Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sculpting in Time – Giacometti and Tarkovsky

When, 1600 years ago, St. Augustine was asked about the nature of time, he answered that if nobody asks him to define it, he knows what it is; but if he wants to explain it to someone, he can no longer do so. I think that the issue of impossibility of giving verbal expression to time is still viable. According to Bergson (and later Deleuze), perception is subtractive; we are subtracting what we don’t need from the world at the moment of perception; that is why, when we are facing predictable, illustrative signs we perceive them automatically, but when we are in front of concrete duration (time) usually we are unsure how to respond to it; therefore, in this case we perceive the world attentively. In light of Bergsonian-Deleuzian concept of time, I would like to call attention to the potential similarities between two famous (and among my favorite) artists of the 20th century: Alberto Giacometti and Andrey Tarkovsky.

Intuitive feeling of potential affinity between the two modern artists turned out to be the seminal encouragement for me to post this blog entry. Though the title of the book by legendary Russian filmmaker Andrey Tarkovsky
Sculpting in Time is translated as Embalmed Time in Lithuanian, I think that English translation is more accurate than the Lithuanian one, because the former directly refers to the work of a sculptor, which was the intention of Tarkovsky. And, needless to say, Alberto Giacometti is a famous Swiss sculptor who frequently dealt with the concept of time in his artworks. Despite these evident semantic similarities, I was glad to found that both artists could be compared in many other aspects too.

Post-impressionist sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti started his artistic explorations as a member of the Surrealist movement, but gradually elaborated his own unique style. In 1921 after unsuccessful attempts to finish a simple female bust, Giacometti felt the need to re-think the artist’s and artwork’s relations with time. Later, the Swiss sculptor described his feeling in these (similar to Tarkovsky’s) words: "Before that, I believed I saw things very clearly. And then suddenly it became alien." As a result, Giacometti felt himself cast out of the familiar world of representational forms where everything was known and the simultaneity between the thing seen and its imitation was obvious (Piero, 81). Thus, since this shift, Giacometti’s visualizations were getting more and more temporal than penetrative. The Swiss sculptor was neither mimicking the objects as he saw them, nor was he trying to express the human unconsciousness but, rather, was creating blocks of sensation (as Deleuze and Guattari named them).

As we can see in the photo above (the original artwork can be found in the Metropolitan Museum), Giacometti does not imitate the reality we are familiar with and does not pay a lot of attention to the figure(s) as central parts of the sculpture itself. Rather, the sculptor highlights the intervals in between figures, emphasizing their incompleteness. Spatial distances usually separate the skinny sculptures for which Giacometti is mostly known. Though many of the sculpted figures are in some gesture of motion or stand in the position of which motion might progress, they do not deal with narrative, chronological time. In my opinion, while looking at Giacometti's sculptures we can experience time in Bergsonian terms. According to Bergson, all images exist in relation with the other images in time. Being emerges qua being through movement and time. “Giacometti’s sculptures translate the feeling of time – of present, past, and what his friend Sartre called the 'project' of the future – into spatial relations, the most crucial being the changeful pressure of an empty immensity on the figures that inhabit it,” as W. S. Di Piero points out. According to Piero, Giacometti’s principal work was to manifest the strain of pure becoming (Piero, 84).
Is it possible to compare sculptural image with cinematic one? How could they be related? Andrey Tarkovsky clearly answers this question while describing the essence of the director’s work in his book. “We could define it [essence of the director’s work] as sculpting in time. Just as a sculptor takes a lump of marble, and, inwardly conscious of the features of his finished piece, removes everything that is no part of it – so the film-maker from a ‘lump of time’ made up of an enormous, solid cluster of living facts, cuts off and discards whatever he does not need, leaving only what is to be an element of the finished film, what will prove to be integral to the cinematic image” (Tarkovsky, 63-64).

Similarly to the words of the Russian filmmaker, the Swiss sculptor points out that in his sculptures he wanted to fix the action "as if time had become space." According to Giacometti, “the measure of the image-making process is the squeeze or exhalation of space around the figure, and the continued snags and ravelings of stress within the material itself.”

Hence, in Giacometti’s works time is transformed into space by leaving emptiness (intervals) in it, just as Tarkovsky’s pure optic and sound images (especially, the long takes) stresses a continuously evolving time and are assembled by leaving intervals in narration for the potential not predetermined viewer’s response. As Deleuze puts, Tarkovsky challenges the distinction between montage and shot when he defines cinema “by the pressure of time” in the shot. "What is specific to the image, as soon as it is creative, is to make perceptible, to make visible, relationships of time which cannot be seen in the represented object and do not allow themselves to be reduced to the present" (Deleuze, xii).

Furthermore, Tarkovsky in his book elaborates on the topic of the weaknesses of the representational approach. He states that “film took a wrong turn [...] the worst of it was not [...] the reduction of cinema to mere illustration: far worse was the failure to exploit artistically the one precious potential of the cinema: the possibility of printing on celluloid the actuality of time” (Tarkovsky, 63). In other words, we can easily read (and watch!) Tarkovsky in a Deleuzian way, finding that the cinematic image does not need to hold up the existence of already known representations, to maintain the continuity of the film story and place, in such a way territorializing the time to the sequence of the shots and to the action of the characters. According to Deleuze (and André Bazin before him), cinema has a potentiality of getting closer to reality, creatively presenting the new or the unknown and so evoking new images of thought to the viewer.

It really seems for me that Russian director works closely along the lines of Deleuze, when in the beginning of Sculpting in Time, as well as in his all films, Tarkovsky reminds us that the film material can be joined in another way than is common in traditional drama. The Russian director writes that “through poetic connections feeling is heightened and the spectator is made more active. He becomes a participant in the process of discovering life, unsupported by ready-made deductions from the plot or ineluctable pointer of the author.” He has at his disposal only what helps to penetrate to the deeper meaning of the complex phenomena represented in front of him. Complexities of thought and poetic visions of the world do not have to be thrust into the framework of the patiently obvious. […] it possesses an inner power which is concentrated within the image and comes across to the audience in the form of feelings, inducing tension in direct response to the author’s narrative logic (Tarkovsky, 20).

Thus, despite the differences of the mediums they were working with, surprisingly, Alberto Giacometti and Andrey Tarkovsky could be compared in the way the deal with time in their artworks. Paraphrasing Deleuze, I would sum up saying that both artists attempted to open up the spaces that had been territorialized by representation and imitation (mimesis). Both of them were sculpting in time. Thus, Tarkovsky’s films as well as Giacometti’s sculptures do not consist of images in time but are images of time.

Finally, I would like to ask us to think about what it means to be in time and to create the images of time? I believe that these questions, asked both by Giacometti and by Tarkovsky, are still immensely significant and, unfortunately, are inexcusably often forgotten in today’s art world.

Lukas Brasiskis


Bergson Henri. Matter and Memory. The Macmillan Co., NY, 1919
Deleuze Gilles. Cinema 1:Movement-image. University of Minnesota Press, 1986
Deleuze Gilles. Cinema 2: Time-image. University of Minnesota Press, 1989
Piero W. S. D., Out of Eden: Essays on Modern Art. University of California Press, 1991
Tarkovsky, A. Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema. Austin University of Texas Press, 1987.
Art After Deleuze: From Architecture to New Media. Seminar taught by Sam Ishii Gonzales

1 comment:

  1. interesting comparison. i do not know much about deleuze or giacometti but tarkovsky was certainly path breaking and very interesting.