Should you find yourself one post-holiday afternoon with several hours to kill and no other obnoxiously organized soul with whom to spend them, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC will come to your rescue with “Days of Endless Time.” In tune with Marina Abramovic’s recent crusade for quietude, the exhibition presents 14 works of art by internationally renowned video and new media artists exploring the notion of timelessness, solitude, and the sublime. As with Abramovic, the show is most rewarding to those willing to give in to its contemplative pace.
While four of the artworks are continuous or interactive, the remaining ten are durational videos that combined run at an impressive 92:32. In an age when so much of our world is delivered to us in snappily edited, quickly digestible doses, our desire to “get it” and move on is repeatedly frustrated; hijacked both by the works’ largely non-linear narratives and by the continuative nature of the medium. Perhaps in service of the curators’ concept for “Days” to be “an experience rather than a didactic exhibition,” we’re given broad thematic strokes but left largely to our own devices—sometimes maddeningly so—for a more nuanced interpretation of how the works function, both individually and in concert.
Our relationship to the environment—real and simulated—quickly emerges as the backbone of the exhibition. In “DeadSee,” artist Sigalit Landau floats naked in aquamarine water, moored to a spiral string of uncoiling, sporadically gauged watermelons. Nearby, Guido van der Werve appears bundled from head to toe for “Nummer Negen (#9): The Day I Didn’t Turn with the World,”a stunningly extreme meditation, documented in an eight-minute, time-lapse video that tracks the artist as he stands at the North Pole—shifting every few seconds to counter the turning of the earth—for an entire 24-hour period. For “L’Echo,” artist Su-Mei Tse (a classically trained musician) sits with her cello at the edge of a grassy precipice overlooking a dramatic mountain range; playing to the void and her own echo. Made in 2003, the arresting work—exhibition poster child and Golden Lion Award-winner—is disappointingly pixelated, its sound sadly flat and tinny, foregrounding that such technology-driven works are time-bound in a myriad of ways both intentional and imposed.
If the exhibition “delivers an antidote to information overload,” as the Huffington Post suggests, it does so in ways not entirely comforting. David Claerbout’s “Travel” (1996-2013)—disappointingly presented with information underload—might well be the most thought-provoking work in the show. In it, we’re transported on a 12-minute magic carpet ride through the pastoral picturesque. Floating seamlessly from European and Amazonian forests to the suburban lawn, the viewer is lulled by the kind of ‘80s-era new age music that the Washington City Paper reviewer aptly describes as “full of Vangelis-like synth swells and cheesy rainsticks.” “I thought that it was particularly bad music, but also interesting in the sense that it always provokes very clear images and leaves no doubt as to how you are supposed to relax,” Claerbout explains. It took a staff of six animators three years to bring those ‘thought images’ to life. It is the very fact that they are what Claerbout calls “clichés of forests, rather than real forests” that makes the work at once comfortable and creepy; manufactured perfection so innocuous as to be ominous.
Like the circular architecture of the Hirshhorn itself, the motif of centrifugal motion arcs through much of the show. The whirl of the dervish, the turn of the prayer beads, the cycles of nature; the circle has long been associated with meditative contemplation. But as Claerbout and his colleagues here hint, it is equally emblematic of the feedback loop. In using technology to both present and simulate nature, each attempt at escape from the increasingly mediated world is itself mediated. The sublime, no matter how realistically presented, remains somehow flattened, pixelated, tinny. Ultimately we emerge from the series of softly darkened rooms aware that—as Guido van der Werve’s cold and fidgeting frame in the stark white tundra shows—in our contemporary world, days of endless time are likely only achieved through a combination of conscious effort, extreme measures, and seclusion.