Time and Memory

         Time is a blind guide.

                                                                                             Anne Michaels, writer


Without the global gestalt of seeing to guide my progress, I’m surprised by each new bump, ridge or opening as I nose my way along. There is a strange immediacy to this experience, a complete focus on the world at my fingertips, a world that reveals itself only as my hands move. This gradual discovery of the sculpture is more like listening to a piece of music, or watching a dance performance or movie. It unfolds in time, and cannot be hurried or slid over. My body moves at its own pace. I relax into a more contemplative sense of time and a more aesthetic frame of mind.

I realize I am taking a lot of time with the piece, more time than I spend with the average work of art. Not only that, but the piece takes on certain characteristics: depth, a sense of vastness, and as the unknown becomes known, I feel a sense of oneness with the piece. 

Aesthetic touch takes time—time to trace contours, discern textures, decipher forms, and absorb meanings. Touching in a thoughtful way may even take us out of time. Brenson describes this dimension of aesthetic touch:

…the kind of touch that is only possible when the hand is unpressured; when it is free to move about and settle where it wants; when the authority of clock time stops and time as it is lived by body and matter take over. When the sculptural mass speaks to the hand and the hand listens to the mass, the current of communication between hand and sculpture can establish a connection so basic that it lives in that hand forever.

Consider the time you spend looking at painting. Usually we encompass the whole in a swift glance, often in passing. The degree of engagement depends on our interest and knowledge and on our ability to enter its world. But time plays a larger role in haptic perception of art (especially touching without sight) by necessity. Muscular motion sets the pace. Time becomes palpable as one explores a sculpture, traveling the surfaces, tracing the contours, discovering its nuances and secrets. Time is needed to decipher, identify, explore and make sense of it all. First impressions yield to deeper probing. Reactions follow one another. Forces resolve. Questions are answered. An understanding of the whole arises.

It takes time to organize and integrate haptic information and discern its meanings. Since perceptions are gathered successively, comprehension of the whole is built slowly, cumulatively. Most of us are not facile with touch as a means to know something as complex as a work of art; we need time for this way of perceiving. Yet taking time can bear fruit and allow integration. The amount of time required for this gradual unfolding of image and meaning calls for patience and persistence.

The movement of hands and body around an object renders the equation of time and space concrete. Movement through space-time creates an experience that has depth and length. Touching expands both time and space. As someone said after touching without sight:

I never realized that one function of vision is to condense time and space.

Time is notation of change. Before people invented clocks, they noted the movement of stars, moon and sun, the passage of the seasons, the evolution of a day. Paying close attention to change expands time. A fine-grained attention notices minute changes, expanding and deepening what we take in. The more closely I watch a child’s growth, the more my sense of time feels continuous, inhabited. When I see a child rarely, and he is suddenly much taller; I wonder where the time has gone. I missed the slow subtle changes. Tactile perception of artwork can provide a fine-grained attention to details, textures and changes in form. Sight can work in the same gradual, cumulative way if and when I take the time. The question is whether I do.

Many people live in time and space as defined by computers, telephones, fax machines and airplanes, all of which compress space and time. The advantages of such time-and-space-savers are considerable, but the costs remain high and hidden. Moving swiftly usually means ignoring sensory richness and internal responses. Cramming ever more tasks into ever-smaller units of time, we miss the whole passing show on the way to the airport. As the media, schools, business and technology pressure us to move at a faster pace, our sense of time is further compromised by a shrinking attention span. We are trained to glean information from ever-shorter visual flashes. Ironically, as speed increases, we feel we have less time.

By slowing down, time expands, yielding a more spacious experience. Time opens rather than constricts. Touching my sculpture without sight, people perceive more slowly by virtue of the time needed to explore it. Touching calls for a kind of attention that is often more meticulous and careful than that of looking. Touching can be absorbing in its intensity, complexity and novelty, altering perception not only of the sculpture, but also of time.

I liked the gradual unfolding of each piece through touch; even after fifteen minutes I was still discovering new things.

A slower pace can be refreshing for people, especially in contrast to their normal speed.

Very meditative and soothing. 

I found my mind to be very quiet, not thinking or interpreting what I felt.

Feeling this work helps the busy-ness drop away.

Time opens.

Perception of art has always been a function of time. Music, theater, dance, film and story unfold in a precise structuring of time. Visual artworks can be appreciated in a time of one’s own making. Yet the quality and nature of the aesthetic experience is often closely related to the length of time spent with the artwork. The more time I spend, the more rewards I reap.

