BY Elvia Wilk in Features | 13 AUG 15
Featured in
Issue 21

Around the Clock

Alicja Kwade’s drama of elemental forces

BY Elvia Wilk in Features | 13 AUG 15

Der Tag ohne Gestern (detail), 2014, corten steel, alarm clock (all images courtesy the artist & Johann König, Berlin; photography: © Roman März, Berlin)

In 1998 the Swatch corporation launched a new system for measuring time. Swatch Internet Time, also known as ‘beat time’ (after the Beat line of watches it announced simultaneously), was intended to abolish time zones by dividing the day into 1000 ‘beats’. In the near future, the logic went, when all communication would occur online, we would need a new, standardized decimal time system rather than the old one based on primal measurements like planetary cycles and gravitational forces.

Corporate hubris notwithstanding – weren’t shipping magnates the first to establish standardized time zones in the first place? – ‘beat time’ was not, on the sur­face, a terrible idea; I’ve missed more than one Skype meeting after calculating EST incorrectly. So why aren’t we all scheduling our lives via beats? Maybe it’s the same reason we aren’t all speaking Esperanto: because common language depends to some extent on common culture. But maybe it’s also because the human brain can’t completely accept the notion that time is a construct we can amend at will. In other words, time still adheres partly to the ‘natural’ – the supposedly timeless – side of the nature/culture divide.

Dienstag, 13. Mai 2014, 17.17.00 Uhr, 2014, aluminium, zink, lead, copper, nickel, tin, silver, gold and porcelain

The desire to destabilize the relationship between nature and artificial constructs like time is what drives Alicja Kwade’s long-standing fascination with the basic object of the timekeeper. ‘The clock is the most normal but the most abstract thing’, the Polish-born artist told me when we met in her studio, a high-ceilinged series of rooms in a former film production house in Berlin-Weissensee. A group of works had just been shipped off to an art fair, and so the main room was surprisingly empty – save for a few curious items like a giant abacus she had recently bought on eBay. She went on: ‘The clock is the strongest symbol for how we try to order something that we call reality, for how we try to divide it in slices and describe it.’

Kwade’s toying with clock-time takes myriad forms. Her Dimension +1-+9 and Dimension -1—9 (2012) are two clocks hung facing each other, one ticking slightly faster and one slightly slower than a standard second, stretching time further and further apart between them. And Gegen den Lauf (Counter Rotation, 2012–2014) is a standard-looking wall clock that rotates counterclockwise once every second, effectively negating the movement of its second hand. Versions of this against-the-clock have been shown in diverse exhibitions – Kammel Menour, 2013; Museum Haus Esters, 2013-14; Galleri Nicolai Wagner, 2014 – but in fall 2015 it will have its greatest chance of in­fluencing (or at least perplexing) audience perception. Commissioned by Public Art Fund, a towering version of the clock will top a streetlamp-like post at Freedman Plaza in Manhattan, camouflaging itself as public infrastructure.

Thus far, smart watches haven’t appeared in Kwade’s repertoire: she is decidedly unconcerned with tech fads. ‘For me there’s no difference between the first humans staring in wonder at the stars, and us using computers to examine the same.’ She went so far as to call herself old fashioned, but as I poked around in her studio, talking with her about pendulums and degrees and time zones, I started to wonder whether we aren’t all stuck in the past – the deep past – more than we like to think.

Truster 2, 2013, six Kaiser Idell lamps, dimensions variable

Leaning on one wall were a pair of bronze sculptures: long, thin rods about a metre tall with jagged peaks in the middle (Alle Zeit der Welt, 2015). Kwade explained that the lines represent the divisions between time zones running through South America. Originally they were drawn straight, but as country borders and trade agreements changed over time the lines became irregular where they run over major land masses – remaining straight near the North Pole and South Pole because no one owns those territories.

A large sculpture resembling a flared phonograph horn lay on the floor nearby. Made of Corten steel, a trio of these sculptures had just been installed in the cloister of Basel’s cathedral as part of Art Basel’s Parcours 2015, each horn’s funnel fitted with a tiny ticking clock (Der Tag ohne Gestern I-III, 2014/15). The funnel shape mimics the results to attempt to represent the structure of the universe (with so-called ‘horn topo­logies’ and the mathematical ‘Picard horn’). ‘These are all the things you take for granted,’ Kwade said. ‘They’ve been created, designed, they didn’t happen by themselves … You can’t feel a border of a time zone, but when you see it you immediately realise that it’s a completely faked thing.’
Kwade’s recent installation in the rotunda of the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt harnesses gravity and centrifugal force to create something of a giant meta-clock. For Die bewegte Leere des Moments (‘The Void of the Moment in Motion,’ 2015), she affixed a spinning carousel to the top of the glass dome in the museum’s entry hall with two delicate chains extending from it. Attached to the end of one chain is a chromed clock 50 centimeters in diameter; the other end is wrapped around a stone of comparable mass. The two objects rotate continuously around the central axis, almost skimming the mirrored glass enclosure but never quite touching their own reflections. The ampli­fied ticking of the clock resounds throughout the atrium.

A drama of elemental forces – what could be more theatric, more thrilling, than the opera of the planets, the unfathomable black hole, or the speed of light? – was likewise fully exploited in her key 2013 exhi­bition Nach Osten (Facing East), the first work to inaugurate Johann König’s restored Brutalist St. Agnes Church in Berlin-Kreuzberg. A light bulb and a small microphone affixed to a 14.5-m wire extending to the ceiling swung in glorious arcs back and forth; images of the installation in motion look like long-exposure pictures of the night sky.

