Un Magazine 7.2

On the (im)possibility of anachronism in contemporary art

Christopher Williams-Wynn




When investigating cultural understandings of time and space at the beginning of the twentieth century, historian Stephen Kern notes a rising contest between ideas of public (or social) time and private time in Europe.1 Public time is the realm of shared understandings of temporal experience, disseminated through calendars, clocks and the adoption of standard time, a measurement derived from the rotational period of the Earth. Socially constructed, this time requires some kind of social agreement, implicit or explicit, for its efficacy. Private time, by contrast, comprises the multiple, varied, overlapping and discontinuous sense of time encountered by the individual. An understanding of time hovers between bureaucratisation and atomisation. As regards this dichotomy, Kern suggests that, especially within art, ‘the thrust of the age was to affirm the reality of private time against that of a single public time and to define its nature as heterogeneous, fluid, and reversible’.2 Notwithstanding the inevitable intersections and mutual dependencies between any classification of time, art supposedly offers a privileged means of expressing or otherwise experiencing a highly individual sense of time.

A comparison between Kern’s historical account and contemporary experience reveals the changes that have occurred with respect to time. With the extensive development of communication networks and their pervasive influence, any sense of public or shared time seems necessarily inflected by a sense of private time, and vice versa. The incessant (immaterial) mass of uploaded photographs, status updates, email reminders and text messages attest to the manner in which supposedly private time becomes public. There appears a greater sense in which social time is constituted by innumerable experiences of private time; public sense of time becomes a stream of private experiences. Clocks and calendars have not vanished, but status updates and Twitter posts publicly broadcast those expressions of private temporal experiences. Pressing further, if those ostensibly private experiences arise because they may become public (that photograph taken because it will be uploaded), the division between private and public dissipates. In short, public time, insofar as there is any sense of a shared time, seems fractured (or maybe constructed) by multitudinous private experiences. As such, any private experience of that public time may be inevitably partial. The sharp division between private and public time traced by Kern seems to have dissolved.

Although an admittedly schematic historical view, this account of time frames recent debates in contemporary art. In particular, art historian Terry Smith exhibits a sustained interest in contemporary art and its relation to time. He regards the contemporary as a period marked by an intense awareness of a being in time with others. The sense of a simple ‘sharing’ of time is, however, complicated by Smith’s attention to difference. From the conditions of contemporaneity there arises the simultaneous perception of multiple differences that are experienced culturally, temporally and spatially.3 As Smith summarises his position: ‘the “contemporary”…signifies multiple ways of being with, in, and out of time, separately and at once, with others and without them’.4 Under this model, attempts to synthesise this diversity would prove difficult, if not impossible, because by its very nature the world is riven by difference.5 In addition, any totalising account of time would need to account for the particularities of place, history and culture (however defined).6 Even without elaborating upon quotidian understandings of past, present or future, this account is complex.

As a result, the condition of contemporaneity, and by extension contemporary art, is suffused with both past and future (or some other experiences of time too). It seems that a type of historicity that articulates a rigid chronology has been disregarded and replaced with one that absorbs past and future within the present—presentism. Yet, it is a present that involves a ‘mixture’ of times or means of experiencing time (again, however understood and, by this logic, necessarily differentiated). Within Smith’s model of time, time itself seems fractured—there appears little to hold it together, such that the concept itself becomes open to interrogation. The very admission of those multifarious differences particularise any given notion of time.7 If the contemporary shatters a concept of linear time, and axiomatically encompasses multiple forms of temporal experience, this resultant embrace of difference also renders anachronism problematic.

The temporal displacement of anachronism, as something being ‘out of time’, occurs when something, someone or some event arises in a time declared not proper to it.8 This understanding of time declares order, it demands everything in its right time. It implies the existence of a temporal norm. A charge of anachronism implies a disruption to a proper temporal order, a breach of some contract with chronology. Rather than deny the material fact of particular occurrences in particular places at particular times, this account instead challenges whether any particular instance can be deemed ‘incorrect’. For the purposes of historical accuracy, there may be matters of fact to be disputed, but even these disputes necessarily involve interpretation and contest.

