On the Subjectivity of Time

Michael Ajerman, Sawako Ando, Lisa Byrne

‘To see a world in a grain of sand, And heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour’ William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

In the second edition of ‘The Critique of Practical Reason’, Immanuel Kant claimed to have effected a ‘Copernican revelation’ in philosophyi. At the root of this claim was a belief that his thesis revealed a similar chasm between the way people perceived the world and the way it really is. Just as the heliocentric astrology of Copernicus was difficult for the sixteenth century Ptolemaic culture to assimilate, Kant’s metaphysics oppose many of our intuitive beliefs. The most basic of these is the belief in the objective reality of space and time. By exposing these so-believed concrete facts as the product of a subjective schema, Kant began an exploration into how we order our experiences, an enquiry which then brings forth the question of why we do so. These concerns can be seen in On Time. By dealing with the issue of time in an unavoidably subjective manner, these artists illustrate the temporal schema proposed by Kant. The subtle differences between that of each artist expose a subject imposing their structure onto something beyond their knowledge.

Kant believed that we could have no knowledge of what exists beyond our experiences, what he termed the ‘noumenal’ world. We tend to believe, even if not consciously, that the external cause of these experiences bears resemblance to the experience itself. For example, we believe that the experience of feeling heat is caused by something hot existing in close proximity to, but independently from, us. Perhaps the connection is strengthened by the multiplicity of similar reactions to the same occurrence.

However, the certainty of this link is unverifiable. All we can be certain of is the personal experience of heat, as whatever lurks behind this experience transcends human knowledge. Kant put forward an alternative but equally logically possible suggestion of why such a collection of similar experiences would be found; that we subjectively order sense perceptions in a certain way in our minds. Using a schematic system which Kant dubbed the ‘apparatus’, we are able to structure the manifold of the world into coherent sensory experiences. The most basic of these Kant named ‘intuitions’, which are the systems used to structure the received data into experiences that are based around space and timeii. Bertrand Russell drew an analogy between this notion and someone wearing glasses with blue lensesiii. The world seems to be blue, not because it actually is, but because the person has the apparatus to structure it in that way. Kant’s proposal, using this analogy, is that when we perceive reality, we perceive it through time-tinted lenses. These order it into temporal sections that we consider to be moments in time.

This construction is apparent in the paintings of Michael Ajerman. Ajerman repeatedly uses the same subjects as models, often close friends and family, enabling him to observe them over the course of months, or even years. The outcomes of these observations appear as snapshots that encapsulate the gesture or movement of each individual. The textured surface created by many layers of paint applied over time belies the impression of a spontaneous brief glimpse into the life of another. The works in On Time, An Ascension and Greenwich Interior, show the subject in isolated instants during a routine day. Although the continued existence of the subject is presumed, it is beyond the viewers’ knowledge. Just as humans have always divided infinity into intelligible finite sections, these canvases condense the sustained and uninterrupted being of the subject into comprehensible segments. The artist uses the work to impose a sense of temporality onto his experiences, capturing these subjective ‘moments’ of his perception into freeze-frames. By separating them from the flow of time, Ajerman demonstrates the workings of the apparatus ordering the manifold of our experiences. The assumption that the figure’s life continues in a manner corresponding to the individual represented in these freeze frames echoes a basic, intuitive human assumption: that there is an external world which corresponds with our perception of it. The works from Daniel Meadows’ series The Free Photographic Omnibus also manifest this tendency. The photos seem familiar, recalling the repeated documentation of family portraits that is present in most of our lives. They seem to provide tangible evidence of time passing in the manner that we perceive it.

A number of questions arise following the espousal of Kant’s thesis, not least what constitutes the ‘noumenal’ world. It has been made clear that this is not something within the realms of our knowledge, but it may be possible to imagine what the data consists of before it is ordered into our perceptions. Using photographic techniques, Lisa Byrne goes far to represent the continuous flow of time liberated from schematic organization, as well as visual information in undefined space. The series Simultaneous Perspectives, of which two are shown in On Time, are faithful to their title. Pinhole cameras are placed in opposing locations around the subject of the work, an intimately entwined couple, resulting in a deliquescent image showing many successive moments concurrently and from different viewpoints. When looking at these works the truth of Kant’s thesis begins to appear as our brains struggle to grasp, detach, and re-structure the images in front of us. The visible motion of the bodies demands to be separated into temporal frames, as in a film reel. Attempts can be made to disentangle the opposing viewpoints and distinguish between the consecutive instants but the figures rebel and, ultimately, resist. Yet it is just the urge to attempt that reveals the plausibility of a Kantian schema imbedded in the human mind.

Even Byrne’s sensory confusion does not fully escape it, for whilst the spatial arena is disturbed, the arena itself still remains intact. The bed is evident as a static object of three dimensions despite the spatial upheaval upon it. Similarly, the convergences of moments are taken from one moment; let’s call it T1, to another, T2. This retains the temporal structure and simply focuses on a broader section of it than that concentrated on by Ajerman. Although the film reel frames are inextricably blended, they are still from a particular temporal section of the film. The different perspectives aim to provide us with an idea of cognizant beings independent of ourselves - the Other - by presenting their hypothetical viewpoint. Eventually however, any disparity between the subject and the Other is dispersed through the enforcement of the notion that all human perceptions are ordered by the same apparatus. This can also be seen in Idris Khan’s every… Bernd and Hilla Becher Prison type Gasholders. Photos taken from different times and places, but of the same type of building, are superimposed upon one another. The resulting image is strangely transient and ethereal, yet expresses an underlying consistency that reinforces this uniformity.

This seems to be the final resolution: that all our experiences, particularly those of time, are inevitably structured in this way. However, an alternative to the imposed psychological order discussed above can be found in Sawako Ando’s approach to temporality. Ando’s dot-grids make up metaphorical networks of individuals affected by macrocosmic events, each person represented by a dot. Each dot is individually hand-stitched, providing each one with a unique character. The changes running across the grid, such as the apparent shadow cast across the dots in Utsu by a series of darker dots, show these beings as linked by the same event. However, the link is not made because the individuals experience an occurrence related to an absolute measurement, such as a particular day or month. The shadow does not represent a period of time. Instead they are bound together by associated personal perceptions of the event that result in a simultaneous shift in the collective worldview. The shadow over the dots represents this concurrent change in attitude, the individuals becoming related through their developing understanding of loss or mortality. Objective time has no relevance to the connective experience and, as such, Ando’s work does not attempt to confine time into finite segments. Temporality is re-structured through empathy.

Throughout On Time the viewer can observe artists grappling with how, or how to resist, structuring time in their own manner. Focussing on three artists reveals three different approaches, aspects of which can also be observed in the work of others: the use of a schematic process to construct a legible, albeit subjective, view of time in the work of Ajerman, an attempt to present time deconstructed in Byrne, and the restructuring of time through an alternative set of values in Ando. One thing that these diverse methodologies converge upon is the implication that unknowable concepts such as time and, following from that, infinity, call to humanity to be quantified and managed. They support Kant’s thesis in suggesting that this instinct is already defining our reality. Although a need not often consciously recognised, the quote by Blake above resonates with this basic desire: for time to be something to be held, comprehended, and ultimately controlled.

Eleanor Clayton - Publication:  The Courtauld Institute of Art - ON TIME - The Eastwing Collection VIII(2008)


i Kant, I. ‘The Critique of Pure Reason’, Preface to 2nd Edition, p XI
ii Ibid.
iii Russell, B. ‘The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell’, p 37