Time is often experienced as possessing a different quality by people who live with disabilities. It can take so much more time to accomplish things that time itself seems different, not just in quantity but in nature. John Hull tracks the profound changes he undergoes in becoming completely blind in On Sight and Insight. He describes his new experience of time:

Sighted people can bend time. You force time to your will… For me, as a blind person, time is simply the medium of my activities…I am simply unable to hurry…perhaps all severe disabilities lead to a decrease in space and an increase in time…Time against which you have previously fought, becomes simply the stream of consciousness within which you act. Modern technology seeks to expand human space and compress human time…The disabled person finds that space is contracted and time is expanded. It is because of the space-time coordinates within which the blind person lives that his life becomes gradually different from the lives of sighted people, particularly in a time of high technology.

The notion of time as a medium is useful. Like any medium, it can lead us toward something. Like any medium, its nature shapes our experience of its content. We usually assume the importance of any activity lies in its content, but the quality of time it takes deeply influences the meaning. Compare a quick bath to a lengthy one. The ability to alter the sense of time is a function of our state of mind.

Yet the Western tradition of art aims for an abstraction of time, for timelessness. Caroline Jones writes of this aspect of Western art:

Like the Christian icon that lies behind so much of Western aesthetics, the oil painting was intended to be an eternal object whose perfected, crystallized composition would never be disturbed by the vicissitudes of time. Time would even be phenomenologically banished from the pictorial realm—it would never be acknowledged as itself part of a viewing regime. Pictures in the Western tradition would be composed to convey a single event, the “pregnant moment” praised by Enlightenment…as the highest form of art.

One way to disrupt this timeless, static ideal is to restore the banished phenomenology of time in the viewing process itself: through the extended, embedded, time-rich experience of touch. Touch is somatic and erotic, conveying by its very nature an experience of change, transmutation and growth, along with the accompanying shadows of decay and death, which have been exorcised from the timeless “viewing regime.

Our bodies respond naturally to rhythm, the music of time. We live within the self-generated rhythms of walking, running, dancing, speech cadence, chewing, breathing, heart beat, cranio-sacral pulse, peristalsis, brain waves and many more. The body’s rhythms seep into the experience of touch. Some people move their hands or bodies rhythmically when touching sculpture. Different parts of the sculptures call for different haptic rhythms. People’s movements often use repetition, alternation and pattern, the elements of rhythm.

I never thought about rhythm in art. I got a sense of rhythm, moving my hands in time. 

In the body, time is marked by the rhythms of tension and ease, excitation and relaxation. Tension and relief is a deep biological pattern: heartbeat, breathing, muscle contraction and release, activity and rest. The Kreitlers suggest that works of art activate tension and relief; people approach a work of art carrying their own internal tensions, whether specific or diffuse. The tensions in the artwork—in the composition, content and materials—trigger one’s residual tensions, then absorb and combine with them. As the tensions in the artwork are resolved within the artwork, relief can also occur for one’s diffuse, pre-existing tensions. Much of the power of art lies in the resolution of forces and tensions we carry within us, whether conscious or unconscious, temporary or enduring. The Kreitlers describe this dynamic in a charming way:

…imagine that the diffuse tensions are like many children playing, each separately, in a playground under the window of your study, making a lot of noise. Of course, they can hardly comply with your requests for silence, and to persuade every child separately would demand more patience than you have. But if you can bring in some other kids marching in a row with drums and trumpets, there is a good chance that most of the playing children will join them and march away from your study window, leaving you in comfortable silence…

Artworks are complex enough to evoke and accommodate tensions in many people. In fact, this is one of the criteria for effective art. If the tensions are too narrow, simple or little, the experience is less engaging. Curiously, people’s pleasure may be enhanced by delay between tension and resolution. The more complex and demanding the artwork, the more time is needed to resolve its tensions, and the more rewarding the eventual relief of resolution.

Tensions in an artwork may affect us physically as well as psychologically. In the haptic experience of art, tension and relief are felt and expressed in the body, not only through empathy with the tensions in the artwork, but also through kinesthetic sensations. The movement of hands on a surface may be conceived as tension, and the simultaneous sensation as relief. Tension is transformed into relief when my hands move into the unknown and find something interesting. When I probe into space and happen upon a familiar place. When I travel along a seemingly endless passage and come to an end. When I can’t decipher a shape and finally make sense of it. When a series of random elements suddenly connect with each other. The process of understanding a sculpture through touch produces a considerably delayed resolution because it takes time to create a unified sense of the whole. If we look while we touch, or look after touching, tension lies in the differences between what we see and what we feel. Relief or resolution occurs when we integrate the haptic sensations and the visual image, when we come to terms with the differences between them and resolve or transcend the conflict.

