in Opinion | 15 JAN 06
Featured in
Issue 96

Things to Come

Looking forward

in Opinion | 15 JAN 06

Waking up on the first day of January is like finding yourself on your front step and discovering that the locks have been changed. The day may be bright with the promise of good things to come, but with consciousness comes the awareness that you’ve had this feeling before. This is when you are encouraged to make resolutions, about making sure you make the future happen before it happens to you. But it’s an uneasy fulcrum, a weightless moment occasioned by a lifting swell of nostalgia, not only for the past from which you have been permanently exiled but for all the contingent futures from which you are likewise banished.

Robert Smithson, seeing in the neo-archaic Minimalism of Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and Sol LeWitt a ‘backward-looking future’, could only conclude that time itself was ‘deranged’, and that the source of this unhinging had ‘its partial origins [in] the Museum of Natural History, where the caveman and the spaceman can be seen under the same roof’. The 18th-century French proto-Romantic painter Hubert Robert is one of the uncredited progenitors of this temporal confusion in art; his time machine was also a museum. After narrowly sidestepping the guillotine, he was appointed curator of what would become the first national public museum, the Louvre. As artist–curator, he was charged with planning how the former palace’s galleries would be reconstructed and its vast collections arranged. In an 18th-century version of a PowerPoint presentation he painted pictures of the grand galleries a few years into the future, showing new shadow-banishing skylights and an edified republican populace behaving in a manner befitting a happy new dawn of civic art appreciation. He also painted a series of works showing the same views of the museum’s interior in a far more distant future, in ruins. Here foppish young art students 2,000 years hence could be seen clamouring over toppled columns and vine-choked statuary to set up their easels, enthralled by the magnificently picturesque desolation around them. In order to sell his vision of the museum to those who held the public purse strings, Robert pitched both the institution and its destruction, envisioning a future in reverse, validating an antiquity that had yet to happen. This wasn’t necessarily to imagine a dystoptic future (as in the final scene of Planet of the Apes in 1968, or just about any sci-fi film with a back-to-the-future reveal that owes something to the overlooked Robert); it was to look with nostalgia back across time to his own revolutionary moment: the beginning of time.

This strain of longing is distinct from the claims made on the past by artists fascinated by the halcyon revolutions of their parents’ generation (Sam Durant’s connecting the dots between Robert Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed, Altamont, 1970 and the killings at Kent State) or other people’s slightly dog-eared pasts (Dave Muller’s shuffle-mix ‘portraits’ of his friends and relations via the cracked spines of LPs in their collections). Rather, the push-pull effect of looking backwards and forwards simultaneously is analogous to what cinematographers call the ‘forward zoom/reverse tracking shot’, a technique used by Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo, 1958) and Stephen Spielberg (Jaws, 1975), involving a synchronized shift in focal length and subject–lens distance to convey a gut-wrenching sense of dislocation. It’s the realization that everything you have presumed about causality is possibly incorrect and that you are rushing towards two cognitively dissonant states – recollection and anticipation – at once.

Such is the effect of Ed Ruscha’s suite of paintings ‘Course of Empire’ (1992–2005), where humdrum scenes of factories and warehouses emblematic of America’s economic invincibility serve as a prologue to its decline, and the artist’s own past. Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole saw all this coming a century and a half ago: his own five-part cycle ‘The Course of Empire’ (1834–6), to which Ruscha’s series alludes, tracks the grandiose rise and fall of civilization. The distant past (Cole’s The Savage State, 1836) and the distant future (Desolation, 1836) bend around, only to meet in the gloaming of a wild, elemental eternity.

So where is this elusive thing, the Future? If it is anywhere, it is right here with us. It’s in the slightly sinister TV ads promising a future of infinite, seamless connectivity and asking ‘are you ready?’, knowing we daren’t say no. It’s in the pompous knick-knacks we piously stuff into time capsules thinking that ‘they’, the enlightened people of the future, will wonder with amazement at ‘us’, the people of a ‘simpler’ bygone age. It is in the fertile imaginations of think-tank futurologists currently charged with the ludicrous task of designing pharaonic ‘monuments of dread’ intended to last 10,000 years and ward off unwary intruders from the National Radioactive Waste Repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. In fact the future, in all its flawed presentness, is accruing so quickly that, as Daniel Rosenberg, editor of Histories of the Future (2005), recently wrote, ‘our sense of the future is conditioned by a knowledge of futures we have already lost’.

For three years Ellen Harvey conducted her own experiment in time travel. For her New York Beautification Project (1999–2001) she illegally ‘tagged’ over 40 surfaces around the city – fire escapes, expressway underpasses, alleys – with tiny, exquisitely rendered oval-shaped Arcadian landscapes in the manner of Nicolas Poussin, Hubert Robert and Casper David Friedrich. Nearly all the paintings are gone now – painted over, defaced, carted off with the rubble of the demolished edifices they once adorned. But Harvey is unfazed by their erasure from the city that barely registered their presence. In fact she is somewhat relieved; ruination is appropriate for a style of painting that was all about the longing for a nebulous golden age. For a moment they provided a picturesque window into what might once have been – and what, of course, might be again. But that is wishful thinking.