In Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar (1599), Brutus – while plotting to assassinate the emperor – is interrupted by the striking of a clock. Shakespeare was without doubt fully aware that silent sundials marked daily time in ancient Rome, and the invention of the mechanical clock came more than a millennium later. The charge of anachronistic error here would itself be an anachronistic error, since in Shakespeare’s time it wouldn’t have been perceived as an error at all. Our present notion of historic realism is a historically specific construct, and for many centuries prior to its advent historico-artistic representations were overtly anachronistic without jarring their audience. Christ was depicted in contemporary garb throughout the Middle Ages, for instance, and there are countless other images from the pre-Enlightenment canon that overtly disregard accurate chronological placement.
The word ‘anachronism’ comes from the Greek ana (‘up against’) and chronos (‘time’). We use it to point to something that has lost its proper position within a sequence. The present conception of anachronism thus presupposes time as a homogenous and irreversible sequence, with all points fixed to their correct coordinates, in an orderly procession. A glaring anachronistic anomaly in an historic depiction generally amounts to an embarrassing blunder, or a joke – as with the tenth-century peasant in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) earnestly explaining his village as an ‘anarcho-syndicalist commune’. But whether we like it or not, the present always makes itself present in attempts to reconstitute other times. Any historical account or fictional tale that requires constructing an imagined past (and there is no other type of past) will have something out-of-place – often most conspicuously in its physical objects, cultural references, manners, turns of phrase or hairstyles. Once the present catches up, futurism also finds itself subject to anachronism – as evidenced by the many books and films nominally set in the 21st century or later that refer to the World Trade Centre Twin Towers, or the Soviet Union, as if they still exist. Part of the pre-internet 1989 film Back to the Future II’s charm is its assumption that fax machines are still ubiquitous in 2015. True fidelity to a time that is not our own simply isn’t possible, and anachronism always already resides in the present, composed as it is of various remembered pasts and anticipated futures.
But as a discipline that came out of the nineteenth century, Art History has tended towards an excessive reliance on linear models of time. Whether in its conception of artist biographies, acts of creative production, artistic influence and legacy, or periodised historical narratives, there has been a tendency within Art History to approach time as a straight line – and to thereby disregard its more unruly configurations. In his short book The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (1962), Mesoamerican scholar George Kubler dismisses notions of uni-directional progress, and proposes more chaotic models for the study of art. Kubler shows that our neat segmentation of art historical time is purely arbitrary and conventional; an imposition of all-encompassing linear order on something that is in fact characterised by unpredictable displacement and ongoing interruption.
In more recent years, numerous other art historians including Georges Didi-Huberman, Keith Moxey and Alexander Nagel have sought to explore methodologies that might better account for the temporal complexities and conundrums that are at play in every work of art. As some of this scholarship has suggested, once we stop constructing or deferring to linear narratives, ‘anachronistic’ might cease to be a derogatory term. Meanwhile, there have been numerous exhibitions seeking to do away with the confines of fixed cultural/historic context. By embracing overt anachronism, they have proposed that the time and place in which a thing was made should not shut it off from other times and places. To cite but a few examples:
Earlier this year at The National Museum of Denmark, Julie Sass and Milena Hoegsberg invited artists and writers to respond to the museum’s prehistoric collection; aptly titled ‘Shaped by Time’, this exhibition set up fragmented pasts in dialogue with the present in order to consider the construct of history, and reveal its ongoing malleability. The 2003–9 touring exhibition ‘History of History’ (which appeared in museums across the US and Canada before culminating at the 21st Century Art Museum Kanazawa in Japan) saw the Japanese artist and collector of East Asian antiquities Hiroshi Sugimoto establish surprising correspondences between recent works and pieces of material culture from distant pasts. And for his 2010 ‘solo show’ at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, ‘Intolerance’, the Dutch artist Willem de Rooij presented 17th century Dutch of birds alongside 18th and 19th century feathered Hawaiian headdresses, referring to the anachronistic display as part of his continuing work with ‘spatial collage’.
I like the exclamatory title of Tino Sehgal’s performance work for the German Pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005 so much that I plagiarised it for the title of this text. Drawing on contemporary art’s peculiar insecurity about its own contemporary-ness, it indexes a fundamental paradox – in one sense nothing can exist and not be contemporary (the word means literally ‘together with time’); in another sense, any new thing that enters the realm of existence has its newness immediately relegated to the past. When we are presented with old art and new art alongside each other, established divisions can become more slippery, and pasts become available for communicative interaction with the present. We form new associations, and possibly face up to contradictions we’d rather not acknowledge. The inclusion of things in displays of contemporary art that are neither strictly ‘contemporary’ nor ‘art’ is not, as some have suggested, a mere fleeting curatorial trend. It’s part of a broader growing awareness of the anachronism inherent in all time. After the disastrous failures of Modernity’s productive-progressivism, we are dealing with the fact that then and now and later aren’t proceeding along a flat line; they’re disobediently tangled up with each other.
Published in Frieze Masters, Issue # 1, October 2012 / republished in Documents of Contemporary Art: TIME (anthology edited by Amelia Groom, published by Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press, 2013)