This Is So Contemporary!

In praise of anachronism: how a number of recent exhibitions have been integrating the past with the present

In Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar (1599), Brutus — while plotting to assassinate the emperor — is interrupted by the striking of a clock. Shakespeare was without doubt fully aware that silent sundials marked time in ancient Rome, and the invention of the mechanical clock came more than a millennium later; in his time this sort of chronological inconsistency wouldn’t have been perceived as an error. Our present notion of historic realism is a historically specific construct, and for many centuries prior to its advent artistic representations were overtly anachronistic without jarring their audience. Christ, for instance, was depicted in contemporary garb throughout medieval times, and oranges feature in Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper (1495–8), even though they were unknown at the time and place of its setting. In fact there are so many images from the pre-Enlightenment Western canon that overtly disregard accurate chronology, it would be more interesting to list the exceptions.

With the Greek roots of the word suggesting something ‘up against time’, our present conception of anachronism presupposes a homogenous and irreversible temporal sequence, with all points fixed to their proper coordinates in an orderly procession. A glaring anachronistic anomaly in historic representation generally amounts to an embarrassing blunder, or a joke — as with the 10th-century peasant in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), who earnestly explains his village as an ‘anarcho-syndicalist commune’.

But whether or not we like it, the present always makes itself present in attempts to reconstitute other times. Any scholastic historical account or fictional tale that requires constructing an imagined past (and there is no other type of past) will have something out- of-place — most conspicuously in its physical objects, cultural references, manners, turns of phrase or hairstyles. Once the present catches up, futurism also finds itself subject to anachronism — as evidenced by the many books and films nominally set in the 21st century or later that refer to the Soviet Union or the World Trade Center as if they still exist. Part of the charm of the pre-Internet 1989 film Back to the Future ii is its assumption that fax machines are still ubiquitous in 2015. Fidelity to a time that is not our own simply isn’t possible, and anachronism always already resides in the present, composed as it is of various remembered pasts and anticipated futures.

In his Untimely Meditations (1876) Friedrich Nietzsche demanded ‘the capacity to feel unhistorically’. In recent years, other philosophers have called upon us to acknowledge and strategically deploy anachronism: Giorgio Agamben and Michel Serres are particularly lucid on the instabilities of chronology and the multiplicity of disjunctive times that make up the present. They find unrealized potential in the archaic and obsolete, suggesting that old objects, techniques and ideas might just be waiting, unsatisfied with the limits of their epochs.

With growing awareness of the temporal complexities at play in every work of art, the discipline of art history also appears to be tentatively adjusting to new thinking on non-linear time. Critical debates on issues of temporality in this thing we precariously name ‘contemporary art’ are being led by art historians Terry Smith, Keith Moxey and others. Following the dynamic discontinuity of Aby Warburg’s approach to images in the early 20th century, thinkers such as Georges Didi-Huberman are envisaging crosscutting methods that embrace what are variously termed ‘polychronic’, ‘heterochronic’ and ‘anachronic’ readings of art history. Concurrently, there has in recent years been a wave of exhibitions that seek to do away with correct chronological sequence and the confines of cultural context, in order to suggest that the time and place in which a thing was made should not shut it off from other times and places.

Some examples: in 2009, the Mark Wallinger-curated exhibition ‘The Russian Linesman’ at London’s Hayward Gallery suggested surprising correspondences between vastly different objects spanning two millennia, with the artist’s own Time And Relative Dimensions in Space (2001) — a full-sized mirrored replica of Doctor Who’s tardis — bringing home the notion of traversing multiple space-times from a single point. The 2003–09 touring exhibition ‘History of History’ (which was variously manifested in museums across the us and Canada before culminating at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa) saw the Japanese contemporary artist and collector of East Asian antiquities Hiroshi Sugimoto establish intricate dialogues between new works and material culture from distant pasts. For his 2010 ‘solo show’ at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, ‘Intolerance’, the Dutch artist Willem de Rooij presented a series of animal portraits from the Golden Age of Dutch painting alongside feathered ceremonial headdresses from 18th-century Hawaii, referring to the display as part of his ongoing work with ‘spatial collage’.

