Exhibition | Time’s Relentless Melt
Photography relies on a tension between ephemerality and permanence as it captures a moment before it is lost. The writer Susan Sontag explores this phenomenon, and the inescapable movement of time, when she writes of “time’s relentless melt” in On Photography (1977). Like timekeeping devices such as calendars and clocks, photography defies the fluid nature of time, briefly suspending it. In 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic similarly created a rupture in the sense of time’s passage as it halted daily routines and social interactions and upended clarity about the future. The photographic and time-based works in the exhibition Time’s Relentless Melt consider the multifaceted nature of time, which can be linear, cyclical, disjointed, or compressed.
Each of the ten artists in the exhibition offers a unique perspective on the fickleness of time. For his series The Birmingham Project (2012), the photographer Dawoud Bey employs the diptych format, which is frequently used to conjure the passage of time by pairing before and after moments. The series is a response to the 1963 white supremacist bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four girls were killed when the church was dynamited one morning, and two boys died in the aftermath. Bey juxtaposes photographs of two residents of Birmingham—one the same age as a child who was murdered that day and one who is forty-nine years older, the age the child would have been had they survived—to show the aging process and allude to its violent disruption. In 1964, when Bey was only eleven, photographs in a book dedicated to the Birmingham bombing were seared into his memory. He began his Birmingham portraits in 2012, when the shooting of Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager from Miami Gardens, Florida, made him question if progress had occurred for Black youth in this country and reflect that “the past doesn’t stay in the past.” Bey hopes these diptychs will create a momentary connection between viewers and his Black sitters to direct attention to the perpetuation of racial inequities.
The loss of Black lives and the epidemic of racism in the United States became entangled with other grief and trauma in the summer of 2020 as COVID-19 ravaged the country.
The artist duo Zorawar Sidhu and Rob Swainston responded to the moment with reinterpretations of iconic and recurring media images. July 18th is based on a widely circulated news photograph of the social distancing circles that were established during the pandemic in Williamsburg Park in Brooklyn. When there was still a degree of risk associated with gatherings, these circles offered alternatives to cramped quarantine quarters and opportunities for pleasure at a time of great loss. Here, in the artists’ reworking of the photograph, the park is transformed by the haunting outline of an upturned face with closed eyes visible within the green, blue, and yellow hues of the grass. To make their group of pandemic-related woodblock prints, Sidhu and Swainston salvaged relics of the pandemic: the sheets of plywood used to board up storefronts in the spring of 2020. The grooves Sidhu and Swainston carved into the boards to make their prints responded to the layered traces of wear, tear, and graffiti already on the wood. Giving voice to fears that were omnipresent at the time, Sidhu and Swainston offer an updated memento mori, a centuries-old trope meant to evoke the fleetingness of life.
While Bey, Sidhu, and Swainston are interested in the psychological ramifications of time, alluding to the powerful ways a traumatic past and an uncertain future impact the present, other artists in the exhibition examine tangible and physical relics of time. Since 2007 Alison Rossiter has salvaged nearly three thousand packages of expired photographic paper. She processes the photographic sheets to reveal the ghosts of time: wrinkles and folds, remnants of atmospheric pollution, stains, light leaks, and even fingerprints. The titles of her works often include the name of the paper’s manufacturer and the expiration date, calling attention to the period when the paper underwent a gradual degradation from new and pristine to unusable. For example, the eight sheets that appear in Density 1919 were part of a stack permeated by mold. Here, signs of neglect are transformed into marks of beauty as Rossiter reveals the paper to be a witness to history rather than a blank slate. In the works on view, the artists experiment with subject matter and photography’s technical constraints to explore transience and juxtapose the past with the present. Seen together, these works invite reflection on how time is recorded and remembered—sentimentally and critically, individually and collectively.
Summer Intern in Photography and Graduate Student at the University of Southern California
The exhibitions and programs at Art on Hulfish and Art@Bainbridge are made possible by Annette Merle-Smith; Princeton University; William S. Fisher, Class of 1979, and Sakurako Fisher; J. Bryan King, Class of 1993; Rachelle Belfer Malkin, Class of 1986, and Anthony E. Malkin; the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts; the Humanities Council; the Lewis Center for the Arts; the Program in African Studies; the Department of African American Studies; the Center for Collaborative History; and other generous benefactors.