Every Second Counts

Miguel Angel Rios's A Morir (Till Death)

The most basic notion of time generally brings to mind images that combine to depict the drama of human life. What's the relation between time and the human consciousness? Philosophers have debated this question for centuries, and Miami Art Museum's new exhibit "marking time: moving images" showcases the works of ten artists who offer their own creative responses.

Greek philosopher Parmenides believed the passing of time was merely an illusion; therefore physical change could not exist. St. Augustine explained physical time as a subjective idealization dictated by our memories. However, the discussion seemed to die down after Immanuel Kant suggested time was a fundamental category that came prior to any human experience.

Since Kant, the debate has not centered on the actual existence of time but the manner in which it is perceived. Frenchman Henri Bergson made an important contribution to this discussion with his notion of "duration" (or durée), meaning the way an individual's past, present, and future experiences intermingle.

For Bergson's hypothesis to have made such an influential impact on modern psychology and literature, something had to have changed. When Marcel Proust described Bergsonian duration as "that translucent alabaster of our memories," he was referring to an idea with which modern civilization had already become obsessed. Why?

Science, technology, and the speed with which we communicate today have made the world more accessible, smaller even, making modern life almost a deviant function of real time. According to Marshall McLuhan, it's as if "We've extended our nervous system in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time."

As spatial barriers disappear, we become more sensitized to this notion of duration (being addicted to things constantly changing). The advent of cinema and the ubiquitous video camera has fundamentally altered our perception of reality -- continually fluid, moving in slow motion, or flashing erratically back and forth.

Every so often, these ideas need to be explored, and "marking time: moving images" does just that; it examines the marking of time through movement. Organized by curator Lorie Mertes, the event features works by Janine Antoni, Miguel Angel Rios, Paul Ramírez Jonas, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Dara Friedman, Ann Hamilton, and Paul Pfieffer, among others. Though the exhibit will appeal to a variety of tastes, I tend to favor the more abstract, contemplative, and free-flowing works over the didactic and obvious. The following are my favorites:

Felix Gonzalez-Torres seems to be concerned with light and movement. His Untitled (Water) from 1995 is simply a bead curtain that divides one gallery room from another, whereas Untitled from 1991 is one of his infamous stacks of seemingly endless photocopied sheets of pater -- in this case showing images of a water surface. In both works we discover the subtlety of duration through movement. Conceptually close to Gonzalez-Torres's work is Ann Hamilton's lineament. Her installation consists of two chests, both different sizes. The smaller one contains 29 books, the larger one houses dozens of balls made from paper ribbons. A film projected onto the wall shows the silhouette of a woman slowly making these paper balls. The imagery and the sound of the reel-to-reel equipment in Hamilton's piece took me back to the days of shadow theater, a time when the tradition of craft began to wane under the mighty weight of early industrial capitalism.

Showing for the first time in the United States is a video by Argentine artist Miguel Angel Rios, titled A Morir (Till Death). The video depicts a game originally written about in Virgil's epic Aeneid. Popular in Latin America, the game is played with a trompo -- a wooden, cone-shaped toy topped with a metal spike from which a rope is wound. The object is thrown to the floor, top down, and as it spins, competitors employ a series of tricks, such as keeping it inside a square or making it knock over another player's piece.

Rios's video shows different angles of the same scene projected onto three walls. Spinning tops are thrown, one after the other, inside white squares on a black surface. As the toys gain momentum, they roll about, exuding a proud and gracious charm. Then they begin to slow down, hesitating clumsily, until they finally fall.

It's hard not to identify with Rios's dramatic piece, for it exhibits a striking parallel to human behavior. It made me think of these lines written by the late Uruguayan poet Líber Falco: "Life is like a spinning top/Like everything else, it turns round and round/Life is the little and the lot that we have/The coin of the poor."

Dara Friedman's Romance is a nice transition from the serious to the delightful. Her video portrays several couples kissing in different locations (in the park, in the forest, or against the backdrop of a city). These lovers behave as if they were the only souls alive. In their foreplay Friedman captures spontaneity, tenderness, fondness, and abandon. The subjects move slowly, caressing and learning from each other. It's evident these are perfect moments for the protagonists -- when time seems to stop.

How many people have imagined running after the sun before it sets? In keeping with the American tradition of the road movie, Paul Ramírez Jonas does just that in Longer Day (1997). His video records a highway chase, an effort to catch the sun. The artist even admits that making the video became a "vain attempt to make the day last forever." Never mind the vanity: Jonas's straightforward work makes you feel like a pioneer in pursuit of a fantasy.

Then there's the show's pice de résistance: Paul Pfieffer's The Morning After the Deluge, which borrows its title from William Turner's Light and Colour: The Morning After the Deluge (1843), now in London's Tate Gallery. In 1840 an English translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's writings about the emotional impact of color was published in England. Goethe stated the color spectrum elicits a similarly complex spectrum of feelings. Turner was excited to discover that his art and the German's theories had much in common, so he created two works to show a progression from darkness to light. Turner's Light and Colour was meant to celebrate God's covenant with man. The painting shows a large, striking whirlpool of yellow and mustard colors. In the vortex are Moses and a serpent, which he raised in the wilderness as a cure for the plague, surrounded by a crowd of angels.

Pfieffer's video interpretation of the piece begins with a magnificent view of the sun in the middle of a radiant vista (in Cape Cod). The artist then merges the footage of a sunset and a sunrise to create a striking view that lasts for 22 minutes. As the sun hangs motionless in the sky, the horizontal line of the sea disappears from the bottom of the frame before reappearing at the top, and the cycle begins again, creating an otherworldly illusion.

The works of Hamilton, Ramírez Jonas, Friedman, and Pfieffer grapple with deeper issues of postmodern temporality. That is to say, the more our short-lived present becomes insidious, the greater the need to find some kind of lasting truth with which we can counteract. I perceive the images in "marking time: moving images" as existing in a different realm from the constant barrage of information that overloads our senses daily. But not for long if, as the exhibit illustrates, video art is to become an important medium in the handling and manipulation of space and time.

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