Thursday, April 7, 2022

A Dance to the Music of Time: 4-Dimensional Sculptures by Joachim Waibel

Nude portraits of antique clocks without their hands, silently holding their vigil and thus calmly reminding us of Henri Bergson’s bold 1911 admonition: “Time is invention, or it is nothing at all.”

“For reasons not at the time explicable, there are specific occasions when events begin suddenly to take on a significance previously unsuspected, so that before we really know where we are, we ourselves, scarcely aware that any change has taken place, are careening uncontrollably down the slippery avenues of eternity.”  – Anthony Powell, 1955.

When the French novelist Marcel Proust finally published his long-awaited seven-volume magnum opus In Search of Lost Time in 1913, after labouring meticulously, some would say obsessively, over his work for almost as many years as there were volumes, he was sharing with us the culmination of his devotion to memorializing not just memory but the actual passage of time itself. He had attempted and clearly succeeded in producing almost a balsamic reduction of himself and his reveries in words that are at once poetic and precise. Further, he had achieved a landmark, not only in literature but in the poetics of psychological introspection, coming in the end to almost perfectly embody the ethos of poet Wallace Steven’s definition of poetry: the search for the inexplicable.

That which can’t ever be explained but obviously can only be experienced by every one of us, the passage of time, leaves in its residue a flock of questions descending into our lives as durational creatures caught by but also liberated by the trio of zones we call past, present and future. Is Time an additional dimension in a curved, four-dimensional universe? Is Time the frozen music of the fourth dimension? Is Art the visible bottom edge of something largely invisible to us, like an iceberg, protruding into our dimension from another, in a more spacious one? And of course, our questions are recursive, each pseudo-answer provoking yet another flock’s descent into the triangular garden.

What are the available means of expressing the ineffable, for instance the subtle power of duration, in visual art? How do visual artists’ personal attempts to conceptualize and represent an aspect of our experience which might be both invisible and unattainable manage to reveal its essence? If it even exists at all, what does the fourth dimension look like, and if it does, what does it mean? Will there ever be an end to our questioning? Never: of that much I am certain. I am just as certain that an ensemble of new four- dimensional sculptures by Vancouver-based artist Joachim Waibel provides provisional answers to these questions by explicitly addressing a portrayal of time, and our fetishistic relationship to duration, in his own idiosyncratic vernacular. Equally clear to me, from the moment I laid eyes on their austere, quirky, poetic personas as temporal sculptures, was the feeling that his seven assemblages reminded me of Proust’s seven novels.

Just as with Proust, a surrealist by temperament and a phenomenologist by intent, Waibel’s agenda is to raise a tender alarm, through a softly ticking family of dream-like objects, while he voyages into the mysteries embedded in our quotidian lives. He too has managed to initiate a balsamic reduction, not merely as a self-portrait the way Marcel did, but as a collective portrait of our condition as embodied beings. He does this by both imagining and rendering the ultra-abstract domain of a four-dimensional world in his own private visual language as an artist. His works don’t resemble anything you’ve ever seen before, precisely because they try to show us something we can’t always see: the invisible realm where all contradictions cease to be in opposition. So it is with the seven time-based sculptural reveries in this dream dance choreographed by Joachim Waibel.

Number One: Tango (2022), antique clock, marionette, digital printout.

Their charm is undeniable and their craftsmanship is admirable, especially in a world where digital design and machine logic have risen to a kind of supremacy. These sculptures are haptic; they celebrate the touch of the maker as he searches for that shock of recognition: depicting the very threshold of perception itself at the edge of the recognizable world, but by utilizing everyday objects in a dramatic and poetically new context. Each actor in his drama contains a shared aesthetic sensibility: re-purposing the bodies of grandfather clocks while maintaining a semblance of tangible and functional duration; utilizing mostly scientific apparatus in glass collages with a quizzical bio-mimicry; and the transforming of a three-dimensional object of temporal furniture in a four-dimensional painting of passage.

Number Two, Foxtrot (2022), clock coffin, wooden frog carving, digital time printout.

In a way, the stress of our contemporary historical period, that of incredibly accelerated time, which some theorists have even categorized as chrono-copia (the abundance of time) and others denote as chrono-phobia (the fear of diminished time), has already produced a multi-faceted reality that has altered our old presumptively three-dimensional world forever, in ways we can’t even begin to yet imagine. So, I say, let daring artists imagine it for us, which, after all, has always been their job description: dreaming with their eyes open while the rest of us busy ourselves with whatever folly happens to temporarily amuse us. Having produced work which is perhaps only accessible from the perspective of the fourth dimension, this Waibel installation comprises preliminary attempts to explore its edges, and provide us with souvenirs of the impossible, much along the lines of Alfred Jarry’s pataphysics: the science of imaginary solutions.

