Tag Archives: Magritte

Tick Tock

In the course of moving some items from one household to another, in among the objects were several clocks that had made the journey. These clocks, time machines of varying sorts, were unplugged in the morning and their faces reported the last moment before time stopped for them. They showed that they left one place at precisely 11:40 and although it was several hours later, in their deactivated state, to them it was 11:40. Stuck in time, so to speak, as the relentless coursing seconds, minutes and hours were literally standing still for these long-vigilant counting machines. I think I felt a little sad for them, removed from their tasks and losing their rhythm.

We all accept the artificial overlay and concept of time and time-keepers. We may not be synchronized to Greenwich Mean Time, but we do obsess over delays or off-schedule events, by the clock. Look how time, split into hair-like fragments, determines outcomes of competitions.

In areas that are prone to electrical surges or outages, the annoying distinction of digital clocks is that they go off but they come back on blinking in a kind of S.O.S. call that their workings have been meddled with – alarmist tactics that agitate rather than put the mind at ease, a crying-wolf pattern that ends up meaningless when something real takes place. Some of the older analog clocks have a colored dot that appears if the power goes out, just so you know – nothing pushy. Of course, the battery clocks are unaffected. They can stop, but never in unison – their trauma is individual, not communal.

It was a bit unnerving seeing these recently moved clocks so disconnected, living in the past. It made me think about horrible disasters – floods, earthquakes, tornadoes – that, when electricity goes out and life as we know it is destroyed, all the clocks stop at precisely the same moment recording the balance-tipping instant. In a sense, time has stopped and the time on the clocks has eternalized the event, the frozen hands imbuing a poetic sorrow with the real. Imagine how we would know from clocks the exact moment when the world ended, if we didn’t end, too. Except for the poor souls forever cast in stone after Vesuvius erupted, there is no other more telling a silence than a stopped clock. In toto, permanently and collectively stopped.

I remember when my mother had her stroke while sitting at her computer and laid on the floor for we-didn’t-know-how-long. My brother was able to access the clock in the computer to figure out when it was turned on, what activities took place in a sort of log and when it went idle. It was fascinating, yet devastating. The computer’s clock told us more than we wanted to know about time stopping for mom. It became a witness to the crime, as well as a sleuth.

Miss Havisham ordered every clock to be stopped on her never-to-be wedding day, to live forever frozen in that time, as a constant reminder. Was it the moment of betrayal, the moment of thrill before betrayal, or the moment when the vows were to be spoken? Whatever, it was chilling.

Magritte’s Time Transfixed illustrates this occurrence as a free-floating, unmoving locomotive and as a stopped clock. Both are powerful images of fate and loss, the human condition. Time is the human condition. Stopped time, for sure.

So these clocks of mine that are temporarily halted have enough placeness to give me pause, make me extend their meaning to existential wonderings. We hear them tick as background, like heartbeats. And then they can quit, just like that.

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Stone Age

Throughout New England there are plentiful sources of such stone as marble, granite, fieldstone, to name some. Dry-stacked stone walls run along property lines and hug roads as they wind through hills and valleys, creating a unique tailored style which is immediately identifiable – the overall effect is a kind of stitching together of the landscape, despite the intent of separating private property. Even where there are no walls, often there are boulders spaced evenly to delineate borders. Sometimes it is as a preventative for parking on grassy shoulders; other times it is purely decorative. And, often, it is a definer of another sort, a claiming of native stone as a kind of trophy in its relocated environs. In Maine’s Acadia National Park, such large rocks are placed evenly as guard rails along roadways and carriage roads – they are referred to as “Rockefeller’s teeth,” honoring the preservation-minded philanthropist who helped establish the park. Boulders placed in a row on top of soil say something about humans altering nature: they can assemble something spatial and linear but they will never be able to compete with what nature does by blending the rocks and soil into a unified whole – as, say, mountains, or rock outcroppings in the woods.

The sculptor Carl Andre constructed Stone Field Sculpture, in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1977, on a triangular wedge of ground next to a church and its Ancient Burying Ground, Hartford’s first public cemetery. This is the artist’s only permanent public work, a land-bound (not sure it could be considered an earthwork) configuration of local boulders placed in a triangle, and diminishing in size as the numbered rows increase. You could say that, given the ubiquitousness of boulders on nearly every piece of land in Connecticut, this piece is unremarkable. Did the artist make the space his own? I would have to say yes, since it is rendered useless for anything but the work. Did he make the site better?

The 36 boulders are set up like bowling pins in eight rows, starting with a single stone (the largest) and lining up in consecutive rows increasing by one stone until the eighth row’s eight stones (the smallest), the space between stones as well as between rows having expanded rhythmically. This piece could be about spatial perspective – after all, the triangular shape is ideal for viewing from one point, and the stones do “recede” in the distance. Or, it could be that the idea has to do with the juxtaposition of native stone in its non-native environment of the urban realm. Possibly, it is just simply a modern marker leading us to the ancient markers of the adjacent graveyard. And it could also be an F.U. to the people of Hartford who have not warmed to it over the past thirty-plus years. And then there is the possibility that this is just the artist’s attempt to play with rocks, like a giant game of marbles or an extra-large billiards rack. Perhaps, if the medium is in fact the message, then it is just a stone field.

Whatever the meaning or motive, there it is. You can walk among the stones; you can also view them while seated on a bench (often occupied by aesthetically puzzled homeless men) positioned  behind the row of eight. The art is elusive, yet clunky. What makes the site better is that there are a few trees growing between some of the boulders, creating an actual interaction between things, a give and take, a bit of naturalism in the larger arena of un-naturalism.

In North Adams, Massachusetts, is a stunning industrial complex once housing the Sprague Electric Company that is now the contemporary museum MASS MoCA, where another artwork made of stone is installed in a plaza facing the main entrance: Primary Separation, by Don Gummer. It is a granite boulder sawed in half and suspended above head level on a grouping of poles and guy wires. At first look, with its organic shape and precision slice, it resembles a potato hogtied for some sort of ritualized harm-doing. It also is reminiscent of Magritte’s Chateau des Pyrenees, except that here there are visible strings. Given its height and suspension, there is, too, the anti-gravity factor, if this is one of those pseudo-scientific art pieces. And there is a notion of meteors. And I can’t escape acknowledging a reference to something caught in a spider’s web, albeit an industrial one. And with that, the contrast of shiny, smooth manmade elements in opposition to the earthmade one(s). But this construct acts as a framing device, framing itself first, then framing the sky as it passes through and across the 11” split opening, framing glimpses of the surrounding Berkshires; maybe even commenting on the cut mountains that encircle it: in that sense it is a war memorial. It is a visibly engineered stonehenge, a modern observatory of the skies and of the museum that funded it.

Despite its obvious weight, the Andre piece, though earthbound, seems disconnected to its site, while the latter, though airborne, seems to intensify itself by bringing in its environment. The one, though grounded, lacking placeness; the other, though skyward, creating it.

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