The Shape of Time
April - June 2014, Warburton Gallery, Edinburgh
For some time now Alison Grant has been engaged on an investigation into the nature of time and its relation to human consciousness. The exhibition The Shape of Time at the Warburton Gallery, Edinburgh, was the result of that investigation. A former botanist and landscape architect, Grant’s work is always rooted in the natural world and, while deeply thought through, never succumbs to arid intellectualism. The Shape of Time was an exhibition whose restrained and reflective sensuousness made its appeal to both head and heart, to the whole person.
On entering the gallery you first encountered a multitude of seemingly arcane objects suspended in the air, cascading from the cupola above, looking from a distance like alchemical or astrological symbols. Closer inspection revealed them to be barrels and pinions, watch hands and wheels, the shattered workings of antique clocks that have told - and tolled - the times of our lives.
The times we measure are not future nor past nor present nor those in process of passing away. Yet we measure periods of time.
ST AUGUSTINE, CONFESSIONS
That initial sense of mystery remains, however, for time is mysterious and always has been seen as such. Like Tristram Shandy we are all born of the clock: time is perhaps the most fundamental, most obvious, aspect of our lives. Indeed, an existence in which past an present have no connection in time is scarcely commensurate with what we normally conceive of as a human life at all, yet few things defy our understanding more than what that connection might mean. This exhibition, three years in the making, reflected Grant’s preoccupation with the fugitive and evanescent nature of time, with the duality of time’s linear forward march and the cyclical, seasonal times of nature, with our interior consciousness and sense of duration, and with memory, which binds all other times together.
There was much variety here: The Shape of Time featured work in egg tempera, in dental plaster, on gesso board; it featured both film and installation. The rawness of her equinoctial paintings of Loch Fyne, marked by the elements, what Grant calls “the physical immersion in the now”, were transformed, recollected in tranquility, in four large works in graphite on paper which reflect her inner sense and experience of those four days of intense work. Grant, who studied Chinese painting while living in the Far East, embraces in her work the concept of ch’i, an absolute fidelity to the inner truth of things, which must, according to the Ch’ing Dynasty playwright Li Yu, “flow to the finger tips to guide the creation”.
Accordingly Grant is unafraid to discard and rework her pieces again and again until she is satisfied that she has achieved this, until, as she puts it, the work “speaks” to her; to the viewer it speaks always with subtle power and quiet, yet expressive, beauty.
In the end Grant returned to the natural world to find an image that best expresses her sense of time: the dandelion seed, dispersed by the wind and floating in the air, born of the past and carrying within itself the future. Grant offers no answers, but this image, like many of the images in the exhibition, will linger in the mind long after the search for answers is forgotten. If an answer we must have, perhaps we should return again to St Augustine:
What then is time? Provided that no one asks me, I know. If I want to explain it to an enquirer I do not.
ST AUGUSTINE, CONFESSIONS