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‘When a man is asleep he has around him the chain of the hours, the sequence of the years…but this ordered procession is apt to grow confused and to break its ranks.’
Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
In the closing chapters of Marcel Proust’s extraordinarily long novel À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, or, In Search Of Lost Time, the unnamed narrator, having struggled all his life (and through 4000 pages) to find his vocation, realises he is a writer and heads home to begin work on the book that is already written; we have just read it. There is also a plot, many delicious characters (2000 in fact), and of course the famous madeleine scene, but this final iteration of time as we are used to encountering it—continuous, chronological and inconsequential—being shifted and made overt is the overarching subject matter of Proust’s work, as well as the slowly accumulative experience of reading it, and something similar is available in this exhibition Borrowed Time. Jeremy Bakker has made a manifestly simple work, about time made visible, but is simultaneously offering us a way to contemplate the experience of time, and revealing something about its subversive power and our propensity to be tripped up by it.
We are very good at overlooking time, or managing to ignore it, for it is mysterious stuff; it expands and contracts and disappears. Consider the clichés we use; ‘the time flew’, ‘marking time’, ‘the time of my life’, ‘the time dragged’. Like all clichés, they ring true and we understand the sentiment or phenomenon they are describing, but they are pretending to be sufficient. They finish a sentence, or thought, rather than provide openings for further thought, and so we fall into the habit of stopping there, as well as assuming that we know all that it is necessary to know about time. The simplicity of Bakker’s exhibition is immediate and extreme; it is one work, made of pen marks forming a spiral on a piece of paper, on a plinth. It could be adequately viewed in less than a minute; ten seconds might be enough. In fact I have just described it so you need not bother seeing it at all, and besides, you already know how time works, right?
Well of course.
But what Bakker is offering here is a guided pause to that everyday experience of glancing over, cliché-ing up, simplifying away, reducing and deeming irrelevant this grand force that we are all submerged in and flung about by. Borrowed Time is lots of marks on a piece of paper, but it is also an invitation to linger a little, halt our easy assumptions, and see if we can learn something about what we already know.
There are twenty-four hours in a day, sixty minutes in an hour, and sixty seconds in each minute. We all know the maths of a clock, but Bakker calculates it further to find that there are 86,400 seconds in a day, and that is how many marks he has made. We are looking at a day and it is a day we have never seen before. The marks begin in the middle of the page, around a partially burned match stick, which is reminiscent of a sun-dial. They are grouped in fives, the fifth mark cross-hatching the four before it, and so forming a little bundle. The spiral grows to produce a dark circle about the size of a record, or LP (long play), complete with grooves, though no sound. The marks are tiny, perhaps two millimetres long, and their individuality, intimate proximity and unfathomable quantity are unsettling. Bakker has made 86,400 marks, each one is a second, and this is a day on a piece of paper.
Of course the work was not made in a day. It takes much longer to draw the seconds of a day than the seconds in a day allow, and the space between these simultaneous understandings offers us an opportunity for a strange comparison, and an unsettling fragility is revealed about our habitual assumptions of quantity, repetition, duration, and measurement. The curator, Andrew Tetzlaff, had a lead-time of eighteen months to design the show, and he met with the artist each month. At each meeting Bakker would outline his most recent idea, to which Tetzlaff would reply ‘great, I love it, let’s do that’. The next month Bakker would have had another idea, and so the months passed. The one that led to this particular work was no more apt or felicitous than those that preceded it, they agree, but their deadline was looming, and eventually the artist needed to continue a work through to completion for the opening of the exhibition. This interconnection or slippage between the analysis of time and the experience of it is integral here, and is further demonstrated by the inordinate amount of it the piece took to produce, it was a gargantuan task. Bakker would work during the mornings, for as long as his eyes and hands could maintain the execution, keeping a tally of his groups of five marks, as well as a tally of each five hundred. The piece was completed over about four months, and just in time…
Artist and curator worked together, too, in situating the piece in the room, arranging the lighting, and even deciding on the floor coverings (carpet tiles). The height of the plinth that the paper is atop is museum-like, the angle of the spot light and resulting shadow is theatre-like, the room is small and intimate (bedroom-like?), and the sound as close to absent as is possible in a Melbourne city gallery.