Even by this cursory assessment, anachronism seems at odds with contemporary art. If contemporary art reflects or even necessarily involves a registration of different modes of temporal being or experience, and if anachronism does indeed imply some central ‘temporal authorities’, there appears a contradiction. Keeping in mind that this ‘model’ of contemporary art must, for the sake of its own logical coherency, allow for other experiences of time, it follows that anachronism occupies a precarious position. A charge of anachronism may be incoherent, because the very basis for its existence— a sense of the ‘right’ time—has been dismantled.9 On this account, anachronism works against itself—the very charge of anachronism is anachronistic. Alternatively, anachronism becomes a perspective-bound declaration, a charge that reveals its own attempt at chronological correction. As a result, anachronism seems oddly placed, either logically inconsistent or necessarily perspectival.

Against these concerns, John Nixon’s work occupies a complex position. Working since the early 1970s, Nixon demonstrates a sustained interest in the possibilities of painting, and abstraction in particular. His long-running Experimental Painting Workshop (EPW), established in the late 1970s, serves as a title for formally distinguishing between various groups of paintings (such as series of orange or silver works).10 Informing this inquiry are works by figures of the historical avant-garde, such as Kazimir Malevich. Their sustained interest in the potential of abstraction serves as a departure point for Nixon’s work. He also often incorporates everyday materials, such as bare wood, into his work, a tactic that links him with the avant-garde interest in dissolving, or at least challenging, the distinction between art and life.11 His chromatic juxtapositions, suggestive of movement, also suggest the influence of the Italian Futurists. In keeping with these influences, the forms of the cross, square and circle feature prominently in his work, in ever-changing configurations. Although these touchstones point towards notions of a discrete and autonomous artwork, the seriality and use of materials suggest an interrogation of aesthetic self-sufficiency. These concerns with abstraction, from Piet Mondrian to Robert Ryman, continue to influence his work and, if viewed in chronological terms, these aspects would seem to render his work anachronistic.

Viewing Nixon’s work in these rigid, art historical terms invites an assessment that is perhaps too absolute or judgemental. This approach nominates points of similarity or influence, before determining that those points may render the work anachronistic, ‘outside of its time’. With respect to both the historical avant-garde and modernist abstraction, these references encourage an interpretation as to the works’ belatedness. It is in this sense that it becomes judgemental, albeit ambivalent. It associates the work with the work of others acknowledged as significant or important, thus placing it within a chronological lineage, while also positioning it as an outlier, as a project continuing within a sphere of competence and interest regarded as surpassed. After all, the historical avant-garde was destroyed and modernist abstraction admonished. When positioned historically, in relation to these two poles, the work may appear anachronistic.

An alternative means of conceiving anachronism may regard it as oppositional or disruptive. In this approach, that which is anachronistic may be regarded as being ‘against time’, against a judgement of its being appropriate for the past, present or some other temporal position or experience. By considering a work in relation to others of its time and the dictates, expectations and discourses surrounding it, the work may still be considered anachronistic, but such that it adopts a critical position on its contemporaries. From this perspective, anachronism shifts from being a judgement connecting past and present, to an examination of the relationship between objects in the present, set against a historical consciousness. Turning to re-examine Nixon’s work again, in light of a recent article, may aid in expanding this notion of contemporary anachronism.

Following a discussion of recent paintings and drawings by Nixon, David Homewood examines his work in light of art critic Clement Greenberg’s medium-centric modernism and art historian Thierry de Duve’s theorisation of art of the past fifty years.12 Predominantly concerned with painting, Greenberg called for artistic auto-critique, such that each medium may develop a form of visual expression regarded as proper to itself. By this logic, painting should concentrate upon its supposedly inherent flatness and the demarcation of flatness. In the wake of postmodernism, de Duve proposed that art need not do anything: serve no creed, undertake no critique, make no political statement—by doing nothing in particular, it may ‘do whatever’. A proper function or role of art is thereby dispelled. Interestingly, Homewood concludes his essay by asking whether Nixon’s adherence to the forms of the avant-garde renders visible the emptiness (the ‘anomic character’) of ‘whatever-ness’.13 With the capacity to challenge the supposedly dominant state of art, lacking ‘rules’ or ‘proper’ functions, Homewood appears to position Nixon’s work ‘against time’, and so entangled with anachronism.

