The Gravitas of Time by Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi
Time has long become a spatial quotient, its free-flowing nature now fenestrated into smaller units. We could blame the moment we’re in for this, capitalism representing a conquering of past, present, and prescience which has been teased apart made profitable. Pushing against capitalist economies and their discontents has proven, to this point, somewhat futile. With one subversive idea after another being commodified, one can’t help but ask what’s next? “Everything Is One/Memory of Each Other,” curated by Kari Conte, contemplates this contested flux with time, this chopped up and commodified past, present, and prescience, and how Buddhist principles might offer up a mediation on the matter.
Time becomes deeply personal in Saskia Janssen and Ishu Han’s joint exhibition. The close confines of the exhibition space add to this intimacy; each time-based work is within a few feet from one another. This positioning helps bridge the fact that Han and Janssen occupy separate wings of the room. Indeed, the two artists equally share the stage. Janssen’s sculptural sound installation, Everything Is One (2015), dominates much of the physical space, while Han’s digitized rendering in Grand Canyon (2015) or eerily, calm short Memory of Each Other (2010), command curiosity depending where one enters the space.
The passage of time in their work also intrigues—lapses in time are gradual in some cases, abrupt in others. Conte acknowledges this variable, flowing nature of time, but latches onto the undercurrent of Zen that permeates Janssen and Han’s art practice. Acceptance, presence, and quietness figure prominently in Janssen’s process and intent. Han, on the other hand, invokes through content and viewership. Yet, in true Buddhist fashion, locating these qualities requires an earnest sitting with the work—one needs to be present.
For instance, in Grand Canyon—the culmination of his ten-day cross-country tour of America—Han manipulates multiple pennies or “pixels”, changing their saturation ever so subtly to arrive at this American landmark. However, we only make out the Grand Canyon if we step back from the image. This illuminates the precarity of the environment when left in the hands of capitalism. (In fact, air tours and consequent noise pollution continue to disrupt the natural quiet and ecosystem of the Grand Canyon.) Without the backstory, Grand Canyon still encourages a sense of presentness and perspective. In his other video works, Han continues to conflate Buddhist philosophies with capitalist iconography. The ten-minute Reclining Statues (2015) finds Han in a performative light as he mimics widely known Western figures of cultural import, including the Statue of Liberty in New York to bronze statue of Adam Smith in Edinburgh. Han drew considerable influence from Smith, the Scottish philosopher and economist who penned the text, The Wealth of Nations (1776), and is nominally known as the father of capitalism. However, Han’s intrigue in Smith stemmed from his lesser known, Theory of Moral Sentiment (1759), which dealt with philosophies on moral judgment that align with Buddhist ideas of Dharma. That the latter writings would ground much of Smith’s later works is interesting to consider when apprehending Reclining Statues (2015). For his rendering of the Statue of Liberty, Han proudly holds the torch and tabula ansata. It is the icon of enlightenment, but after a minute, Han drops the torch and tablet, and reclines, assuming a Buddha pose for another minute. Han’s gesture is striking in that it not only nods to Smith’s earlier work in Theory of Moral Sentiment (1759), but also suggests a different sort of enlightenment underpins much of capitalism. America, take notes?
Similar to Han’s Grand Canyon there’s a similar stepping back at play in Janssen’s Everything Is One . Janssen trekked about the world from 2014 to 2015, taking in (and recording) the sacral mantras of Tibetan monks, nuns, and pilgrims, and the vociferous protests in New York City following a spurt of police brutality on black bodies across the nation. The installation did not provide any clues about the time lapse between Janssen’s encounters or her uncertainty about what to do with these archived sounds. Instead, one had to sit with the two turntables and records to arrive at time not as a delimited, spatial construct, but as an intimate one that builds bridges. Janssen eventually produced a two-sided LP record, melding these disparate reverberations to locate a common narrative of justice and peace. Charting echoes from Tibet to Union Park, New York, this counterpoint or new sound of transcendent, political emotion rang through as one sat, lotus style, listening.
Conte had likened Janssen and, by extension, Han’s work to a gesamtkunstwerk, where life and art intersect to inform cultural truths. But what is true from false, questionable or not, in this culture of ours when time and thought is packaged and commodified? To aid or work through these dialectical murmurings, Conte tapped Janssen and Han and their Buddhist philosophies. Yet the onus was on us, the viewers; there was no handholding here. Extensive wall texts were nowhere to be found. Videos and sounds stretched on for minutes on end. Scale was not all we had to contest with, but also perspective. We had to shift our stance to truly see the Grand Canyon for what it is—a commodified landscape—or sit and sift through the forty-odd records to see how Janssen’s act of mark making through painterly devices weaves a narrative of unison. In many ways, “Everything Is One/Memory of Each Other” approached towards the gesamtkunstwerk in how it cut across various mediums through subtle staging. Key to it all was Conte's welcoming of a hushed theatricality; it subsumed the works, but ensured that the Buddhist practices of Janssen and Han always had poetic license of the matters at hand.
Ikechukwu Casmir Onyewuenyi is a writer, curator, and psychotherapist based in New York City. Onyewuenyi was one of the founding members of Pop'Africana. He is currently a curatorial fellow at the School of Visual Arts, and maintains an ongoing writing practice, with his work appearing in Cool Hunting, Pop'Africana, Art Base Africa, and HYCIDE. He is deeply interested in how visual and literary forms of expression can mine the subjective and physical dimensions of the body and geography, inscribing it with faculties that are of the mind and rendering it as an intersubjective site for critique and intervention on matters apropos to race, gender, psychic well-being.