For me, as an informed observer, the second salient and seminal idea informing this ensemble work, a grouping of seductive physical narrative, is a surrealist notion which originated with Andre Breton, that of objective chance: what appears to be coincidence is actually desire reaching its quarry. Objective chance is the only valid way to explain how the juxtaposition of disparate and customarily unrelated items, such as assembled glass beakers that feel almost like alchemical vessels for the production, not of gold, but of dreams, could ever feel quite so real and natural. But they do.

If there could be a law unto the rarefied environs of a fourth dimension, surely it would be such an organic idea of synchronicity as this: that chance operations in our world may in fact be the immutable rules of the fourth dimension, which we merely fail to notice or detect. Just as with the passage of time itself, through us rather than us traversing through it, our attention spans, so attenuated to the rapid flux of daily life in the 21st century, are so often unable to truly witness the miraculous, almost magical nature of being here at all. Our attention fails us, perhaps because, as Saint-Exupéry has remarked somewhere in his musings, what is essential is invisible to the eye and can only be seen with the heart.

In that sense, Waibel’s arcane sculptures, filled to brimming over with poetic presence, are not only surrealist or fluxus-oriented speculations about the nature of being, but also in a very real sense are barometers of meaning; measuring the metaphysical atmospheric pressure within which we all live our lives without noticing that we are all moving backwards in times just as surely as we seem to be moving forward. That, surely, is what Proust shared with us most importantly through the aura his own manufactured dreams induced, and also, it strikes me, what Waibel’s installation has accomplished.

Number Three: Waltz, before and after its alchemical transformation.

Waibel’s aesthetic aura, which to me shares a vibrational frequency with the ultra-serious playfulness of the great American sculptor of drawings in space, Alexander Calder, is all about daydreaming, what the French call reverie. Perhaps all art objects have always been a dialectical dance of sorts, between the aura and its objective expression, a tango on a four-dimensional stage set, shifting in and out of focus as quickly as artists are capable of engaging in the reverie required to make art in the first place. And in his case study of perhaps, Waibel’s ballet of forms in gentle collision must of necessity have the misty contours of a conscious dream, becoming more and more concrete until almost palpable, until we forget the names of the things we see in front of us. That forgetting is the true commencement of all actual seeing, as the installation artist Robert Irwin often liked to remind us.

One other prevailing attitude also permeates the Waibel installation, which I often perceive as a kind of sculptural ballet made up of different dance styles all occurring on the same dance floor at the same time (tango, foxtrot, waltz, tap, ballroom, jazz, swing, jitterbug); and that is the tenderly elegiac awareness that our sense of historical time may have speeded up so fast that it has actually started to move backwards. We might indeed pass through all the stages that get us to where we currently are, but in reverse, thus shifting backwards from the scientific age of reason, back through the so-called Renaissance and Baroque periods, until we could arrive, almost innocently except for our willful blindness, to the Medieval and eventually, if we’re not careful, to the Bronze, Stone and even the Ice Age.

The dance of time motif had earlier appeared historically in the neo-classical painting by Nicholas Poussin, using the same title in his imagist allegory from 1635 to depict four figures, thought to represent the seasons, holding each other’s hands and dancing in a circle, as the God of Time plays the music his lyre, all while the Sun God’s chariot proceeds across the sky and the Hours accompany him while he holds a ring representing the Zodiac.

But there’s still hope that we don’t regress to an earlier era, even a somewhat charming one, and the mere making of a new ensemble of art objects always signifies a kind of solidified hope.

After all, surely these temporal sculptures are a surreal variation on the theme of the classic Wunderkammer, which first emerged in the 16th century. The earliest illustration of a historical curiosity cabinet is an engraving from the Neapolitan apothecary Ferrante Imperato’s book Dell’Historia Naturale from 1599. With these new evocative works, Waibel updates our take on time by producing tongue in cheek clock coffins, transformed into contemporary contemplations of the timeless realm of dreams.

Wunderkammer (Domenicao Remps, 1690), Museo Opficio, Florence.

