“Le Temps, Vite!”

The Pompidou has reopened after a year of renovation with a series of shows, including one called “Le Temps, vite!” (Time, quickly!). The day I saw it, there was a long line of people waiting in the building’s new cafeteria, now located above the bookstore in the enormous entrance hall. Having no time to spare, I skipped lunch and went directly to the sixth floor. It was only on leaving that I discovered four hours had passed without my realizing it at all, save for some lightheadedness due to hunger.

As it happens, this episode illustrated perfectly one of the principal themes of “Le Temps, vite!”—that the category of time cannot be conceived unless it is inscribed within an existential experience. Indeed, the entire exhibition, presented at the close of the century and the millennium, offered a summary history of just such moments as a way of defining the ultimately indefinable entity that is time itself. But while the show’s chronology stretched as far back as Mayan calendars, the exhibition, as its title suggests, was very much rooted in our present “time,” in which information is instantaneous and “duration” has been negated and replaced by “real time.”

The curator of “Le Temps, vite!,” Daniel Soutif, has long been interested in staging comparisons between contemporary art and other fields of knowledge and forms of expression, primarily philosophy and music, and this was evident in the exhibition. The show emphatically embraced the gamut of disciplines, bringing together the visual arts, literature, music, cinema, and, most interesting, the sciences. Indeed, to get a sense of just how interdisciplinary the exhibition was, one need look no farther than the “catalogue,” produced under the editorial supervision of Jean-Pierre Criqui, which consisted of a daily newspaper, various magazine-like publications, and literary and scientific supplements, all packaged in a see-through ersatz shopping bag.

The installation, laid out according to twelve thematic “stations,” would have to be called particular. The rooms were dimly lit, making it difficult to read the captions and explanations in the booklet given to museum-goers, which, in any event, was too small and printed in an ill-advised gray typeface.

All of which is a shame, for the exhibition presented numerous moments of great interest, many of them based on unexpected juxtapositions and “multidisciplinary” surprises, such as the simple but clever idea of staging a complete reading of Proust’s A la Recherche du temps perdu by contemporary writers. After a “prologue” station dedicated to an Egyptian water clock, one came upon a Neolithic bone, various seventeenth-century treatises, and Nam June Paik’s The Moon Is the Oldest TV, 1965, all of which contained references to the celestial phenomena at the origin of every measurement of time. These various “objective” treatments of time were contrasted with subjective registers of temporality, as seen, for example, in the construction of identity within the “topos” of the self-portrait. Here the genre was represented by video reproductions of historical paintings as well as by examples of modern and contemporary work, from Florence Henri to Alighiero e Boetti’s self-portrait sculpture-cum-fountain (the latter unfortunately failed to produce the jet of water that gives the piece its meaning).

Along the same lines, one encountered the themes of vanitas, in work by artists ranging from seventeenth-century Dutch master Cornelis Gijsbrechts to Cindy Sherman, and emotion, expressed, for example, by Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Perfect Lovers), 1987–90, a pair of clocks in perfect synch. The measurement and punctuation of time by calendars and clocks was demonstrated by an impressive collection of items, including the Aztec manuscript known as the Codex Borbonicus, bronze vases from an ancient Chinese water clock, Rebecca Horn’s pendulum, and various depictions of the months in the so-called Republican calendar promulgated during the French revolution. The curators contrasted work time and “free” time through photographs by Andreas Gursky of depopulated factory interiors and film clips of Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1957), on the one hand, and Cage’s score 4’33”, Marcel Broodthaers’s inefficient efforts to write in the rain (La Pluie [Projet pour un texte], 1969), and the handwritten scraps of the first page of Barthes’s La chambre claire (Camera Lucida) on the other. There was also a section devoted to recorded time—an actual library containing nearly a thousand publications that comprise an impressive bibliography on the subject. Here, too, the art played an antinormative and disturbing role; Rachel Whiteread’s Untitled (Stack), 1999, consisted of a negative space–casting of an entire library.

The space-time paradigms particular to our contemporary condition–––simultaneity and “real time”—were alluded to in works by Fischli & Weiss, Guillaume Bijl, and Bertrand Lavier dealing with, respectively, airplanes, travel agencies, and racing cars, and by Laurie Anderson’s reconstruction of Dal Vivo (Live), 1980. The incredible list of “velocities” compiled by James Jackson in 1893 (which includes the speed of light along with the rate of growth of fingernails) provocatively anticipates some of these later pieces.

Finally, as it were, the irreversibility of time was signified by process-oriented pieces by the likes of Giovanni Alselmo and (early) Hans Haacke, and the exhibition concluded with Il Sole, 1997, Luciano Fabro’s white marble sculpture that the artist has dedicated to the sun. The gesture reminds one of the vertiginous suggestion proffered by Soutif in his introductory essay: If the fate of the earth depends on that of the sun, which is destined to expire within five billion years, our every experience of time expresses its inanity in the face of such cosmic grandeur.

Giorgio Verzotti is a frequent contributor to Artforum.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.