Now’s the time

Time is an important theme for now. Wait, what did I just write? For the concept of ‘now’ it seems tautological to stress time’s importance, but it is also an important theme in Now, the sixth and last in a series of exhibitions of that name held at the Modern One gallery of the National Galleries of Scotland. As a title I would guess it has been chosen primarily to denote contemporaneity, and I get the general impression (although the website is curiously uninformative on the series as a whole) that these shows have been intended to showcase contemporary Scottish artists. This one certainly does (and one American), but as the works on show are broadly concerned with time, ‘now’ seems particularly apposite. If I knew anything about Katie Paterson before I saw her work here it was that she is interested in a much larger sense of ‘now’ than that which points towards currency of discourse, or the bleeding edge of cultural capital production.

Her Future Library project, which is documented in a film showing in Now, is an exploration of deep time, of longer durations than those generally attended to when we are not adopting a retrospective or historical perspective. In this it has something in common with the Clock of the Long Now, although it is not quite so hubristically ambitious as that project (which is planned to endure for ten thousand years). Paterson’s project sets out to accumulate one text a year from one hundred different writers, and to make those texts public only after those hundred years have elapsed – each work to be printed on paper made from wood which has been grown specifically for this purpose. While this may be a slightly shorter version of ‘now’ than that essayed by The Long Now Foundation, it is considerably longer than that usually bandied about in contemporary art circles.

This document of Paterson’s work is not out of place in this exhibition, but it is fair to say that it’s a formally straightforward documentary film, rather than a work of contemporary fine art, and what it shows is a very partial, fractional representation of a work that no single human will ever witness in its entirety. Other works by Paterson are more present in the show. ‘Totality’ brings together almost every solar eclipse ever to be visually recorded and combines the images on the surface of a mirrorball. ‘Light bulb to Simulate Moonlight’ places the viewer in a space lit by a bulb Paterson developed with Osram to mimic the spectral qualities of moonlight, along with a supply of bulbs sufficient to provide that light for a human lifetime. Another piece, ‘Ara’, strings together light bulbs whose relative brightnesses have been calibrated to reproduce the relative magnitudes of the stars in the southern sky constellation Ara. ‘Earth-Moon-Earth’ records the elisions consequent on transmitting Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ to the Moon in Morse code, and then recording the reflection of the message: it appears in the show both as a framed print of the code, and as an ethereally skeletal piece of music performed by a player piano.

All these pieces have something to do with time, but more so when one recalls the importance of time to astronomy—a field in which distance is time. Darren Almond shows several landscape photographs taken by moonlight, using extremely long exposures. The effect is striking, producing the same rich, texturally numinous surfaces that we might expect from long-exposure photography, but unexpectedly restoring colour to the night-time scenes. It would be hard to guess how these pieces had been made, but their visual impact is extremely particular. Time figures here in obvious ways, but I also imagined the piece as a response to David Hockney’s traduction of photography as offering the perspective of a ‘paralysed psyclops’: a now far greater than the photographic norm is inscribed into these images, like an inverse of the split second painstakingly inscribed over several weeks in Hockney’s ‘A Bigger Splash’.

Shona Macnaughton shows documents of a performance piece in which she related urban change to her own changing body during pregnancy. Her execution didn’t particularly resonate with me, although the themes were clearly a good fit with the other work in the show, but I think this can likely be ascribed to the absence of the work—a performance is a performance, and although the traces of one can sometimes amount to a striking artwork in their own right, in this case I think you had to be there. However, the room devoted to Macnaughton’s work will certainly stay with me, as the performance took place in a part of Glasgow with which I’m familiar, involving a walk I have made very many times, from Duke Street, along Bellgrove Street to Graham Square. Spawn, who saw the show before us, although she also accompanied Spouse and me on this visit, had texted us a picture of one of the photographs, showing Macnaughton walking past the bookie’s next door to the entrance of a dear friend’s close. It’s interesting how fascinated you can be by quite prosaic images of scenes you know well, but it was honestly exciting to see those grimy Dennistoun streets represented in a site of such cultural gravity.

Lucy Raven’s ‘The Deccan Trap’ didn’t get the time it deserved. We had another show to go to, and confronted with another film to sit and watch, we opted not to. I hope others gave it the attention I’m sure it warrants. This is a hazard of group shows, although many include work from far more artists than this one. Even with just four to attend to, however, it can be hard to carry the cognitive load required to engage meaningfully with the products of several radically particular visual and conceptual imaginations. By the time I was thinking hard about Katie Paterson’s work, I didn’t have much left over. The overall thematic coherence of the exhibition was much greater than is often the case in contemporary group displays, however, where a theme is often appended in some desperation by a curator whose priorities are more likely to relate to the availability and visitor attracting power of artists than to any overarching art-historical thesis. Paterson’s work dominated the show, and was clearly intended to—and it’s her work that I feel most inclined to seek out in the future. Which will be now, by her standards.

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