Nick Kennedy: Timecasting
The Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle
18 February - 19 May 2013
Text by Rebecca Travis
The Line, however light, or uncertain it may be, always refers to a force, to a direction; it is an energon, a labour which reveals, which makes legible the trace of its pulsion and its expenditure. The line is a visible action. - Roland Barthes
The first time I see Nick Kennedy’s installation ‘Timecasting’, currently in place in the traditional environs of the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle, it is almost half way through its durational performance. Behind the unassuming doors of the small gallery beside the gallery’s permanent collection of nineteenth century works, a frenetic display of ticking mechanisms is striving to create delicate accumulative drawings, where viewers become human bystanders to a machine-lead process.
Kennedy has long been interested in the mechanics of drawing, engineering controlled methods of removing conscious decision-making from the process and allowing it instead to become part of a chance-based practice, whereby a series of prescribed actions determines the outcome. In this case the drawing process is given over completely to eighty-one clock mechanisms, each placed on a square paper support and laid in a 9 x 9 square. Drawings are created with neat wire and graphite appendages attached to clock hands which tick round and briefly meet the paper, leaving a minutia of marks on their endless circular journey. A new row of mechanisms is set each week, allowing a visual cataloguing of the temporal drawing process over the course of the exhibition. The whole layout has a satisfying appearance of order and regularity. The utilitarian clock mechanisms are chosen specifically for their no-frills blandness, the kind you might see in your kitchen clock or use in a school DT project, and this makes their delicate drawn output all the more effective.
The differences among this uniformity are provided by the drawings themselves. Each one is unique in its circumference and design, dependent on the drawing tool that Kennedy has affixed. One expectation is that they would have a regular shape (like clockwork) but due to natural fluctuations in the mechanisms’ balance and varying grades of graphite (taken from the standard sketching pencil drawing sets) some are imbued with a one-sided heaviness whereas others barely mark the paper at all. The process isn’t smooth either. The hanging drawing nibs jerk uneasily with each tick and no matter how closely you observe, the tiny marks aren’t visible to the human eye. It is time that brings visibility, to refer back to Barthes, ‘which makes legible the trace of its pulsion’.
The idea of ‘casting’ time through these traces left behind is a fascinating concept and one more associated with archaeological findings - tree rings or eroded rocks - than with the creation of something new. Of course ‘time’ is a human construct, a mathematical system by which we exist presently, record posthumously and work towards. It is something rarely questioned and which in theory is endless. The intriguing thing about ‘Timecasting’ is that there is a distinct lack of numerics. Our usual method of recording time is lost and the action becomes more primal, more like reading a sundial than looking at a clock face. This is further enhanced by the work’s placement on the floor as opposed to mounted on a wall. Instead of instantly associating the mechanism with clocks, they are instead given a new profile, as ‘drawing machines’.
It is not only the physical marks that are accumulative. The sound is too. Wind back to the start of the installation, with just one line of mechanisms set to work, and the ticking sound is barely audible. With each row that is instigated, a new sonic layer is added. By the time of my second visit, when eight out of nine rows are set, there is a veritable ‘babbling brook’ of tinny staccato notes. The sound, more so than the visual state of the piece, is a constant reminder of time passing. It is reminiscent of the performance work ‘One Million Years’ by Japanese artist On Kawara - there are fundamental elements of the work that force an awareness of time passing and being recorded, but the performance retains a simple hypnotic engagement that simultaneously allows for time to be lost.
It is a brave move for an artist to reveal their working methods as plainly as Kennedy does here, and as a viewer, being allowed to see a working process is immensely satisfying. The performative aspect of ‘Timecasting’ is its real success, allowing for a lengthy viewing experience that lends itself to repeat visits over the course of the exhibition. However, there are interesting questions as to where the work goes from here. What happens to the resultant drawings? Do they become artworks in their own right, or are they simply documentation products? To present them ‘finished’ and framed would give little away of their creation process. As with any performance, the question of what happens to its resulting paraphernalia is important to consider.The durational essence of ‘Timecasting’, consistent with much of Kennedy’s practice, allows for contemplation, and sees the work constantly developing beyond its existing state. Where it will lead from here, only time will tell.
Timecasting, Nick Kennedy, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2013, courtesy of the artist: