Text by Chris Yetton
Nick Kennedy’s current installation Timecasting at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle is set up in an admirably clear and straightforward way. Eighty-one squares of paper (40x40cms), arranged in a nine by nine grid, are placed on the floor in the centre of a square white room, each square of paper with a clock mechanism at its centre. Each clock has a lone elongated second hand, from the end of which dangles a pair (or sometimes two pairs) of graphite leads arranged in a V form like a water-diviner’s twig. As the seconds tick on, these “time-diviners” jiggle up and down and swing round intermittently touching the paper. Somehow, what appear on the squares of paper from this chance-driven flicking are drawings of considerable rotational symmetry, looking like delicate fossils or parts of some high velocity turbine. Kennedy set the clocks in motion a row at a time, week by week from the start of the installation. In the early weeks the waiting silent rows gave a delicious sense of anticipation, urging the viewer to return.
The use of the grid, that emblem of rational thought, the technological nature of the installation and the interest in repetition are clear references to science, the dominant ontological pursuit of our time. Kennedy has been parodying science for some time with his Dice Drawings, Spinning Top Drawings and Paper Aeroplane Drawings. He has been experimenting with removing himself more and more from the process of making. In fact he refers to his work as “experiments”. The apparently random aspects of the movements of the graphite leads and the broken nature of their contact with the paper, which nevertheless results in remarkable regularity in the drawings brings to mind the use of probability theory in scientific disciplines as wide apart as quantum mechanics and the social sciences. Order emerges out of chaos.
The spectator’s impulse is to examine the drawings in some detail, comparing them with their neighbours. Strangely the eighth row is not as different from the first as might be expected. The drawings that have resulted from eight more weeks’ activity are more complex, but in subtler ways than one would at first think. The machines click on tirelessly marking time and the drawings can be considered as images of time but the experience in the installation is of timelessness. It shares with Christian Marclay’s video The Clock the sensation that, while one watches it, time ceases. The ticking of the clocks has built up week by week and now, with eighty-one in motion, the noise they make is like the trickling of a stream. The choreography of the clocks produces a music of time. One is reminded of György Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique (1962) for one hundred metronomes. This music however only adds to the experience of the suspension of time.
The movement of the graphite leads dancing over the paper, often seeming not to touch it at all, gives a feeling of lightness.These eighty-one tiny time-casting contraptions, swinging from the second hands, are like Queen Mab’s chariot in Mercutio’s dream (that word-spinning dancer and swordsman): “Drawn with a team of little atomies…Her waggon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs;…The traces, of the smallest spider’s web;…The whips of cricket’s bone; The lash of film”.Shakespeare borrowed the “little atomies” from the first great poem of the scientific understanding of the universe – Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, c. 60 BC. Our current scientific view shares with Lucretius the understanding of the Universe as made largely of nothingness and tiny particles of matter/energy.
Timecasting adds time into this vision of the insubstantial lightness of everything. The seemingly endless circular repetition in it introduces the idea of infinity which has always accompanied the theory of the “little atomies”. Heraclitus, at the time of the earliest atomic theory, said that you could never step in the same river twice. Kennedy’s Timecasting floats lightly on a stream of time in a white room on the third planet of a minor star two-thirds out from the centre of a small spiral galaxy in a pocket universe set in motion thirteen and three-quarter billion years ago – give or take.
Nick Kennedy: Timecasting is on display at Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyneuntil 19 May 2013.
Chris Yetton is an art historian and former lecturer at Chelsea School of Art, who has written widely about British abstract art.