Good art can seem to stop time. It pulls us out of the relentless progression of minutes and brings us to the threshold of the present moment. As technology speeds us up, the grounding antidote of art — a Beethoven piano sonata, a Cézanne painting, an episode of “Louis” — grows even more necessary.
Two exhibitions, “Passing Time,” at the Sandra & David Bakalar Gallery at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and “Slowness,” at Howard Art Project, explore our perceptions of time.
The most memorable works in “Passing Time,” organized by the Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery at Wesleyan University and curated by Ginger Duggan and Judith Hoos Fox, make time feel capacious.
Philipp Lachenmann’s gorgeous photo “Grey Study (Surfer) #13 XL-02_09, 2003” captures an enormous, fog-filled sky with tiny surfers idling on the water below. Space becomes a metaphor for time, and for the serene quality of waiting for something that cannot be rushed. Shaun Gladwell’s video “Storm Sequence,” in which a skateboarder performs lazy wheelies in front of a stormy beach, soothes with its repetition and the skateboarder’s absorption and patience.
Both works tie time to the tides. Others reach to the rhythms of the spinning cosmos. Ken Fandell scores “The Planets,” his smart series of videos, with the music of Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite of the same name written nearly a century ago and featuring seven movements, each celebrating a planet.
The videos feature mundane imagery, which Fandell manipulates, changing up the visual rhythm, even as the symphony keeps time. “On the Lawn at Graduation in the Year 2001,” with Holst’s “Mars, The Bringer of War,” shows a woman’s sandaled foot swinging in the air, accelerated to match the rising mood of the music. Fandell masterfully ties everyday gestures and themes to the heroism and romance of Holst’s compositions, and in so doing draws a picture of what specks we are in this enormous clockwork of a universe.
Su-Mei Tse makes a similar point in “L’Echo,” a large-scale video projection so visually stark and still you might mistake it for a painting — lime green grass in the foreground, the shadowy blue face of a mountain beyond. At the very edge of the chasm between, the artist in red, her back to us, plays sonorous notes upon a cello. It’s more self-conscious, less nuanced than Fandell’s videos, but expertly done.
Passing time also references keeping occupied. Jonathan Callan does it in “Seven Volumes” by cutting up Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” and winding it into spools; the winding becomes a metaphor for memory. Stefana McClure has similarly wound a Dvorak score into a ball, which seems an unnecessary redundancy.
Some works grapple with death. Siebren Versteeg’s “Untitled (Film 1)” streams the name of newborns over nature videos on one screen, as names from obituary websites scroll on an opposite wall. The names become like ticking seconds, marking the beginning of the life and the end.
Luis Camnitzer’s “Last Words” takes the final sentiments of prisoners on death row and prints them on human-sized sheets of paper in blood red ink. Yet they are so repetitive — “Know that I love all of you. . . . And to my family, I love you,” that they become meaningless to read.
Death, memory, infinity, and more — “Passing Time” takes on too much. One of these themes would have been enough to fill a gallery. While some of the works make you stop in your tracks, all together they muddle.
“Slowness,” curated by Christopher Thomas Ford, in many ways seems more about loneliness than it does about slowing down — although perhaps it’s when we slow down that loneliness wells up.
Jessica Borusky’s “You’re Great/No Worries,” which is accompanied by the artist in performance during open hours (she was not there when I visited), features two videos on a shelved cart, in which the artist rails such faint praise as “Good job, you haven’t [expletive] it up.” As the exhibit goes on, Borusky is wrapping the whole thing in plastic, gradually obscuring the videos inside a vaguely transparent monolith — perhaps an embodiment of the voices in her head.
Other artists explore expectations for their own work, and how they shift. For “107,594,” Joanna Tam set out to make biographical index cards for the more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians some estimates project were killed during the US invasion. A video shows enormous stacks of index cards, and features audio in which Tam laments how filling out the cards became more chore than homage.
Kimberly Ruth’s iPhone video “Missed Connections” documents a project in which she went on the Internet and solicited people to tell their stories, but, she narrates, “I am unsure what to do with their material.” She says she begins to experience herself as a camera, just taking in the information. Despite her sense of disconnection, the video, and the intimacy of viewing it on an iPhone, is sweet and humane.
As for slowing down, Leah Craig’s “Expiration Challenge” most effectively captures it. She invites viewers to exhale into plastic wrap, creating a makeshift balloon twisted at two ends. These are left on a low platform to deflate. Which they do, in their own time — something many of us have lost track of.