Continuing to find in visual art a place from which to launch an assault on the unspeakable: this is perhaps the primary purpose behind A Dance to the Music of Time. Indeed, that was also the motivation which Anthony Powell had in his own novel sequence by the same title, although since it was roughly fifty years after Proust, it took him a full twelve volumes to try and accomplish the same or similar task: decanting time. His angle was different too in that Proust was searching for what was lost, while Powell was trying to redeem the vouchers his memory had managed to manufacture.

Powell’s own interpretation of the painting which provided the inspiration for his novel cycle is still revealing of the impetus to capture and control time:

The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure, stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognizable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.

In the case of Waibel’s sculpture sequence, however, we have a uniquely physical heritage being used and an artisanal archive aspect being explored.

This approach, making and merging objects and images in an installation format, is that of a ritual of looking, as well as listening to time, is a subtle but seductive miniature museum with spookily salvaged artifacts from an unknown but alluring civilization (our own, in fact). They are conveyors of meaning, focused on evolution, transcendence and transformation. Let's assume all art has at its root some obscure testimony; the artist is compelled to . . . say something, and to say it in the only way they can conceive of. The choice of vessel for the testimony, the box that carries the witness's vision, is in the service of the idea being embodied. Only this particular vessel can carry that particular message, and only its shape, like the shapes of the sculpture and images in this grouping, can succeed in manifesting a certain embodied meaning, regardless of what that meaning means.

Waibel’s assembly of assemblages, and the poetry that initiates their trajectory, is a refurbished auction of the past for future consumption by collectors capable of sampling these delicious dream dramas. As such they almost resemble a kind of Neo-Baroque, which likewise excels in providing immersive experiences. Yet they feel so natural, these multi-dimensional hallucinations, that they take on the hyper-real clarity of the dream state, which is exactly the territory they so insightfully map. In this case, the art is both a confession of itself, of something too ethereal to assume any other form of expression, as well as something the viewer confesses to.

Number Four, Tap (Nostalgia for the Present Moment)

This eerie nostalgia for the present moment makes the objects appear to have been unearthed in an exotic alien archaeological dig, even though you recognize that they have been designed and exquisitely crafted with rare standards of fabrication and workmanship (to a degree unheard-of in the traditional fine art world, and especially in the hybrid conceptual and surrealist art of this sort). What the artist might refer to as the urge to divulge is intimately connected in these pieces with the act of storytelling through the activation of memory. Each work, whether it is one of the obscure objects of desire, or one of the blurred memories frozen in the photographic moment of a diorama, walks a fine line between invention and recollection.

That place where the division or border between concealing and revealing is both blurred and crystal clear, where the distinction between the confessor and the confession disappears, that is, the somewhat harrowing place these works so effectively handles with velvet gloves. It was the great American sculptor David Smith who first defined the art of sculpture itself as drawing in space, but such a spatially unique sculptural notion is now, however, especially evident in mixed-media sculptural installations like Waibel’s, which reveal their graphic core as drawings in three dimensions, and even more so in environmental or site-specific works which incorporate time, sound and motion within the pieces. Waibel makes sculptures that not only exist as exemplary drawings in space but also perform the unnerving service of reminding us of a fact we easily forget: that we ourselves are sculptural objects situated in fragile space and undergoing continual entropy; that we are vessels for containing time itself as it ebbs out in between every breath and heartbeat. 

In fact, the other day, while considering the issues raised by his subtle but dramatic objects, it suddenly occurred to me that we ourselves are indeed clocks made of meat. Meat-clocks . . . I’ve tried hard to forget the concept but I simply can’t, and his sculptures are part of the reason: their sole purpose and function as bodily emblems, and in particular as surrealist emblems, is to remind us that we too are living clocks. In the darkly dramatic setting of these sculptures, in a static choreography devoted to the theatre of process in action, we are once again reminded, almost against our will, of something we all too easily forget (since we are usually so busy surviving in the quotidian sense): that we are incredibly beautiful bags of fluid, that we live in a breathtakingly beautiful world of fluids all around us, and that the space around us is slowly filling up with other living drawings.

Retrospect and Prospect / Reincarnated French antique clock (pendulum with poem).

Waibel’s sculptures suggest to viewers the kind of psychic ecology which is required long before any physical or environmental ecology is possible.  For some mysterious reason they also remind us of the German poet Rilke’s burning question: “Earth, what is your urgent command, if not transformation?” Transformation: that is the key subject and theme of the body of work assembled and reassembled in Waibel’s dream workshop, especially via the way he has of marrying art with science in his raw materials. The glass vessels he uses are huddled in the stomachs of the former grandfather clocks he acquired at auctions, just as we ourselves are swallowed and slowly being digested by time, in time.