On this account, Nixon’s work may be placed in relation to both present and past, but outside both. In this respect, philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s description of the contemporary may be insightful.14 He reserves the cherished label of contemporary for one who inhabits the present only incompletely and so is anachronistic with respect to it.15 Earning this accolade requires examining the darkness of the present, exploring its depths to discover the past that lingers within it. Given Nixon’s sustained engagement with the signs of the historical avant-garde, it would seem the work asserts the enduring relevance of socially-minded aspirations. Yet, while a past may be excavated, the arkhē or origin discerned, re-examination is always conducted in the present.16 The connotations of anachronism are now reversed. Where it was previously associated with the status of non-contemporary, it here becomes a necessary component of the contemporary. Anachronism emerges as a kind of distancing from both past and present, a temporal suspension that harbours critical potential with respect to both. Nonetheless, the same issue arises: the judgement of anachronism entails a sense of ‘proper’ chronology. However, a present inflected by different temporal experiences involves a disjunction of ‘proper’ time. Anachronism must therefore also recognise its own finite perspective, its position as one among many.

Contemporary art may need to dispense with a seemingly inconsistent understanding of anachronism, or recognise its perspective-bound uncertainty. This shift displaces anachronism from a linear ordering of time and positions it as a mode to inhabit, one that allows the present to be examined, in this case the ‘whatever’. This understanding does not demand order or a new set of aesthetic rules. Instead, it occupies a self-conscious, perspectival position (and so is necessarily potentially ineffectual in the face of other claims). This modal or attitudinal approach levels a productive force against contemporary art, potentially illuminating its historical depths (or oversights). Demanding a historical consciousness, this work nonetheless recognises that history involves construction and so encourages debate. Anachronism as attitude offers a means to ‘affirm the reality of private time against that of a single public time’. It insists upon the endurance of particularised experience within the public realm, rather than subsuming it within a totalising social structure. Simultaneously, it must recognise its own Sisyphean task of mediating past and present, adopting a critical view of both.

Christopher Williams-Wynn is an art history student at The University of Melbourne and is co-editor of Dissect journal.

  1. Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. and London, 2003, pp. 1–35. 

  2. Ibid., p. 34. 

  3. Terry Smith, ‘Contemporary Art and Contemporaneity’, Critical Inquiry, 32, no. 4, 2006, pp. 681–707 (703); Terry Smith, What is Contemporary Art?, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2009, p. 255; Terry Smith, Contemporary Art: World Currents, Laurence King, London, 2011, pp. 9–10. 

  4. Smith, 2009, p. 6. As an aside, his account also seems to reify time—­perhaps the price of examination. 

  5. As Jacques Derrida contends, just as the present requires separation from that which it is not to be recognised as present, this separation also divides presence itself, because it necessarily refers to that which is absent. See Jacques Derrida, ‘Différance’, in Margins of Philosophy, The Harvester Press, Brighton, 1982, pp. 1–27. 

  6. Moreover, a model of contemporaneity would also presumably need to account for the manner in which these connections and disconnections are articulated, and which forces are at work upon them. 

  7. For the sake of logical consistency, this concept of contemporaneity seemingly must also be subject to internal differentiation and dispute. Perhaps this explains the breadth of debates and multiple attempts at definition. 

  8. Anachronism also seems to imply some kind of periodisation, whether durational or infinitesimal. 

  9. Granted, this assumes that contemporaneity is all pervasive, but it may not be. In that case, positions decidedly outside contemporaneity (insofar as one could occupy such a position), may still lodge the charge. One might imagine an ardent modernist making such a claim. 

  10. John Nixon, ‘Notes on the Experimental Painting Workshop (EPW)’, in John Nixon EPW 2004, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Southbank, Victoria, 2004, pp. 8–9. 

  11. In this use of non-traditional painting materials, Nixon relates to various figures of the Russian avant-garde of the early twentieth century. Revolting against the expectations of autonomous aesthetic experience, Vladimir Tatlin combined a carpenter’s square with one of his sculptures and Alexander Rodchenko affixed a brick to a painting (Contemporary: Art Gallery of New South Wales contemporary collection, Anthony Bond and Wayne Tunnicliffe (eds.), Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2006, p. 48). 

  12. David Homewood, ‘John Nixon: Anti-whatever whatever’ in un Magazine, #6.2, pp. 110–113. 

  13. Ibid., p. 113. 

  14. Giorgio Agamben, ‘What is the Contemporary?’, in David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella (trans.), What is an Apparatus? and Other Essays, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2003, pp. 39–54. 

  15. Ibid., p. 41. 

  16. Ibid., pp. 50–51.