satie’s piano piece Vexations (c. 1893). The score by Satie bears the rather unusual inscription “In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities.” Whilst no-one is precisely sure of Satie’s intention, in recent times the inscription has been interpreted literally, with Cage’s recital lasting no less than 18 hours. The piece was played 840 times consecutively by a relay of pianists, a live performance loop that created a hypnotic cycle of repetition and rhythm.

Andy Warhol photographed by by Jack Mitchell. Source Wikimedia Commons

In the same year, the artist Andy Warhol began making movies: “The first real movie I made was, I put a camera on someone sleeping, and that’s how it all started… It just seemed so easy to do.” The resulting film, Sleep, lasted for five hours and 20 minutes, and showed little more than Warhol’s lover at the time, John Giorno, fast asleep.

Warhol went further. In 1964, he made Empire, a film that lasted nearly three hours longer. At eight hours and five minutes, Empire consists of a stationary view of the Empire State Building during an evening sunset and the arrival of night time. The film, like Sleep, was intended to rupture the conventions of film making by deliberately withdrawing any sense of narrative from the film’s structure. On its premier at the City Hall Cinema in Manhattan, it’s said that up to 40 people demanded their money back after just 10 minutes of the film had elapsed.

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Still from ‘Empire’ by Andy Warhol. Source Wikimedia Commons

If Warhol’s eight hour film sounds like a test of endurance, then the 2011 film Modern Times Forever, at a running time of 10 days, might be virtually impossible to contemplate. Made by a Danish artistic group, Superflux, the film shows the hypothetical ravages of time on a modernist building in Helsinki. Over the course of 240 hours, the building is shown to rot and disintegrate imperceptibly. Whilst a film like this could never be expected to sustain audience through it’s full duration, it’s purpose was to draw attention to the profound effects of slow-time in a world where we tend to experience change at an increased pace.

Far more watchable is the film The Clock, an art installation by video artist Christian Marclay. The 24-hour-long film shows a montage of thousands of film and television clips, each with a moment where a clock appears, edited together such that we appear to watch it in real time. Marclay’s film has won critical and public acclaim for its drawing together of popular culture with philosophical concepts of time and memory.

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Marina Abramović performing ‘Artist is Present’ at the MoMA in May 2010. Source Wiki Commons

For artworks that take place over more exceptional time durations, we may look to the performance artist Marina Abramović. In the spring of 2010, the Musuem of Modern Art held a major retrospective of her work. The exhibition included a new piece by the artist, The Artist Is Present, in which visitors to the gallery were invited to sit opposite Abramović at wooden table. No words were exchanged, just eye contact. The piece lasted for 736 hours and 30 minutes, during which Abramović sat opposite 1,545 sitters. Somewhat paradoxically, visitors waiting to take part in the artwork — to be able to say “I was there” — began to grow impatient with waiting. As the piece became more widely know, queues grew longer, so that by the end of the performance, lines were circling round the block. Arguments broke out. Their patience, it seemed, lacked the stamina of Abramović’s 10 week vigil.

Tehching Hsieh, a Chinese performance artist — called a “master” by Abramović— has taken such endurance pieces to another level. In 1978, Hsieh locked himself in a 11.5-by-9-by-8-foot wooden cage in which he stayed for a whole year. During the piece, One Year Performance 1978–1979 (Cage Piece), the artist didn’t allow himself to talk, to read, to write, or to listen to radio and TV.

If these long-duration artworks seem to take the form to its very limits, then one further piece may yet astonish.

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St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt. CC BY-SA 3.0,

Returning to John Cage, in 1987 he composed an organ work named Organ²/ASLSP (As Slow as Possible). Various performers have attempted the work, and following the instruction in its title, have played it as slow as possible. The longest documented performance of the piece by a single person was a 14 hour and 56 minute recital by Diane Luchese in 2009.

This impressive performance is set to be dwarfed by a version currently playing at St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany, which began in 2001 and is scheduled to have a duration of 639 years, ending in 2640. A purpose built pipe organ has been engineered to execute the piece. The next note change is due to occur on September 5, 2020, and in several years’ time, one note will sound for 58 years without a break. Nobody alive today will hear the completion of this performance, and many generations will pass before the last note is concluded.

Written by

Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings”

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