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Home arrow Religion arrow Art and the Church: A Fractious Embrace: Ecclesiastical Encounters with Contemporary Art

Rhythms of Duration

In Time and Free Will, Bergson sees duration as an entirely psychological phenomenon, a non-spatial and continuous multiplicity, denying that external things ‘endure’ because only consciousness allows us to identify changes. Only later does he acknowledge the possibility that duration is immanent to all nature; that things endure in their own way. He argues that duration is key to understanding the creative character of evolution (an idea later echoed by Whitehead) and essential to an awareness of holistic life. In Deleuze’s interpretation of Bergson’s thought, to which he gave the name le Bergsonisme, he argues that this dramatic shift in Bergson’s thinking opened up a notion of duration as the ‘variable essence of things’: duration as ontology (1991: 48—49). Deleuze writes that Bergson’s later work is notable for affirming a plurality of durations or, as he stresses, ‘a plurality of rhythms of durations’ (1991: 76).5 The double aspect of Bergson’s philosophy, says Deleuze, is precisely the problematic of psychological duration and the movement of duration in things themselves, and requires a renewed assessment of space as something actively relating things and durations:

If things endure, or if there is duration in things, the question of space will need to be reassessed on new foundations. For space will no longer simply be a form of exteriority, a sort of screen that denatures duration, an impurity that comes to disturb the pure. A relative that is opposed to the absolute: Space itself will need to be based in things, in relations between things and between durations, to belong itself to the absolute, to have its own ‘purity’.

(1991: 49)

In Bergson’s early work, nature had been imagined as a screen upon which duration is projected as spatialised, disavowing or ‘denaturing’ all sense of time as durational. Bergson’s aim was to confound this spatialised view in order to debunk the cliches of time that separate us from intuitive experience; in other words, to express life as a continuity of states rather than isolable fragments of experience, drawing Bergson’s thought close to Whitehead’s processual view of the world. For the latter, while each event endures, it is also always caught up in the ineffable flux and flow of ceaseless change. For the former, the apparent discontinuity of our psychical life is due to our attention being fixed on a series of separate acts. Though they appear discontinuous, in fact they stand out against the continuity of a background to which they belong and to which they owe the intervals that separate them. Here we find the figure of the screen usefully reworked to emphasise the consonance of Whitehead’s and Bergson’s ideas; no longer as something fixed against which evental or durational life is projected, but rather as a means of conceptualising actual experience. As Deleuze puts it in his discussion of Whitehead and elsewhere, sometimes a screen intervenes between the profusion of perceptual data, or ‘chaotic multiplicity’ (1993: 76), and our encounter with the singular object, the screen acting like ‘a sieve stretched over the chaos’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1994: 43), allowing something consistent to issue forth. This consistency is what Bergson describes as a duration within a manifold of durations, or what we could call the Whiteheadian event, or even, drawing us back to our specific subject, the work of art. Perhaps this is what Kenneth Clark (1981) had in mind when he wrote of ‘moments of vision’, when something lifts itself out of the background panoply of visual information and forces itself upon our attention. Nevertheless, if our attention is caught by the particular object of interest, it remains a concentrated element of the whole, simply having a stronger or more demanding presence. Thus, when viewing a work of art, ‘seeing’ encompasses the total environment of our extended visual field. Despite our primary focus on the object, we also perceive, perhaps subconsciously, its wider context. Framed paintings, as windows onto another world or rather lifted out of the world in which they appear, tend to work against this idea, creating a far greater illusion of autonomous existence, their frame a kind of barrier isolating them from the space beyond their borders. Sculpture sits more surely within its environment, while installations can become so integrated that no real separation of work and space is possible or even desirable. If, then, we give distinct outlines to objects in space, separating them as discrete elements from their background, we cannot do so without also recognising their congruence (Whitehead) or correspondence (Bergson) with that background. There is, in our apprehension of such things, a constant conflict between impression and mechanistic instinct, such that this process of unfolding durations tends not to be perceived, except at exceptional moments when our mechanistic sense of the world is temporarily overturned by immediate experience.

This variable experience of multiple concurrent durations is evident in more tangible ways when focusing on the work of art itself. Here we find at least three different temporalities or ‘rhythms of duration’ identifiably at work: firstly, there is the objective time in which the object or event exists (the difference, say, between a painting and a performance); secondly, there is the experienced time of the perception of that object or event (or, as one finds in many an Italian church, the time allotted by a coin’s-worth of illumination); and thirdly, there is the time referred to by or within the work of art (Lovejoy 1912: 531). As an art object, The Messenger objectively lasts for as long as it is projected.