Much of Bakker’s previous work has been durational in nature, or has directly referenced time, and more recently the body’s involvement in experiencing and depicting time. He has shown full gallery walls of pins, each one crowned in one of those sugary coloured confections we call hundreds and thousands, and attached by a droplet of his semen (read life). He has cut out all the full stops from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and displayed them in a sealed glass vial. He has written the word ‘now’ many thousands of times in rows on a piece of paper, forming a cascading river-like accumulation of only barely discernible letters. He recently completed a residency in Japan with fellow artist, Ross Coulter, where he dug a bunker in the snow, the walls of which were a grid of recessed cubes, and into which he had local residents deposit a ball of snow they had each shaped between their hands. It slowly filled in as the weather changed, and disappeared. So many articulations of time, but time apprehended, embodied, lived, and then made available or accessible for the observer to recognise.
Time is not a new area of investigation for artists, and nor is art the only arena in which time can play games. The ‘Old Testament’ of The Bible includes a long ode to time in Chapter 3 of the ‘Book of Ecclesiastes’, which in turn was popularised by folk singer Pete Seeger, as Turn, Turn, Turn, in 1962, and has since been covered by musicians as diverse as Nina Simone, Dolly Parton and Bruce Springstein. It’s Time was the name of Gough Whitlam’s powerful and successful political campaign to bring Labor to government in Australia in 1972. Within the art world Claude Monet painted many haystacks in 1891 as a meditation on time, and Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase is a cubist pictorialisation of space and time. More recently, when Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art re-opened after renovations in 2012, the opening shows included Marking Time, in which eleven artists grappled with these continuous moments; and The Clock (2010), Christian Marclay’s video work which comprises snippets from cinematic history depicting or referencing the time of day, and which runs along in parallel to the actual time of day. All day. In New York the Japanese born conceptual artist On Kawara has been painting the date every day since 1966 and is still doing so. He simultaneously makes a swatch of the colour he used, which he glues into a hundred year calendar, records its size and assigns it a number. His collection is incomplete, since if he fails to complete a work by twelve midnight he immediately destroys it.
Some of this compulsion, futility and repetitiveness is alive in Bakker’s practice, he works in a way that repeats, repeats, repeats, and shows an extraordinary amount of diligence and dedication to a most particular task. It is obsessive, but in the way that Beethoven was obsessed by the piano, rather than in the way we are wont to use the term today, which is to indicate a sort of ridiculousness, and a proximity to worrying psychological disorders that should be medicated to fend off. Obsession in 2014 is what has always been patience and dedication, but without a recognisable enough commercial return. When Proust found a way to be a writer he did practically nothing else for the rest of his life; he lined the walls of his bedroom with cork, slept during the day in order to write at night, went out only to investigate a nuance of a character in order to portray it correctly, nursed a host of psychosomatic ailments that conveniently kept him immobilised, revised, added to, expanded and altered his work continuously and in fact died before he could ever complete it to his satisfaction. He was telling us something about time in his work, in part by submitting to a strange fervent and obsessive relationship with it himself, and Bakker, spending four months depicting a day so we too can wrestle with its shiftiness, is participating in this lineage.
In Search of Lost Time was originally translated into English as Remembrance of Things Past, but was renamed in 1992 to better reflect Proust’s untranslatable French suggestion of time not just past but wasted too, and elusive or rendered irretrievable. The final volume of the work (it comprises seven), Le Temps Retrouvé is clumsily translated as Time Regained, and in it the reader is offered a culmination that is so transcendently beautiful that the task of having laboured so long to reach it is repaid comprehensively. You could read it as a standalone volume, if you must, and I could probably summarise it for you here, if you insisted, but I would be depriving you of so much.
We spend too little time contemplating time, and we are too impatient and presumptuous to examine it adequately. In Marcel Proust and Jeremy Bakker we have generous helpers to guide us in, hold the umbrella and shine a torch on the fugitive stuff, so we might see it.
Jeremy Bakker, Borrowed Time, 2013. Ink on paper, with burned matchstick.
Jeremy Bakker, Borrowed Time, 2013. Ink on paper, with burned matchstick. Photographs Christian Capurro.