The element of time is integral to another dimension of art: the process of making. A work of art is the result of an artist’s intense interaction with materials, other works of art, history, culture and ideas, and with personal images, feelings, memories, sensations and intuitions. The unruly, often extended process of making becomes compressed into a singular, completed artwork. An artwork is a time capsule, embodying and reflecting the time absorbed by its making. It contains everything that took place during that time, visible or not. While artworks seem timeless once complete, we also know, as writer Adam Gopnik says, that they are  “a permanent experience of a particular moment.”

Just as it takes time for an artist to create an artwork, the perceiver needs time to unravel and integrate its complexities and ambiguities in another act of creation. The time-dependent haptic experience echoes, however faintly or abbreviated, the lengthy process the artist underwent. People who touch sculpture often comment that they feel like the artist as they slowly recreate the sculpture for themselves.

This is like being the artist.

Some artists intentionally play with the element of time, referring to its passage in the very nature or content of their work. By making artworks that have a clearly finite life, that change with time, or that play out a narrative in time, artists explore notions of mortality, change, time and memory. From Tingley’s early experiments with mechanized sculptures that self-destruct, to Duchamps’ pleasure with the accidentally broken glass of his Bride Stripped Bare by Bachelors, to sculptures that incorporate melting ice, growing grass or decaying meat, many artists have intentionally played with such fast or slow changes in the artwork itself. Some changes mean the demise of the sculpture. Some changes, like a garden, lead to the fruition of the artist’s vision. Some changes, like the rusting of a steel sculpture, reveal the passage of time and its effects.

Haptic art raises questions about art’s permanence and inviolability. When making art to be touched by many hands, the artist must be willing to embrace the element of change—the face of time. The normal effects wrought by years of light, humidity, chemistry, and handling are speeded up and amplified in haptic art. The touch of hands erodes surfaces, deposits oils, and corrodes materials. These changes may actually be intentional and welcome, projected and planned. A photographer made images of Cambodian women’s faces intentionally pale and faint, wanting the touch of people’s hands to darken them over time, bringing them into being. Materials may be chosen which make visible the impress of hands and the effects of touch, such as clay, wax, or plaster. The patina that develops from wear and the passage of time can be pleasing in this day of indestructible, impermeable surfaces and throwaway things. Intimations of vulnerability and mortality lurk in the lineaments of wear. The Japanese have a deep cultural appreciation for things that have aged visibly and beautifully, an appreciation embedded in the complex aesthetic and philosophical concept of impermanence and imperfection called wabi-sabi. The closest parallel in the West would be the legacy of romanticism, which finds beauty in ruins, fragments and the processes of nature. The sense of time passing, of decay and its intimations of mortality, are evoked by aged, eroded, worn and softened surfaces. Many artworks made today play with notions of age and time passing in the way they use materials: traces of paint that suggest the effects of wear, aged or weathered wood, corroded metals. Outdoor sculptures often reveal the effects of season and weather.

It would be fun to experience the work after years on exhibit, worn like medieval cathedral steps So I thought of time and aging as I touched these sculptures.

If this effect is deliberately sought, the results of prolonged touching and wear must be considered in terms of the overall meaning of the artwork. A marble river god residing in a state capitol building reclines with his legs sprawled before him toward the passersby. Many people in passing have affectionately touched the foot extended in their direction, polishing the surface until it glows. The rest of the statue loses its intended impact in the shadow of this prominent polished foot, a case of tactile effects contradicting the artist’s intention.

Another solution to the changes wrought by extensive touching is to make parts that can be replaced when worn or damaged. We now take replaceability for granted; after all, even many human body parts are replaceable. To subvert the preciousness of art, Duchamps played with the notion of replaceability, which has since become another means at an artist’s disposal. Multiples, copies, and appropriations are common. Assemblages, which include items made for other purposes, have a century-long tradition. Replacement of parts as an aesthetic strategy has possibilities and implications yet to be explored. What happens when parts of clearly different ages co-exist within a piece? What about replacing a part not with an exact copy of the first, but a different version? What would it mean for a piece to evolve in this way?