This notion was initially brought into focus by the artist through his encounter with the antique French grandfather clock which perhaps serves as the Rosetta Stone of the whole series that subsequently followed, and can be looked at as the conceptual design template for the collection. On its triptych upper face, evoking certain three-paneled liturgical paintings from the Medieval age, is the legend of his map, a poem Waibel wrote, handwritten in chalk at the top left and right, to distill the essence of what would emerge through the process of decanting the other clocks: “A portrait of Time . . . is a Reflection of Age . . . in . . . a Fog of History . . . from . . . a Memory . . . of Now.”

Number Five, Six and Seven: Ballroom, Jazz, Swing (Future Relics).

Is it possible to imagine a domain in which the apparent dichotomies between the arts and sciences are reconciled?  Is there room for scientific artists to enter into a visual dialogue with “artistic scientists” and find a healthy middle ground, perhaps mysteriously located somewhere in between the left and right hemispheres of the brain? What makes some visual artists seek and find powerful inspiration for their work in the annals of scientific investigation, and what makes some scientific illustrators seem to transcend the logical limits of their craft and end up producing technical renderings which obviously have the inherent beauty of works of art? More questions.

By juxtaposing literary poetry, aesthetic image-objects and scientific lab apparatus, the sculptor strives to bridge the illusory gap between the two disciplines and their two world views. And to indicate that our collective reality is far more complex than such arbitrary territorial notions permit, being also far more difficult to reduce to such simple conflicts as art versus science, or science versus metaphysics, or philosophy versus religion. Still, their beats in these pierces the hearts of a kind of antique reliquary, containing perplexing relics, not from the past but perhaps from the future. After all, both Science and Art attempt to represent the unknown, one by describing how things might function, the other by imagining why things might be here in the first place, or what they might mean.

Both disciplines aim to approach the near-impossible task of studying and reporting on the basic enigma of human existence and producing emblems which characterize and contextualize that enigma. Maybe they even embody it. In a very real sense, both Art and Science produce souvenirs of the impossible which allow us to come to terms with the unknown in different ways. The emblems of science, particularly those that require the human hand for execution, such as the technical devices included in this showing, are potentially diagrams of the unknown, diagrams to be deciphered by the left-brain approach to studying and solving dilemmas. The emblems of art, particularly those that result from research and interpretation of the phenomena around us and including us, are diagrams of the unknown to be deciphered by the right-brained approach to embracing, absorbing, and thus maybe even transcending those very dilemmas.

Both scientists and artists use their own available means of expressing the ineffable: one to seek the answers whereby the unknown is annihilated in the light of new knowledge, the other to perpetually push the limits of our ability to accept what we do not and cannot know, while still providing provisional answers to these questions by asking them in a new way, rather than trying to answer them at all. Thus for the purposes of this showing Waibel can be seen to demonstrate a historical fetish, one which immediately makes him a scientific artist: imagining and rendering the ultra-unknown domain of our very large and very small world, in his own private visual language.

Number Eight (Jitterbug: Paganini/Feathered)

Luckily for us, this language can be viewed, enjoyed and translated easily, simply if we allow ourselves to dream with our eyes wide open, which is what a scientific artist such as Joachim Waibel encourages us to do through his vigil memorializing the invention of time. As Saint-Exupéry has remarked, “What is essential is invisible to the eye and can only be seen with the heart.” Here, then, in a dance to the music of time, is the meeting place where art and science can sit down together and converse freely, just off to the side of the dance floor. And as viewers of the resulting installation, we are all permitted to listen in on this fascinating conversation between these two binary halves of our life as beings embedded in duration.

Besides, does anybody really know what time it is? The English author and philosopher Aldous Huxley gave it a good try in his novel Time Must Have A Stop, whose title derives from Hotspur's death speech in William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1, Act V, Scene 4: “But thought's the slave of life, and life time's fool; / And Time, that takes survey of all the world, / Must have a stop.”

– Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, as well as the biographies Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, 2018, and Tumult!: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner2020, and a book on the life and art of the enigmatic Yoko Ono, Yoko Ono: An Artful Life, released in April 2022. His latest work in progress is a new book on family relative Charles Brackett's films made with his partner Billy Wilder, Double Solitaire: The Films of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder.

No comments:

Post a Comment