“Fragments in Time and Space,” a new exhibition at the Hirshhorn, can be experienced as a kind of summer sorbet, a refreshing immersion in cool art. Or it can take you deeper, into some of the thorniest problems of representation, most of them raised by the advent of photography and its frustrating power to capture a moment from the flow of existence — and isolate it and drain it of something essential.
The background to this show, organized by Hirshhorn chief curator Kerry Brougher, is laid out in the first pages of a book published more than two centuries ago: “The Critique of Pure Reason” by Immanuel Kant. Time and space, argued the philosopher, were the basic first and internal intuitions of all thought and consciousness, a gridlike overlay on the world which has often seemed more like a prison than a blank canvas upon which life and meaning are sketched. As Western culture made increasing contact with the intellectual substance of other, especially Asian cultures, this rigid, scientific, Enlightenment idea of time has seemed particularly frustrating, empty and ill-suited to explain how existence is actually felt.
Perhaps that helps one understand the painting that greets the visitor upon entering the show: Ed Ruscha’s 1989 “Five Past Eleven,” a surreal image that shows a thin piece of bamboo hovering magically over the face of an old clock or pocket watch. Bamboo can mean many things, and its hardiness and ubiquity make it a common symbol for longevity. But Ruscha hasn’t painted green bamboo, rather a leafless switch of the dried stalk. It looks like a cane, like something which lashes or whips us. In a sense, like time.
Nearby is a small black-and-white painting, about the size of a standard photograph, in which simple, almost digital numbers and letters tell us the date: “Oct. 24, 1971.” It is part of On Kawara’s conceptual “Today Series” paintings, which punctuate the show in three places and offer wry counterpoint to the video, film and installation pieces. They are points on Kant’s grid, posted without commentary precise reminders of a moment that has passed. Because they are painted and hanging in an art museum, they might seem to reference something important, some epic moment in time. But they are merely dates, time lost, meaningless time.
The size and visual sumptuousness of several works is seductive, and they seem intended to dissolve the viewer into the flow of something larger, to annihilate, for a moment, the nagging and desultory sense of ordinary existence that so often defines life on the time-space grid. Douglas Gordon’s “Play Dead; Real Time,” from 2003, uses two giant screens, placed in the center of the gallery, to show us different aspects of an elephant lying on the ground, struggling to get up, slowly moving through a room that looks suspiciously like an art museum. There are many things one might think and feel about the multiple perspectives offered here. But one of the most tangible is simply pity, or empathy, for another creature, imprisoned, captured, objectified and represented as art.