Time in relation to artwork (Project 2: Time and time-based media – Exercise 1)

Make notes on your own thoughts about time.

  • Have you thought about time in relation to artwork?

  • Have you already come across pieces that explore what time is? Write a little bit about these pieces in your learning log.

1. Thoughts about time

My thoughts could be crudely categorized under the following headings; personal, work and relativity.


My oldest child is 30 years old later this year and my wife and I are on the threshold of our 60s. I am, in fact both my wife and I are, acutely aware of the passing of time.

During the last six years both of my parents died. The last 6 or 7 months of my dad’s life were difficult due to the relatively sudden deterioration in his mental health. My mother, however, lived healthily up to and including her 91st birthday. The last six months of her life saw a rapid deterioration in her physical health.

This combination of my parents’ death and seeing my children age can’t help but act as a reminder about our mortality in general, and mine in particular! Time will, therefore, become a factor in my wife’s and my decision-making, if it hasn’t become so already.

It is worth noting that time loses its proportional value as we age. At 60 years old, one year is just a 60th of a life whereas at 30 years old it’s worth a thirtieth of your life. Is it any wonder that as we age we complain that time appears to speed up?


I am a full-time teacher of maths, up to A-Level. Time is a fundamental unit of measure in applied maths. Yet, as discussed in an earlier blog, time is as hard to define as “art”. And like my art history books, I have never considered discussing the definition of time with my students. It is defined as part of the SI definition of units (International System of Units – SI comes from the French). In fact seconds are one of the basic units.

The National Physics Laboratory gives this definition: http://www.npl.co.uk/reference/measurement-units/si-base-units/the-second

Since 1967 the definition of the second has been related to the movement of electrons in a caesium atom:

The second is the duration of 9 192 631 770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom.

A minute is 60 of these which then leads to the definitions of hours, etc. I am not particularly well versed in the history of units of measure. It would seem logical to suggest, however, that the choice of 60 for minutes and hours is down to the number of factors that 60 has. This allows for many fractions of a minute or hour to be whole numbers. If we use hours as an example; ½ hour is 30 minutes, 1/3 is 20 minutes, ¼ is 15 minutes, 1/5 is 12 minutes and 1/6 is 10 minutes.


Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity (STR) tells us that the rate at which time passes is relative to our speed. This is only of any consequence as our speed approaches that of the speed of light. Travelling around the earth in a plane won’t slow our ageing down! Here is a very simplistic example to illustrate the underlying principle.

My wife decides to take a trip around the galaxy in a state of the art rocket which can fly at speeds comparable to the speed of light. When she finally lands back on earth and meets me at home, she will have aged at a slower rate than I. The faster the rocket the less she will have aged. Her watch and the clock in the rocket will reflect the fact that time has passed more slowly.

This is an astonishing thought. It is important to note that until Einstein proposed this theory, time was viewed as a universal constant.

There are many interesting aspects to STR. At its core however, is the notion that in the universe the speed of light is the maximum speed at which anything can travel.

It should be noted that this doesn’t imply that “everything is relative”!


2. Time in relation to artwork

I had not given time any particular thought in relation to art until quite recently. I really only saw time in the sense of subject matter, such as Salvador Dali’s Persistence of Memory (figure 1 below) and how either age or history had affected individual works of art (please refer to figures 2 and 3 below).

dali the persistence of memory

Fig. 1. Dali, Salvador “The Persistence of Memory”, (1931)

The images from this painting of time melting have become iconic. The painting itself has passed into popular culture and been used for various parodies. This is no surprise given the power of this work. The ants on the back of the pocket watch and the distorted figure close to the centre of the picture remind me of the ‘memento mori’ of the vanitas paintings. But death pervades all aspects this work. The tree is fossilized, the landscape is devoid of living things and even the rocky outcrop contains the denuded remains of what once were cliff faces.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the title uses irony to remind us of the transient nature of our lives. The painting is quite clear that nothing persists.

last supper before
Fig. 2. Leonardo da Vinci “Last Supper”, (c. 1495-98) Before the most recent restoration
last supper after
Fig. 3. Leonardo da Vinci “Last Supper”, (c. 1495-98) Post restoration

These two images reflect the toll that time and history can take on art. I believe Napoleon’s troops used it for target practice!

3. Time as art

As mentioned above (in part 2), I had not given time any particular thought in relation to art until quite recently. One of my sons gave me The Twenty First Century Art Book for my last birthday to help me with this course. The book has no narrative as such, rather it describes itself as a “far-reaching A to Z of international artists working across a wide range of media and techniques.”  It goes on to say that “Each artist is represented by an illustration of a significant artwork, accompanied by an illuminating text.” I have, therefore, been choosing pages at random to get a glimpse of contemporary art. One page introduced me to Guo-Qiang Cai. The significant art work chosen to illustrate his art was Black Ceremony (see figure 4, below).

cai G-Q black ceremony
Fig. 4. Cai, Guo-Qiang “Black Ceremony”, (2011)

The text accompanying this illustration states that “a sequence of spectacular explosions caused shapes to blossom and slowly disperse in the daytime sky…” Furthermore, the shapes formed by the bursts of black and multi-coloured smoke “…drew on iconography that…relate to the themes of ‘death’ and the spiritual return of those that have died far from home.”

I have to be clear that there are a number of other aspects to this work, but I was struck by an interesting irony relating to time and transience. The use of explosions producing smoke to make references to death, clearly serves to emphasise the ephemeral nature of our lives. The use of explosions and the resulting smoke, however, also results in the work itself having a very fleeting existence. To record this work then, photographs and videos are taken to imbue the art with a longer life. This has the equally interesting result that we can only ever experience this work vicariously, unless we were at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar.

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Dali, S. (1931) The Persistence of Memory. [Oil on canvas] At: https://uploads5.wikiart.org/images/salvador-dali/the-persistence-of-memory-1931.jpg (Accessed on 4 April 2017)

Figure 2. Leonardo da Vinci (c. 1495 – 1498) Last Supper. [Oil (and tempera?) on plaster] At: http://www.mnemosynefoundation.com/main_troubadourpress_davinci_pt2.htm (Accessed on 4 April 2017)

Figure 3. Leonardo da Vinci (c. 1495 – 1498) Last Supper. [Oil (and tempera?) on plaster] At: http://www.mnemosynefoundation.com/main_troubadourpress_davinci_pt2.htm (Accessed on 4 April 2017)

Figure 4. Cai, G (2011) Black Ceremony. [Gunpowder] At: https://frieze.com/article/cai-guo-qiang (Accessed on 4 April 2017)


Bear, L. and Morrill, R. (ed) (2014) The Twenty First Century Art Book. London: Phaidon Press Limited



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