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Artists infuse work with comments on social injustice

Susan Saccoccia | 2/13/2014, 6 a.m.
William Kentridge’s video and sound art installation “The Refusal of Time” (2012), done in collaboration with Philip Miller, Catherine Meyburgh and Peter Galison, is now on display as part of an bigger exhibit of his work at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston. John Kennard

Rectangular shadows play on the sculpture as its pistons rise and fall in the light flickering from the five screens that surround it. Chairs are arranged at assorted angles, encouraging viewers to take in the five projections from various perspectives.

Four megaphones stand in corners and also appear in the videos, which begin by showing metronomes pumping at various speeds.

An exploration of the relativity of time, as well as human experience, the 30-minute installation is a collaboration with Peter Galison, a Harvard-based historian of science, video filmmaker Catherine Meyburgh and composer Philip Miller, whose score pulses with time-keeping devices and the throbbing notes of a deep-throated tuba.

Linking science with political history, the installation draws on Galison’s research into the theories of Albert Einstein and mathematician Henri Poincaré, who independently of one another concluded that time is relative, not an absolute.

“The Refusal of Time” pits their insight into the workings of cosmos against the attempt of the British Empire to consolidate control of distant lands in the 19th century by synchronizing clocks across its colonies to Greenwich Mean Time.

Images in black and white cross the screens in fluid succession—charcoal drawings, scenes of dancers and actors cast in settings furnished by cartoon cutouts. Often, the visuals are a tribute to the hand-drawn origins of the moving image, with animations of silhouetted figures and clips from Kentridge’s homage to movie pioneer Georges Méliès and his early silent film “Journey to the Moon” from 1902. Viewers too, can’t sit still. Even if seated, they turn to see what’s going on around them. No two experiences are alike.

From images of the cosmos to scenes of humans going about their daily life, the installation unsentimentally honors the capacity of people to resist the yoke of time imposed by others. In its finale, a man and a woman celebrate their own time with an ebullient pas de deux.