By one ancient telling, history is shaped like a many-horned goat. And by another, it’s like a gold, bronze and clay statue.
In the secular West today we imagine time moving uniformly against an abstract scientific measure of nanoseconds and millennia. This is an objective model, or so it seems.
But even that picture of time flowing makes time into a thing, fixing it in space. It takes the time out of time, and replaces it with an ideal form. Like other models of time, our picture of a chain of events progressing along a line has a history and a politics too. And how we imagine time influences how we understand the past, how we give attention to the present and how we judge our power to create the future.
This drawing study is an attempt to sum up the major ways of picturing time over the course of human history, step by chronological step. In some ways, it apes the efforts of 17th-century luminaries to make vastly complex and shifting ideas and events fit into a set of simple ideal forms. But the urge to boil a global history of ideas down into four images like this is caught up in a particular way of seeing. Not all cultures share the classical European impulse (my impulse) to try to squeeze everything to its ‘essential’ form and conform to a straight line of cause and effect. Plus, I guess that most of us hold onto more than one idea about time’s form and what drives it.
This study has been a way of thinking through and speculating on this mass of themes. And here’s a little background how I came to make each image.
The snake eating its tail
This is the ancient Egyptian symbol Ouroboros. It’s thought to be among the many different cyclical models of time held by different traditions across the globe, from Mayan to Pagan cultures. In the West, the Ouroboros seems to remain with us in the form of the infinity symbol ∞ (though I’ve been unable to find out if they are directly connected). At a stretch, I reckon we can also see a vestige of cyclical time in the shape of the classic round clock face.
These days I live increasingly in the unbroken daylight of the Internet. But on Stereochron Island, where we got immersed in the natural rhythms of daylight and darkness over the seasons, it wasn’t hard to imagine time as a circle.
After the 1986 FIFA world cup, the Argentianian player Maradona described his process of scoring a goal against the English from an unpenalised handball as “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God”. What’s the Hand of God? In his teasing way, Maradona was calling on an ancient geometry of time.
People still gesture upwards to speak of the Divine. Old paintings show Christ ascending to the Heavens. And Maradona’s God seems to have leant down to flick the ball. History in this model is not triggered intrinsically by natural or human forces in a chain running along a horizontal Earthly axis. Instead history is driven from above: Earthly events have a vertical connection to Divine Providence, unfolding to His plan. Given that, the second model here interprets the rays of illumination in a church frieze as divine cords descending to the Earth, binding time into a sacred constellation.
The arrow of progress
The ‘timeline’ is everywhere in the urban West: in financial forecasts, the structure and implied content of social media streams, and even the progress bar on your screen. Each form, as historians suggest, is an example of the relatively new idea of history as a march of progress.
It’s said that the Renaissance thinker Francis Bacon first gave us the idea of progress, arguing in the 1620s that (what we would call) the techno-scientific revolution had limitless power to perfect nature. This radical idea shifts the motor of history from the Heavens to the horizontal Earthly dimension. Over the next century and beyond it gained traction with the combined influence of the new model of history as a linear chain of cause and effect.
The mid-18th-Century novel Tristram Shandy spoofs the timeline of progress — just as it was becoming part of everyday life — with a map of its own backward-spiking and downward-spiralling chapter plotlines. But the story itself is even more unmappable than those plotlines imply. Although its promised chapter on knots never comes, you could say the whole book is a gargantuan tangle of time.
Shandy’s knot seems a fitting symbol to stand for the unique and stretchy sense of time we all carry within. It shares affinities with the electric circuit, one of philosopher Henri Bergson’s metaphors for what he saw as the complex, fluid and immeasurable experience of lived time. (For more on this theme, see here.)
So for me, now, the knot is the most apt picture of time — even if it does contradict my four-step chronology.
Why does each object sit inside an abstract version of itself?
I’ve doubled each model with a coloured framing device. I chose to do that because over recent-ish Americo-European history our metaphors of time seem to me to vacillate between abstract forms and concrete objects. I’d speculate that the shifting trend depends on what appears most legitimate. It could be, for example, that at one historical moment the timeline is transformed into rivers and arrows to give it the semblance of a natural truth. At another it’s returned to apparently timeless abstract forms perhaps to give it the air of scientific objectivity.
All the framing shapes are self-explanatory, except the last. How do you abstract a knot? Perhaps the point of it as a metaphor is that it can’t be tugged into a simpler form. So here it sits inside the contrary form of the tridecagon, or 13-sided shape.
Geometries of Time
II (vertical/divine rays)
Materials & dimensions
* 4 framed drawings (graphite on paper, card passepartout, acrylic frame)
* 30 × 30 × 3 cm
Each drawing on paper is card-mounted by an abstract version of itself. The knot, for instance, is set within a tridecagon or thirteen-sided polygon.
* before breakfast we talked about the furthest visible point before it all disappeared, with Fay Nicolson, Kentaro Yamada, Andrea Zucchini and The School of the Event Horizon, Tenderpixel, London (2014)
* Tenderpixel at Art Rotterdam, with Erika Hock, Fay Nicolson and Ilona Sagar (2015)
Images (from top)
* 4 × digital version of Geometries of Time by Cathy Haynes, 2014
* Tenderpixel installation shot of Geometries of Time by Cathy Haynes, 2014 (photo by Original&theCopy; courtesy of the artists and Tenderpixel ©2014)
* Tenderpixel installation shot of Geometries of Time by Cathy Haynes alongside sculpture by Kentaro Yamada (photo by Original&theCopy; courtesy of the artists and Tenderpixel ©2014)