Felt Time: Gonzalez-Torres and Degas

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In a small passageway between galleries in the middle of the Ackland Art Museum, two identical clocks by artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres—placed side by side and touching—hang on the wall just to the left and above the Ackland’s sculpture Spanish Dance by Degas. It is a quiet presentation, but clearly part of the exhibition More Love: Art, Politics, and Sharing since the 1990s. I suspect that many visitors do not see it, favoring the larger and more actively engaging installations and art works in the exhibition’s main galleries. Nevertheless, when More Love closes on March 31st, I will miss this installation most of all.

Clocks and Dancer_1500Two artists, working more than 100 years apart, (Gonzalez-Torres in the 1990s and Degas c. 1885) are thinking about the same question: How do we feel time? Susanne Langer, in her wonderful book Problems of Art, introduced me to this idea many years ago. She asserts that when an object, or music, or dance is successful, it is because through it we “feel” the dynamic of life and recognize our inner and outer experience of time. In art, we come to terms with “felt time.”

If dance is, as some suggest, the artistic management of the body in time and space, then the stillness and the motion of the dancer are carried out in infinitesimal increments of rhythm, within the ticking of the metronome and the confines of space. I see her, Degas’s Spanish dancer, standing still, trapped by the artist, in one of those small ticks of time. She is agile and beautiful, with her right hand extended above her head and her right toe barely touching the ground. She looks to the left, slightly down and back, ready to move. But, of course, she will not move. She will not rejoin the dance. I have walked by her a thousand times in the galleries, but it was only recently, in the company of the two clocks, that I have come to see her as frozen forever in the space between the tick and the tock.

The clocks, “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers), are there watching—distanced, unfeeling, and ever so slightly out of sync. They began this installation perfectly aligned, precisely ticking through time together. But, over the course of the exhibition, they have fallen, as all things do, into their own timekeeping, each a little off from the other, each independently counting. The catalogue for this exhibition quotes Gonzalez- Torres in a letter to his partner, Ross:

Don’t be afraid of the clocks, they are our time, time has been so generous to us…We conquered fate by meeting at a certain TIME in a certain space…we are synchronized, now forever./I love you.

But, of course, the sad and important truth is that we are not now forever. We are temporal, like the dancer. One clock will always run out of rhythm with the other. Both works of art are meditations on the precious gift of time. Perhaps, because they are fine art, and as such, protected by curators and registrars, they will live on, together or apart, now and forever.

This essay originally appeared as a Guest Column in the Chapel Hill News on March 26, 2013 with the title “Between the tick and tock.” Amanda Millay Hughes is the Director of External Affairs at the Ackland Art Museum. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers), and the rest of the exhibition “More Love: Art, Politics, and Sharing since the 1990s,” will be on view at Cheekwood Museum of Art in Nashville, Tennessee, from 19 September 2013 through 5 January 2014.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, American, 1958-1996: “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers), 1987-90; clocks. © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, New York; Edgar Degas, French, 1834-1917: Spanish Dance, c. 1885, cast 1921; bronze. Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ackland Fund, 74.21.1.

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