Wear and tear on objects has had a primarily negative connotation in the Western art world. The whole industry of art conservation has developed to minimize, reduce, or reverse as much as possible the effects of time. Museums are dedicated to the preservation and conservation of objects and seek to remove them from the flux and contingencies of life as well as to exhibit them without jeopardizing their condition. Temperature, light and humidity controlled environments keep surrounding conditions as stable and unintrusive as possible. The museum mandate to conserve artworks has created notions of the artwork itself as inviolate, untouchable—purely visual. Perhaps the allusions to wear and the passage of time evident in many artworks today is in part a reaction to this inviolability. So is haptic art.

The sense of time is intimately entwined with memory. Memory creates a unified flow of experience as each moment is related to the previous moment and to past experiences. Memories of past experiences form a foundation for the way we perceive, think and analyze. According to memory researcher Daniel Schacter in Searching for Memory, memories are not fixed patterns but a creative process. A stored memory is a pattern of brain activity that may be activated by a cue in the present experience that resembles a pattern from the past. Information from the present is combined with patterns stored from the past, and the resulting mixture of the two is what we remember. Each time we remember something, like a favorite painting, it becomes colored by the cue and by the circumstances of recall, so the next time we remember that painting, it appears slightly different. Its remembering may be cued by many things, such as an object, another painting, a color, pattern or shape, a feeling, sensation or movement, a smell, sound or taste. The remembered painting has now been subtly affected by the cue. It is also affected by the conditions in which we remember—whether in a museum, on a beach, in a restaurant, dreaming in bed. When we see the actual painting again, we have unconsciously altered it in memory since the last time we saw it. Each act of memory is a creative act, an ongoing transformation of the past. Arnheim notes, “Memory is a much more fluid medium than perception because it is further removed from the checks of reality.”

A work of art elicits several kinds of memories: specific episodes, incidents or images from the past; past experiences that have become unconscious or implicit; and conceptual, factual knowledge. Memories of specific episodes usually include many kinds of information—visual, auditory, spatial, verbal, and tactile—stored in convergence zones in the brain that bind together the fragments of perceptual experience. A sensory perception from present experience, such as smelling metal or touching a wood carving, could be the cue that triggers the memory of an event in personal history. Past experiences, now unconscious, may be elicited by a cue in an artwork without one even realizing a memory has been retrieved; it may seem an intrinsic part of the artwork. The experience is one of “knowing” without being aware of the source of knowing.

Another kind of memory, procedural memory, is used for skills and habits, such as riding a bicycle or cooking. This kind of memory is more likely to be called into play by physical exploration of a sculpture than by visual exploration. The motions of touching a sculpture may resemble certain familiar movement patterns or physical habits. The movement memory may be unconscious or become conscious. Some people associate their experience of my sculptures with playing musical instruments, or of intimate physical touching. People who have touched my sculptures speak of moving in ways that remind them of their impatience, or their ability to concentrate, or their pleasure in being lost in exploration, or their fear of the unknown.

If memories remain dormant until the right cues come along to trigger them, then the more cues provided, the more likely memories will emerge. Haptic art has the advantage of providing more cues—and sometimes more vivid cues—than a strictly visual art form. The rich combination of tactile, auditory, olfactory, kinesthetic and visual cues encountered in the experience of a haptic sculpture offers an abundance of stimuli to unlock memories of past experiences and associations. Proust makes a distinction between “conscious memory,” a deliberate act of recalling the past, and the retrieval of past reality that flows unexpectedly from “sensation revived.” In the well-known eruption of his childhood memories of life in Combray, triggered by the taste of madeleines, he provides an electrifying example of the kind of spontaneous emergence of memory from a sensation in the present reviving a sensation in the past.

Arnheim notes two different perceptual forces acting on memory. First is the tendency toward simplification—to arrive at the simplest structure, symmetry, or regularity in order to reduce the tension of complexity. Second is the countertendency to sharpen distinctive features, even to exaggerate them: things are remembered as larger, faster, uglier than they actually were. Both tendencies can be operating at the same time in varying degrees and ratios. The two tendencies work together to clarify, intensify, streamline, and characterize. These two tendencies are central to the making of art: to simplify and to exaggerate; together they intensify, clarify and transform life into art.

Memory is essential for piecing together an image of the whole when using touch. The necessity for a span of time and the conscious efforts of memory become more pronounced in haptic perception.

This work focuses memory and experience.

Many people have difficulty remembering haptic impressions as they explore without sight or when they try to recall the sculpture after touching without sight.

I learned that my touch memory isn’t that developed. 

Most of us are unused to deciphering something through touch, and few of us have deliberately developed our capacity for haptic memory. Yet some people feel more confident in memories acquired through touch, because of the intimacy of the contact, the concreteness of the encounter, the involvement of the body, and the time it takes.

