Reading time
5 min
To share this contribution please copy the url below

Dispatch: The Arrow of Time


Returning to The Experimental Station for Research on Art and Life for the last session of ‘Non-Western Technologies for the Good Life’ Catherine Morland thinks through the ways in which modern, Western art museums sever artworks, and their publics, from the worlds that they are part of.

Many of our meetings take place at The Experimental Research Station for Art and Life, a plot of land being transformed into a sustainable and ecological outdoor garden and project space in Siliștea Snagovului, a village 30 miles north of Bucharest. Our first session took place not long after the outbreak of the brutal attacks on Gaza that we still see unfolding now. If we need a reason to embrace non-western technologies for the good life, this global awakening to the complicity of western minds to enable genocide is surely it.

The station is introduced to us as a pause, a ground zero, a place to take stock and reflect, where time stands still long enough for us to think about the space between the so-called East and West. I see it as a place to think about my inherited positionality and readjust myself accordingly, physically as well as theoretically. As a white Western European-educated woman, I was about to embark on a journey of unlearning. This begins on our bus route from downtown Bucharest where the group members were introduced to each other for the first time by describing what we were running away from. I didn’t realise that I was running away from anything.

Inside the perimeter fence of the station stretches a long line of small trees and shrubs, each planted by a different artist. In their new outdoor home these living artworks have agency: they can grow and blossom and flower as they please. Some might not like the soil or light or heat and won’t flourish at all, others might go dormant and reappear next year, others may not. Some may enjoy their new freedom and rampage throughout the plot unchecked, causing hours more labour and intervention. Others still, with juicy new shoots, may succumb to the appetite of local wildlife: foxes, rabbits and deer. Word in the air might get out that the new hedge on the far perimeter is a welcoming habitat with plentiful bird feeders, and the densest bush will soon be filled with birdsong. As intermittent visitors to the station we witness these ongoing temporal changes from early winter 2023 to late spring 2024. The hard labour takes place in our absence: non-living artworks are installed as well as a cooking station, a compost toilet and a phyto-filtration system. Plans are being drawn up for a two-storey living space. Regular visitors to the station activate the space and bring new iterations and ideas.

Artworks in standard modern art collections around the world are rarely given the same treatment. We discussed this in our March meeting with curator Charles Esche, who was visiting from Eindhoven. He spoke about his role in the reinvention of the Van Abbemuseum by what he calls demodernising the art collection through decolonial thinking. The ubiquitous white cube is designed to exclude so much. As soon as an artwork is installed, its former life is extinguished, like a butterfly succumbing to chloroform. The context for its existence is often erased with as little evidence as possible of its former life, thus enabling its new position in an aesthetic vacuum. This vacuum is fairly exclusive, as Esche explains, and inhospitable to people who do not easily fit into its criteria. His vision for a demodern art collection is in ‘reconnecting it to people and histories that it has excluded for too long.’1

This brings to mind Grace Ndiritu, the British/Kenyan artist who goes further with this line of thinking by reflecting on the mental state of artworks. In her work ‘Healing the Museum’ she talks about the responsibility of museums to look after the welfare of the museum objects, some of whom, in her view, are unhappy and were never meant to be seen by a ‘single ray of sunlight or looked at by millions of keen museum-goers. Hence, they feel like they are being robbed of their agency, with no rights of their own. As such, they want to be free.’2

Of the Kaiget Totem Poles in the Musée du quai Branly in Paris Ndiritu says: ‘They want to stand tall outside, feeling the sun on their surfaces, allowing rain to penetrate them and to fulfil the purpose for which they were created; they want their lives and their souls back.’3 Like Esche, she believes a powerful change can happen in our awareness of art objects and our relationships with them.

The group is returning to Siliștea Snagovului this week. It will be our last visit. For me there is a sense that the linear arrow of time – launched from the deep past, hovering momentarily here in the present before hurtling headlong to the future – has hesitated, like the fluctuating oscillations of a broken grandfather clock. Whilst contemplating the happenings and provocations on this small plot of land, the arrow is perhaps in flux and drawn to change its course, maybe to turn back on itself, or loop the loop in a continuous cycle, inviting us to think about the rhythmic pendulum of circular time and its interconnectedness with nature as an alternative way of being, and asking us ultimately to unlearn and consider a different perspective.

See Charles Esche, ‘The Demodernising Possibility’, 2017, academia.eduGrace Ndiritu, ‘Ways of Seeing: A New Museum Story for Planet Earth’, 2021, Wellcome CollectionIbid.

The views and opinions published here mirror the principles of academic freedom and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of the L'Internationale confederation and its members.

Related activities

Related contributions