In this past year and a half, we have lived a new experience of time—a suspended time, infinitely dilated in its “here-and-now”—during the pandemic that has profoundly changed our lives, both individually and collectively, the world over. Upon being invited to guest edit the present “Critics Page,” while reflecting on the contemporary condition that such a rupture has created, I was prompted to explore issues of temporality by posing a question that I felt could capture, and build on, the current moment of transformation: how long is now? It is a deliberately open-ended question in its possible outlines so as to allow the embrace of different approaches and perspectives.
Time—declined as the fullness of the present moment, the depth of memory and the urgency of the future with its sense of possibility—is the fil rouge that weaves together the polyphonic ensemble of voices brought together in the pages that follow. I invited artists who employ time as “material” or evoke it as subject to various degrees in their work (Malala Andrialavidrazana, Rosa Barba, Luca Buvoli, and Tatiana Trouvé), scholars (the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai and the cultural historian and curator Gus Casely-Hayford), composers (Ludovico Einaudi, Farzia Fallah, and Paolo Fresu), the architect Elisa Silva and the writer and filmmaker Andrea Segre asking them to reflect on the theme of time through the prism of their work and their lived experience. While marked globally by profound differences based on social, economic, cultural, and geographic circumstances, a communal experience of time has taken hold of us. Such an experience here becomes a springboard for new thoughts on temporality and its existential, poetic, anthropological, political, and social implications. The contributions gathered in these pages point at a rich complexity of responses, as manifold as the notions and experiences of time are, particularly in this period of pandemic.
Time past, time present, time future: the issues proposed for probing in this section revolve around memory, duration, temporal disorientation, and the desire to start anew exploring new paths for change; the relationship between the time of Man and that of Nature, particularly in relation to the urgency of climate change and the need to move from a human-centric to a broad bio-centric perspective, in the awareness that it is the microdimension of the cellular world—molecules and their reactions—what ties together the multiple processes of life on Earth. (“How Long Is Now?” or, in the latter case, “How much time do we have available to truly address the environmental crisis and our relationship with nature?”) Furthermore, the relevance of history and of the very process of bringing to the fore overlooked histories and cultural practices otherwise left in a perpetual state of invisibility have perhaps never felt more crucial than today. The question of this section’s title then, putting the emphasis on the “duration” in the “now,” aims also to draw attention to the need for a renewed centrality of history in our cultural debates. To reclaim the importance of history is to counter that process of erasing memory that is inextricably embedded in, and championed by, the dominant views of an ever-expanding technological capitalism constantly invoking the newer-new. Rather, histories, in the plural, go hand in hand with the future.
In this light, comes to my mind a visionary project by the late Japanese artist and architect Shusaku Arakawa and his late wife, the American poet, writer, and philosopher Madeline Gins: a public art project proposed for Venice, Isle of Reversible Destiny. La Certosa – Venice, which they conceived in the late 1990s and which I had the privilege to work on. It deeply resonates with me today for its thought-provoking take on duration and the “here-and-now,” life and death, and it acquires a new level of actuality. Arakawa and Gins put together a proposal for a landscape intervention for a specific part of Venice’s La Certosa island, with my curatorial collaboration, and proposed it to the city council of Venice. (While the proposal received the approval of that administration, then led by the philosopher Massimo Cacciari as mayor, the project remained unrealized due to issues in securing funding for it.) With their Yoro Park in mind, realized in Japan in 1995, Arakawa and Gins imagined a park of 365 gardens on La Certosa with numerous passageways and trenches linking highly articulated terrains and inviting a wide range of body movements meant to help us to “study how not to die”—a pursuit the artists famously called “reversible destiny”: they firmly believed in the capacity of their landscape interventions and architectural works to transform the longevity of the people who experienced them. Arakawa and Gins shared an acute awareness of Venice’s unique fragile balance—Petrarch notably described its nature as being that of an “alter mundus” (other world). The excitement with which they approached their project for a Reversible Destiny Isle designed with the aim to overcome mortality in Venice—thus turning La Certosa into a counterpoint to the isle of the dead, San Michele, in the lagoon—was palpable in our conversations in their studio on West Houston Street. What better occasion, then, than this “Critics Page” pondering “How Long Is Now?” to draw attention today to their contribution as visionary artists, a reminder of the lasting relevance of an art of recovery and resistance?
Living, as we presently do, through a traumatic interregnum as human beings, time has taken an expanded substance. Imagination, as Arjun Appadurai pointed out in his book Modernity at Large (1996), plays a central role in the everyday mental work of the individual and is a primary tool that allows us to cross boundaries and to project ourselves into the future.
How do we see the future? Crises tend to open up new possibilities for innovative creative imaginings: at such fundamental junctions, we feel, with urgency, the need to pose new questions and try to change the way we do things. The practitioners and thinkers that share their views in these pages do just that, suggesting fresh perspectives and nascent ideas in an uncertain world.