Time in the Works of Agnieszka Pilat

In Quiet Between Us, the scene is downcast. The staircase fragments into nothing. There is no definite figurative form. There is only white, blue, and grey…each scrapped across the canvas so as to obliterate the steps. But before these are lost to the canvas’s abstract spaces: a young girl rests with her back against the wall. She is a ballet dancer. In an old house, or, perhaps, an even older school—for what contemporary houses could have a balustrade such as this? Her eyes never quite meet ours; rather, we feel as if we must look behind us. In Suddenly And Forever there is the same sense of abstraction. The interior is distressed. Pilat’s characteristic blocks of white to grey to blue to mauve echo one another before fading away into the same oblivion. The young girl stands at the window. Is she the same dancer? Her eyes bear left; again, we feel as if we must look behind us. Pilat has often been mistaken for a figurative portrait artist. Her brushwork and pallet-knife nevertheless tend toward the abstract. Her overriding concern is conceptual—even postmodern—and is that of ‘time’ itself.

Pilat’s Time Deconstructed put forward that time is a ‘universal concept that can only be described by a visual metaphor.’ There are two claims within this statement: (1) that time is a ‘universal concept’ and (2) that it ‘can only be described by a visual metaphor.’ The visual metaphor may be predominant in our culture—for more often than not we see time as it passes by the hands on a clockface; or the countdown of a microwave timer; or even the lines that appear as we age—but its mediation can take many forms that are not ‘visual’ (for we can feel our wrinkles and crow’s eyes) and the experience of these forms is far from ‘universal’ (for there are many modalities of time, for example, leisurely and labouring, or modern and postmodern). Pilat actually explains how her own exploration of time has been ‘loosely inspired’ by Marcel Proust’s À la recherché du temps perdu. But ‘[w]hile he turned to words in his search for answers, I’ve used brushstrokes.’ This may seem contradictory if time ‘can only be described as by a visual metaphor’. It is a purposeful contradiction however, in that the visual particularity undermines time’s supposed universality. In a word: the traditional medium of painting will now be used to make a sort of meta-point about the very particularity of the notion of time’s universality.

If one looks closely, one sees a line of numbers stamped across the canvas close to her signature. These represent the hours the artist has spent before the canvas. It has its precedent in buon fresco, which was painted giornata by giornata—for the pigment would only bind to wet plaster and so only enough plaster was applied as could be painted in the day. In this case, the faberian quality is unmistakable for the material determines the social organisation. But it is the inverse that is apparent in the works we are discussing here, i.e., the social organisation of time has determined how the material is to be worked upon in that the numbers reflect the sense of lost time and its correlative of productivity. Pilat remarks, for example, how she ‘once struggled to find enough time at the easel, which was often the result of lost or wasted time.’ It is important, then, to recognise that the universality of time as expressed by the seconds, minutes, and hours of the working day, only came about at a particular moment in time, i.e., when time itself was conceived of as a rational pattern to be enforced rather than as a force of nature expressed through the length of the day or the passing of the seasons. In other words: productivity is not the natural correlative of time but the artificial concern born of its standardization, its universalization at a particular historical moment. It is interesting to note, then, that her latest works are portraits of, say, a fire bell, a telephone, a fan, etc. They are workplace objects, i.e., a place in time to ‘clock in’.

Anthony Giddens - a renowned sociologist - considers modernity from the perspective of time-space distanciation in which ‘the uniformity of time measurement by the mechanical clock was matched by the uniformity in the social organisation of time.’ The French Revolutionaries thus instituted decimalised French Revolutionary Time. Universal Time (UT) following Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) was only accepted at the International meridian Conference of 1884. Pilat’s insistence on the universality of time as expressed by a visual metaphor may then be understood as a praxis-commentary on modernity from an almost postmodernist perspective. Pilat is deconstructing time (to use a postmodernist turn-of-phrase) by using the figurative imagery of modernity itself. This is her true fait accompli.

The imagery of ballet, which is present, of course, in both the paintings discussed earlier, is associated before all others with the figure of Degas—one of the great painters of modernity. The dancer back then epitomised the human quality of movement when kineticism was still modern—for there was increasing locomotion (place-movement, therefore, time). Indeed the locomotive engine is the mechanism of modern time-space distanciation par excellence. Degas sought this kineticism against a modernity of industrial inventiveness, and therefore with recourse to the human of flesh and blood and art. But Degas and Paris is not all that is brought to mind. Pilat’s influences include the Russian Realists and members of the Peredvizhniki; for example, Ilya Repin and Konstantin Makovski. Valentin Serov deserves special mention in this regard, for pioneering an impressionistic technique outside of Paris. Pilat knows his work, of course…

In fact, Pilat grew up in the People’s Republic of Poland and Third Polish Republic. The former was a part of the Eastern Bloc (but not of the United Soviet Socialist Republics) while the latter is now a member of the European Union. She now lives and works in the United States. It is therefore possible to trace an affinity between the experiences of her own biographical-time and those of a wider historical significance. Is it any surprise, then, following so much personal and historical change, that her works should explore the concept of time? But in Quiet Between Us and Suddenly And Forever…in an old house, or, perhaps, an even older school…for the girls are no longer working-class if ballet is expensive, a privilege…we finally begin to understand that time is deconstructed by the elements and figural motifs of its past.

Agnieszka Pilat's #disrupt exhibition opens at the Gold Gallery, Boston, on Friday 3rd March.  

D.S. Graham