Time: clocks ticking in perfect rhythm, continually, for eternity. Time: concrete and predictable. These are the easy definitions of the word.
The more challenging school of thought is on display at the McColl Center in All the Time in the World, an exhibit featuring art by Gail Wight and Mary Tsiongas. The show funnels the idea of time through both a subjective and scientific viewfinder.
In a statement at the start of the exhibition, curator Arif Kahn parallels the vocations of scientists and artists: "Like artists, scientists transform and experiment. Like scientists, artists ... adopt a sense of neutrality and detachment." He makes a point that feels obvious, though many of us doubtless hadn't thought of it before. This parallel sets a scene for what a visitor will experience from the artists: not so much an internal interpretation as a visual observation.
The artists are both academics. Wight is an associate professor of art and art history at Stanford, concerned with scientific notions of time like genealogy and evolution. Tsiongas is an associate professor of electronic media at the University of New Mexico, interested in exploring our changing relationship with the natural world.
A majority of the work, with its backstories and layered meanings, feels very clever and modern, and almost every piece is digitized or technological in some way. The show feels very present in our time, despite its adamant effort to measure the passing of biological time.
At the start of the show, Wight's printed silk butterflies in individual plastic boxes are poked with 100 pins apiece. Their plastic bodies pulse with light, out of sync with each other, like ailing, elderly fireflies. A visitor might feel sympathy for these specimens, trapped by man's quest for biological understanding. The fitting title, "J'ai des Papillons Noirs Tous les Jours" (2006), is a French colloquial expression for having gloomy thoughts. This piece is the highlight of the show.
Directly across is Wight's "Hydraphilia" (2009), a grid of digital screens showing a Technicolor time lapse of a slime mold's growth. The scientific name for slime mold is physarum polycephalum; polycephalum means many-headed, like the nine-headed Hydra (count the screens) for which the piece is named. Wight questions if a thing of beauty can be loved if it's also grotesque.
Tsiongas' "The Vanish Series" (2007) shows a figure superimposed inside of paintings by artist Albert Bierstadt. Here, Tsiongas attempts to confront the divide between technology and paintings. The result finds a roaming, lonely person distracting us from what we love about Bierstadt and his contemporaries. These are beautiful, romanticized and escapist paintings; one piece even shows flames engulfing a corner of canvas.
Wight's eye-catching "Ground Plane" series (2007-2008) features snowflake-like compositions appearing throughout the show in pairs. From afar, they look like delicate brown dots floating in kaleidoscope patterns, but up close, one realizes the dots are actually animal skulls and bones. No image of the bones, which range in age between one and 10,000 years, is duplicated in any piece. The specimens, from Stanford University, are rough and imperfect. As the "bones" of an art piece, placed in complete symmetry, they become eerie.
At the back of the gallery is an interactive pad on a stand; this dictates movement on the screen in front of it, which is covered in tree rings. Tsiongas' "Dendrochronologist's Dilemma" (2012) anthropomorphizes the tree, looking at memories it might have if it were human. Touching the screen in different places will yield different projections on the screen, like a child on a swing, leaves falling, corn growing or birds flying. This anthropomorphization and intense use of technology is appropriate because time is a very human-centered concept. It's what we devised to measure science and our own history.
To someone merely browsing through the show, the pieces, each with their own stories and deserving much attention, will begin to shout over each other. To appreciate this show fully, you just might need all the time in your world.
(The exhibit All the Time in the World runs through March 23 at the McColl Center for Visual Art, 721 N. Tryon St. Details: 704-332-5535 or www.mccollcenter.org.)