I realized I could know a work of art better through touch, that it would be easier to memorize a work of art.

For some people, feeling and remembering textures proves easier than detecting and recalling spatial relationships. For others, spatial memories come more easily. Some people naturally incline to a kinesthetic intelligence and are comfortable exploring through physical movement and touch.

Brenson speaks for the memory of the hand as carrying peculiar power. He describes such a memory as one that continues to ring through his being. I quote it here in its entirety because of its eloquence:

What I am asking for here, most of all, is respect for the memory of the hand. A sculpture that has been a resting place for the hand is remembered differently than a work that has only been seen and analyzed. The first time I fully grasped the power of sculpture was in the chapter room in the Cathedral of Autun, in which Romanesque reliefs are still available for observation and touch. I moved my hands over the seated figure of Joseph and the pie-crust blanket of the three sleeping magi, in whose dream they are actually touched by the hand of the angel of God. For several minutes, I cupped my hand over the small female head enmeshed in foliage, whose terror-struck eyes and mouth seem to have caught the devil at work.

Although their original placement on columns indicates they were made for the eye, Romanesque spirituality is immensely, inescapably physical, and these reliefs seemed to me, by their size, articulation and emotional directness, to ask to be touched. Touching them seemed taboo yet natural. Their memory is in my hands still. Because of this, my recollection of them is always more than that of an image or sensation. Since the recollection is in my hands as well as my eyes and mind, years are compressed whenever I recall them. Past and present merge with shocking suddenness. This never occurs when I remember a painting, even when the encounter with it is also a landmark in my life. Whenever I recall those stones,  feel them in my hands, and I am in that room again for the first time, in July 1964. I am there and I am here. When the seat of memory is in my hands, I inhabit the moment in which the encounter took place. Through touch, sculpture makes accessible not only its own abiding presence but also my own.

Artists also draw on memories as sources for their work. Polish sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz describes the memory of a moment in her childhood that had a profound impact on her developing sensibility:

I was a small child, crouching over a swampy pond, watching tadpoles. Enormous, soon to become frogs, they swarmed around the bank. Through the thin membrane covering their distended bellies, the tangle of intestines was clearly visible. Heavy with the process of transformation, sluggish, they provoked one to reach for them. Pulled out onto shore with a stick, touched carelessly, the swollen bellies burst. The contents leaked out in a confusion of knots. Soon they were beset by flies. I sat there, my heart beating fast, shaken by what had happened. The destruction of soft life and the boundless mystery of the content of softness…The never fully explored mystery of the interior, soft and perishable. Many years later, that which was soft with a complex tissue became the material of my work. It gives me a feeling of closeness to and affinity with the world that I do not wish to explore other than by touching, feeling, and connecting with that part of myself which lies deepest.

We approach an artwork through our histories, memories and associations, which unconsciously shape our perceptions of the artwork. We see according to the past that lives within us. Such associations can take the form of images that merge and blend with the images we are observing. A poet wrote about the sculpture Memory in this way:

I loved that it has a hinge, can be pivoted. In mythology, memory (Mnemosyne) is the mother of the muses, a mother of creation. You really get at some of the power of memory, that it can shift, surprise, and occupy a kind of hinge in us. Memory is not static.   

We accumulate images and experiences which form and inform new images, building a structure of meaning that grows ever more complex, enriching each new encounter. Memory and time are essential to the development of aesthetic pleasure and appreciation. In Abigail Housen’s stage theory of aesthetic development, accruing the skills and experience to look at art deeply and thoughtfully takes time measured in years. She describes someone in the last stage of this four-stage developmental process as having a long personal history of viewing and reflecting on art. For the long-time viewer, a familiar painting is like an old friend known intimately but still surprising and still in need of attention. As in all friendships, time is a critical ingredient, involving the history of the work and our own history with it. Memory infuses the artwork with traces of our selves. As we change, grow, age, develop sensory and intellectual acumen, undergo the vicissitudes and joys of life, we return to a particular artwork a different person each time. Memory is the hinge on which the doors of perception swing open.

The Greek goddess of memory, Mnemosyne, is mother of the Muses, of the arts. Art serves as the collective memory of a people, as a way to preserve and carry memory forward. In our communal lives, art provides shared memory, creating bonds that join us together, that make sense of the past and that provide new possibilities for the future. This function of art holds within individuals as well. It makes sense of what we know, integrating it into our experience, transforming it, and carrying it forward into the rest of our lives.