Many of Kwade’s pieces could be called found objects or even readymades: a smashed steel plate arranged on the floor (Unter anderer Bedingung, 2008), a shipping pallet made of polished mahogany (Palette, 2007), various arrangements of classic Kaiser-Idell lamps (Truster, 2013). But, importantly, she uses projects to materialise abstract principles, like treating time zones as found objects: ‘For me the found object is not stuck on this objet trouvé idea; it can also be a found structure, philosophical concept, or physical truth – it’s the same approach.’

This ontological description of ‘thingness’ is strikingly close to the definitions recently proposed by contemporary philo­sophers of the object-oriented school, per­haps most clearly articulated by Graham Harman. Harman sums up his theory of the object with the observation that ‘any relation must count as a substance.’1 Or in Kwade’s words: ‘Everything has a body, just not only a physical body.’

Etwas Abwesendes, dessen Anwesenheit erwartet wurde, exhibition view, Johann König, Berlin, 2015

And yet, through culture, the art object goes through a mysterious alchemy by which its body is imputed value simply by dint of belonging to the thing-category of ‘art’. Perhaps this is why several of Kwade’s forms point to the arbitrariness of the way value is assigned to certain materials, and therefore to certain ideas. When she was awarded the Piepenbrock Förderpreis für Skulptur in 2008, for one work at the accompanying Hamburger Bahnhof exhibition Von Explosion zu Ikonen (From Explosion to Icons) she plated stacks of coal bricks with a thin veneer of 24-carat gold (Kohle (Union 666), 2008). At a spring 2015 exhibition at the Kunsthalle Mannheim accompanying her receipt of the hectorpreis 2015 (prizes seem to invite reconsideration of value structures), she piled slabs of precious and industrial metals atop one another, the size of each correlating to the material’s market exchange value at one particular moment (Dienstag, 13. Mai 2014, 17.17.00 Uhr, 2014). For abc – art berlin contemporary in Berlin this coming fall, she plans to make 97 solid gold necklaces with weights cor­responding to the amount of gold kept in reserve by 97 nations as a ‘security measure’ in times of economic crisis.

Selbstporträt (detail), 2015, mixed media

As she has demonstrated in projects like Dienstag, 13. Mai 2014, 17.17.00 Uhr, one way of understanding a material is via its relationships to other objects – for gold, that might be its position on the market, its comparison with other metals, or its connotations of romance or royalty. Another way to grasp the nature of a material is to examine its constituent parts. Thus, in addition to representing concepts as objects, Kwade repeatedly grinds existing things to tiny bits to examine their components. Her spring 2015 exhibition at Johann König, Etwas Abwesendes, dessen Anwesenheit erwartet wurde (‘Something absent whose presence was expected’) presented a methodical deconstruction of the object into its elementary particles. In one installation, marble columns were smashed into marble chunks that were smashed into tiny marble bits, all arranged in descending size into the shape of a triangle whose tip was only pulverised marble dust. For another work she disassembled a lamp and shipped its parts to a company that crushed each part into powder and separated the elements – steel, plastic, glass, etc. – by weight into different jars, which were displayed in a glass case (Lampe (Kaiser Idell rot), 2015). On a wall nearby hung a ‘self portrait’ (Selbstporträt, 2015), where 22 cylindrical vials containing the 22 elements of the human body were arranged in a row. One element, copper, can be found in both human and lamp.

If the elements making up our existence were ever-so slightly rearranged, these works seem to say, we’d be living in a parallel world. The goal of Kwade’s breakdown of objects’ ontologies is to provide a split-second glimpse of that possibility. Imagine two lamps of different colours, their half-dome lampshades pressed flush against either side of a mirror, perfectly simulating each other – that’s the simple yet effective earlier work Parallelwelt (Parallel World, 2009). Tricks of light in pieces such as these are visual puns functioning on the level of a joke as much as they are projections on the wall of Plato’s cave: the moment of realization – there are two lamps! – mimics a major one: your world is populated, or perhaps entirely composed of, flickering shadows on the wall.

Nach Osten, 2011, mixed media, installation view, St. Agnes, Berlin, 2013

The first exhibition of Kwade’s I saw in person was her 2012 In Circles, at Johann König. It included a room-sized installation of objects such as a door, a sheet of glass and a bicycle bent slightly into a curve, all arranged in a spiral on the floor (Gesamtheit aller Orte, 2012). The feeling of breakdown of Copernican space only lasted a moment, but it was a profound ‘there is no spoon’ experience, most perplexing in its simplicity. Kwade later told me that the pieces that seem the most straightforward take the longest to devise. How to take a concept and bring it to its purest distillation without arriving at the existential crisis of the object, the total void?

The process of reaching this juncture is itself an entirely circular one. For Kwade, this requires a nearly ascetic restraint and rigorous rejection of idiosyncrasy in favor of Platonic forms. ‘The more basic and easy to understand something looks, the longer it took me to get there.’ This statement itself sounds quite simple, almost self-evident. It’s not.

1 Graham Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things, (Open Court, 2005), 85.

Elvia Wilk is the author of Oval (2019) and Death by Landscape, a collection of essays forthcoming this July from Soft Skull Press.