More examples: ‘Never the Same River (Possible Futures, Probable Pasts)’, curated by Simon Starling at London’s Camden Arts Centre in 2010–11, slipped between different histories in the present as the artist re-staged works from Camden shows of the last half-century. Earlier this year at the National Museum of Denmark, artist Julie Sass and curator Milena Hoegsberg invited 28 contemporary artists and writers to respond to the museum’s prehistoric collection. Titled ‘Shaped by Time’, this exhibition set up fragmented pasts in dialogue with the present in order to consider the construct of history and reveal its fluidity. Last year’s 54th Venice Biennale, curated by Bice Curiger, included paintings by Tintoretto amongst its line-up of new art, and the curator of this year’s documenta (13), Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, similarly proposed that all things in the visual field can be treated as con-temporary (literally ‘together with time’).

Making no distinction between art that is old and art that is new, the Museum of Old and New Art opened in Hobart, Australia, last year, housing David Walsh’s enormous private collection. Currently on show there is ‘Theatre of the World’, an exhibition by the French curator Jean-Hubert Martin that brings together objects spanning 4,000 years of history, with a display model that harks back to the Wunderkammern of Renaissance Europe (and André Breton’s atelier at 42 rue Fontaine in Paris) in its overt disregard for the conventions of cultural and historical context. Martin has spent several decades provoking outcry amongst certain curatorial circles for his experiments with de-compartmentalizing art objects, including the controversial and blatantly anachronistic exhibition ‘Artempo: When Time Becomes Art’ at the Palazzo Fortuny, Venice, in 2007 (co-curated with Mattijs Visser and Axel Vervoordt). His argument is that while orthodox art historians tend to stubbornly grasp at the categories they have retrospectively invented for art, good artists have never treated art as something that fits neatly into chronological sequence, with one thing being influenced by what was before and developing into what comes next.

Similar sentiments were expressed in the early 1960s by the Mesoamerican art historian George Kubler, whose book The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (1962) famously resonated with the likes of Robert Smithson, Ad Reinhardt, John Baldessari, Robert Morris and other us artists associated with Minimalism, Conceptualism and Land Art. Dismissing the rhetoric of progress in favour of more chaotic models of time, Kubler outlined how artistic innovation, replication and mutation never unfold in a single unbroken direction. History’s movements are turbulent, and art will always refuse to tell a fixed, unified story. The Shape of Time showed us that our segmentation of the past is purely arbitrary and conventional; an imposition of linear order on something that is infinitely more fluid and complex. Another vehement opposer of sequentialism and the rigid categorization of art is Jorge Luis Borges. ‘The true intellectual refuses to take part in contemporary debates,’ he wrote in his 1941 essay ‘Two Books’, because ‘reality is always anachronous’. Continually returning to the ways in which times overlap and the present reworks the infinitely malleable past, he argued that ‘every writer creates his own precursors’ (‘Kafka and his Precursors’, 1951). This is true not just of literature; all worthwhile art modifies our conception of what went before it, and what comes after it. Kubler also remarked that as one’s knowledge of Auguste Rodin forever changes one’s understanding of Michelangelo, historic time is at always once progressive and regressive.

Expressing greater pride in the books he read than the books he wrote, Borges was certainly one of the best (most committed, curious, imaginative, sensitive, thorough and grateful) readers of the 20th century. Immersing himself in the literature, philosophy, poetry and theology of Spanish, English, French, German, Italian, Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse traditions, he also followed contemporary Argentinean writers and read translations of texts from across the Arab world. But he wouldn’t have approved of the divisions made in that last sentence: he read everything as coevally alive in the present, loathing the idea of categorising a book according to date, place or literary school. In the same vein, the essays and stories he wrote would form extraordinary links between obscure thoughts and images of disparate origins that shared no commonality in time or space, demonstrating his insistence on the oneness of things beyond the illusions of individuality.

I like the exclamatory title of Tino Sehgal’s work for the German Pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005 so much that I borrowed it for the title of this article. Drawing on contemporary art’s peculiar insecurity about its own contemporariness, it indexes a fundamental paradox. In one sense, it’s impossible for something to exist and not be contemporary; in another, any new thing that enters the realm of existence is immediately relegated to the past. When we are presented with old art and new art together on equal terms, divisions become slippery and the past is made available for communicative interaction with the present. We form new associations, and possibly face up to contradictions we’d rather not acknowledge. The inclusion of things in displays of contemporary art that are neither strictly ‘contemporary’ nor ‘art’ is not, as some have suggested, a mere fleeting curatorial trend. It’s part of a broader growing awareness of the anachronism inherent in all time. After the failed productive-progressivism of modernity, we’re dealing with the fact that then and now and later aren’t proceeding along a flat line; they’re synchronized and woven through each other.

is a writer and PhD candidate in art history, based in Sydney, Australia.

Issue 1

First published in Issue 1

October 2012

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