But of course rivers have much more to say than just: Forget. That was Lethe, but there is also the river of Heraclitus, the one referenced in the crude translation of the Greek sage’s most famous insight: that you can never step into the same river twice. As the last piece in the exhibition — an exhibition that flows in a circle around the second floor of the Hirshhorn’s circular space — Staehle’s video reminds us of different notions of time and prepares the visitor to begin again, to see the whole thing one more time but differently.
Much of the material in the exhibition is familiar. Photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto that play with ideas of time, exposure and the murky lines of existence have become as elemental to how we think about time and space visually as the hypnotic slow flow of minimalist music plays with our sense of time aurally. Thirteen of his classic seascapes are mounted in a dark room with precise spotlights (as they were in a 2006 retrospective), making them seem to float off the walls. Along with a luminous back-lit image by Jeff Wall, they remind us how much the sense of ethereal otherness is a matter of theatricality and illusion.
This is the nub of the show: Do images offer real transcendence, or are these tricks, illusions, amusement rides for the brain? Are we in the museum for elevation or escape? The seductiveness of much of what is on display is perilously close to mindless entertainment. Does it cross the line?
The question becomes particularly fraught in the center of the show, with one of its most substantial works: David Claerbout’s “Sections of a Happy Moment.” The writer Mary McCarthy once said, “You cannot hang an event on a wall, only a picture.” But Claerbout is fighting hard against that, against all of the limitations of the photograph. His video installation shows what seems to be a single moment, a small family watching as a young girl throws a ball into the air. Claerbout gives us the mundane scene from a seemingly infinite number of perspectives, isolating it, anatomizing it, returning endlessly to the “happy moment” of a ball hanging magically in the air until that moment is anything but happy. The ball is no longer in motion, the people no longer seem to have any relation to one another, the architecture behind them becomes yet another prisonlike space. The moment is lost before it ever happened, another supposedly happy memory tossed in the ossuary of oblivion.
It’s ghastly, and haunting. So why does Claerbout accompany his video with such vulgar and meaningless music, a new-age soundtrack of nugatory value? Does he have bad taste? Is he emphasizing the sentimentality of a family at play? Or is he subverting the power of his own work, like replacing Bach with a kazoo soundtrack in a Tarkovsky film?
You can’t be sure. And there’s the crux. Do we really want to escape from the old prison house of time and space? Or are we just looking for a little gentle stimulation, a little taste of Eastern immateriality and timelessness? Is this exhibition meant to tickle or provoke?
Perhaps both. As a summer show, in a cool, dark, museum space, “Fragments in Time and Space” is an escapist exhibition about escapism. It uses the Hirshhorn’s space uncommonly well, especially the room of Sugimoto seascapes which turns to advantage the museum’s curving walls. But in the end, the exhibition remains firmly indoors, a museum piece, dealing with the internal dynamics of art, a caesura in the flow of life, rather than comment on it. And when you’re pressed for time, and the old Kantian box of space has been put on the summer boil, that’s okay.
Fragments in Time and Space
On view at the Hirshhorn Museum through Aug. 28. Admission is free. For more information, visit hirshhorni.si.edu.