M.S. Rau has recently launched a new installation of timepieces, fine art and objets d’art with a compelling deep dive into the history of time. Entitled Time Across Time, this collection seeks to situate humankind’s relationship to time within specific technological and historical contexts that give us considerable insight into our current experiences of time. Considering the current state of affairs with the pandemic, this subject seems an appropriate one. We currently live in a world where time seems to have come to a standstill; we are living in the moment rather than planning for the future, because our future is full of unknowns.
While Time Across Time doesn’t deal with the pandemic directly, the installation takes a hard look at how modern conceptions of time developed and how they impact our interaction with the world. Please read on to learn more and to view some of the remarkable timepieces in the show.
The Invention of Time: Early Timekeeping Devices
Though clocks make up the majority of the collection, the installation itself begins long before the advent of the timepiece as we know it today. Evidence of humans recording the passage of time dates back as far as 20,000 years ago. Prior to the invention of the clock, celestial bodies — the sun, moon, planets and stars — served as the primary reference for measuring the passage of time. The ancient Egyptians developed gnomons as the first “clocks” to measure the sun’s movement, effectively partitioning the day into morning and afternoon.
One of the most well-known types of gnomon was the obelisk. While obelisks were primarily used architecturally as an important part of Egyptian temples, they were also used as a type of public sundial. Their tall, slender forms allowed them to function as a simple gnomon. Markers placed around the obelisk would indicate units of time including morning and afternoon, allowing a community to manage their time each day from sunup to sundown. Sundials were slightly more complex early timekeepers that were more user friendly in their size. These could be large or small depending on the user, though the majority were made for private individuals.
Centuries passed before further innovations were made in the realm of timekeeping, but then the medieval period saw the emergence of one of the most important technological innovations in human history: the mechanical clock. Italian city-states were among the pioneers in building elaborate civic clocks housed in campanilli, or bell towers, in town squares. The communal timepieces allowed townspeople to estimate how many hours of daylight remained, allowing them to manage their workdays more easily.
Timepieces intended for private use were far slower to develop, and they were limited to only the most wealthy in society. Time management was a luxury of the elite, and by the Renaissance age, clocks had become a symbol of wealth and power. Interestingly, many of these early clocks maintained the shape of a turret, or clock tower, recalling the elaborate civic clocks that emerged just a few decades before. However, these clocks were quite expensive and out of reach for anyone but the most important Renaissance families. Thus, for the majority of the population in an overwhelmingly agricultural society, the natural rhythms of the days — the sunrise and the sunset — sufficed.
Time and Progress: The Industrial Revolution
It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that timekeeping as we know it today emerged. It was an era defined by technological progress in the guise of the Industrial Revolution. For the first time in human history, people became linked across borders and oceans thanks to the sudden emergence of things like railroads, steamships, radios and telephones. Distance was suddenly compressed, and time was forced to catch up to this new modern age.
It is important remember that at this time, most time management was handled on the local level, and there was no universal standard. This complex patchwork of local time systems made the synchronization of things like telegraphs, ships and trains nearly impossible. To remedy this, a series of reforms in time management emerged that made time more universal, most importantly the development of time zones. It was in 1884 that it was decided the world would be divided into 24 distinct zones, each with a mean time determined by the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.
This new universality paved the way for new technologies and industries to successfully function in the modern world. Time was suddenly managed on a global scale. High-precision clocks made it possible to measure time to fractions of a second. Technology is only getting more and more accurate as we continue to attempt to control the one thing we will never have enough of — time.
Time as Memento Mori: Clocks and Human Impermanence
While time management reached its zenith over a century ago, contemporary technological innovations make it easier than ever before. Modern society is unimaginable without clock time. Timepieces are all around us. Our phones, our watches, our clocks, our computers — they all serve as ever-present reminders that time is passing. Though time is intangible, it is touted as something that should not to be wasted. For humans, it is also finite, so it feels as though we need to grasp for all the time we have.
These ideas bring us to the concept of time as a memento mori — a symbolic reminder that humankind is morta. This concept dates back to classical antiquity, and it has taken on a number of forms over the years, particularly in the the realm of fine art. The most prevalent motif was the skull as a representation of death, though the figure of Death himself also prevailed in the fine and decorative arts. Timepieces were also often used in memento mori to illustrate that the time of the living grows shorter with each passing minute.
For modern American society, this notion of confronting our own mortality may seem morbid, but this discipline is held in high esteem in many societies. Not only was it highly popular in art in the 17th century, but it has also been a significant philosophy in many religions and cultures over the years. It is just another way of looking at the concept of carpe diem, or seizing the day.
In its own way, the clock itself serves as a kind of memento mori, constantly ticking away as time inevitably marches forward. Clocks that chime the hours serve as both visual and audible reminders of the passage of time. The antique skeleton clock or Cartier mystery clock further highlight the elusiveness and enigma of time, antique watches such as the pocket watch are worn reminders that it is ticking by. By creating an awareness of the ephemeral nature of life, this knowledge of one’s own impermanence can heighten appreciation of the present.
The installation is on view in M.S. Rau’s French Quarter gallery from October 16 - November 21. It will also be available to enjoy virtually. Please visit msrau.com for more information.