The experienced time may be brief or prolonged, depending on the attention paid by the individual viewer, but one must watch at least one full cycle of the projection to claim to have seen the work. Finally, the video’s internal narrative repeats a sequence ofmovement slowed down to create an extended,recurring and indivisible cycle.These three temporalities — objective, experiential and internal — only take us so far in our understanding of Bergson’s rhythms of duration. An important factor of experienced time is its close relation to psychological time. The experienced time of the viewer may be deeply affected by the work’s slow internal duration, adding a heightened intensity to the viewing experience. If we recall Berger’s insight regarding ‘the accumulation of experience’, then we can see how the stretched time of slow motion acts as a means of deepening experience, such that ‘lived duree’ is less a matter of temporal extension than of temporal intensity. Works like The Messenger may be examples of what Mieke Bal calls ‘sticky images’, images that hold our attention through a sense of condensed or thickened duration, a slowing down that dilates time, intensifying our experience of the moment (2000: 80). We could say that the temporal mechanics ofViola’s films engineer a switch in the dedicated viewer from the predominance of time felt as chronos, the regular and mundane passage of daily life, to a sense of time as kairos, a point of fulfilment or fullness, when the undifferentiated march of time loses its significance. It is not only the projected narratives that are slowed down; the viewer too is encouraged to do so. In this sense, the work of an artist like Viola provides an antidote to the accelerated pace of modern life. Taking this a stage further, when viewed alongside la longue duree of the cathedral itself, might it not be justified to interpret that fourth psychological rhythm as spiritual or theological time? Viola’s work takes time, demanding our extended attention, but the flow of time that it depicts is indebted less to a Western teleological vision of historicised theological time and more to an Eastern notion of ‘eternal return’. His ideas of human spirituality repudiate a linear version of time for the sake of a temporality that is cyclical, reversible and repetitive, a vision of time that, as Mircea Eliade has perhaps exaggeratedly argued, all other non-Western cultures espouse (Taylor 1998: 316). This is a temporality we associate with liturgical ritual, and perhaps above all the celebration of the Eucharist, by which, through repetition, time is eternalised ‘as that which arrives and passes away in order to return again’ (Loughlin 2000: 709).6 Taking his cue from Meister Eckhart, a key reference for Viola, there is also in his work a sense of condensed or saturated time, in which eternity for God figures in its entirety within the present moment. Again, the extreme slow motion of many ofViola’s works manifests this moment of the now where, as Chris Townsend writes, ‘the density of life so sediments the flow of time that it slows to an almost imperceptible process’ (2004: 16). As such, it would be unthinkable to survey Viola’s moving images as the Futurists visualised movement. In Viola, everything is smoothed out, fluid, non-mechanical, in a perpetual process of formation and dissolution. This deceleration or distension of time produces an increased intensity, receptivity and attentiveness that penetrates the surface of everyday experience. In this sense,Viola’s work can be seen as a ‘technology of revelation’, as Ronald Bernier has recently suggested

(2014: 81), revealing the optical, spiritual or emotional unconscious of observable phenomena.

We get a powerful sense of this variability and co-existence of temporalities in another of Viola’s works, one which, to my knowledge, has never been shown in a church. Catherine’s Room is a sequence of five small screens arranged like a predella, depicting the same room, differently furnished, and inhabited by a single woman performing various tasks over the course of a day and, by implication, a lifetime.7 Its ascetic simplicity infers some sort of convent cell, its title that the woman bears some resemblance to St Catherine of Siena (based as it is upon a fourteenth-century predella by Bartolo on the life of the saint). Catherine’s world is highly ritualised, not only in the lighting of candles in the penultimate scene but in all her tasks. Its ritualistic structure is circular, one day’s routine much like another in each recommencement of the cycle. Ritual is portrayed as repeated, patterned activity that structures and shapes her life as it slowly unfolds in time. In Viola’s discussion of this piece with Hans Belting, he identifies three levels of temporality at work (Walsh 2003: 213—214): the real time of Catherine’s actions in any one sequence is set against the parallel time of her simultaneous presence in all five screens at different times of the day (and by implication at different stages of life). Finally there is nature time, seen through a single window, where we see the changing light of the passing day and the slow passage of the seasons. Against the cyclical passage of nature time and humankind’s measurement of existence in past, present and future times, Catherine is seen as if from God’s perspective, for whom all life is subject to simultaneous co-existence. An Augustinian sense of time as distentio, the mind’s ability to order time into past, present and future through a kind of ‘stretched’ consciousness, is played out alongside its binomial relation to time as intentio, time as a projection of eternity.

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