Images courtesy the artist and Blum & Poe Gallery

Mary Leclère is Associate Director of the Core Program, a residency program for artists and writers in Houston, and a Phd candidate in art history at the University of Virginia.

The Time of the Now
written by Mary Leclère

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.
-Walter Benjamin

In the photograph from which Sam Durant has appropriated a text that now appears illuminated on a bright orange light box, a man who appears to be shouting holds a hand-lettered sign that says, “Tell it like it is!” Forty years after the event documented by this photograph-the freedom march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965-an American viewer might still feel implicated by these words. Reading the photograph as a historical document, one is tempted to change the text’s verb from “is” to “was,” but for Walter Benjamin, writing on the eve of the Second World War, articulating the past historically was not a matter of telling it like it “really” was. Instead, he argued, “[E]very image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.”[1] For Durant, recognizing this image (and others like it) as a contemporary concern is a way of “telling it like it is” that simultaneously complicates our understanding of what it means to “tell it like it was.” While the moment of danger that Benjamin was alluding to was the rise of Fascism, the present danger is more elusive: the loss of historical-or critical-distance itself.

Durant’s work of the last ten years has dealt with the problem, or, better, the problematic of history. During the late 1990s, the focus of this investigation was Robert Smithson, an artist whose own preoccupation with history was fundamental to his practice. The crucial role Smithson played in initiating the shift to postmodern art practices, especially those related to institutional critique, and his tragic death at the age of thirty-five link him to a number of political and cultural dissidents of the 1960s who also died prematurely-and often violently. These factors help explain Smithson’s mythic status among artists of Durant’s generation, which has made it particularly difficult for artists and critics alike to establish any kind of critical distance in relation to his work. Durant’s numerous drawings and sculptural installations referring to Smithson’s 1970 Partially Buried Woodshed brought together a constellation of art historical, social, pop cultural, and political events of the 1960s, questioning the separateness of their histories and allowing for a reevaluation of the contemporary investment in the art and politics of this period. By connecting works like Partially Buried Woodshed to both contemporaneous and subsequent events-the 1970 Kent State student killings, Neil Young’s song “Ohio” memorializing that incident, and Kurt Cobain’s 1994 suicide note referring to another Young song, for instance-Durant began to explore the relationship of this period’s history to its mythologization. Durant’s engagement with Smithson is still evident in the illuminated signs, but neither they nor the images from which they are drawn refer to the artist or his work directly. In these works, Durant focuses on the potential for making the image of the past our own concern.

Durant derives the texts of the variously colored light boxes he began making in 2001 from hand-lettered signs pictured in photographs of demonstrations and protest marches that took place throughout the U.S. during the 1960s.[2] As in the case of “Tell it like it is,” the words and phrases Durant appropriates do not refer to the specific events or issues that engendered the participants’ dissent, which include incidents related to the civil rights and women’s movements, among others. Instead, the texts seem oddly generic, reading like mild exhortations, truisms, or blunt declarative statements. Severed from their original context, the texts look familiar and alien at the same time: familiar in large part because of the form they take (this type of commercial sign is now ubiquitous); unfamiliar, because they seem to point elsewhere-outside their frames-as though, like a photograph, they needed a caption. And they are captioned in a certain sense, since each light box is paired with what Durant refers to as an “index”: a drawing or poster made after the photographic source of the text. Durant’s use of the term “index” to describe the reproduced source documents points not only to the archival nature of his project but also to the indexicality of the photograph itself (the index is a type of semiotic sign that, like a footprint or a shadow, bears a physical relationship to its referent). Inverting both the indexicality and the reproducibility of the photograph by making a unique drawing after a mechanically recorded image, Durant refuses the temporal specificity of the “having-been-there” (then) as well as the immutable image of the past that its documentation represents (now). By challenging the historical conclusiveness of this image, Durant suggests that it not only can but must be reinterpreted.

Compared to the many iconic images and familiar slogans of this era-“make love, not war,” “power to the people,” etc.-the obscure photographs and ephemeral utterances that Durant has chosen to reproduce carry less of a historical charge individually, but collectively they have contributed to the cultural construction of “the sixties” as a period of radical social and political engagement. This construction is certainly grounded in the events that transpired during this decade but, particularly in response to an increasingly reactionary social and political climate, a general nostalgia for this period has led to its mythologization in both the generic and the Barthesian sense of the term. Roland Barthes wrote a series of essays in the mid-50s in which he analyzed various objects and forms of mass consumption-from wrestling to detergents to photography exhibitions-in order to reveal the way in which historically and culturally determined meanings become naturalized through what he called mythical speech. As Barthes explained, “Myth consists in overturning culture into nature or, at least, the social, the cultural, the ideological, the historical into the ‘natural.'”[3] In his earlier work Durant explored the mythologization of the 1960s primarily in relation to pop cultural figures and events, particularly those related to rock and roll, but these references do not appear in the illuminated signs and indexes.

The mythologization of the sixties has been effected in large part through its photographic documents, whose veracity and objectivity are theoretically vouched for by the photograph’s indexicality. While Barthes drew a distinction between the denotative and connotative functions of the photograph, the 1980s witnessed a critique of representation that led artists and theorists to conclude that “in the real world no such separation is possible,” as Allan Sekula put it, since every image relies on a culturally determined meaning, or connotation.[4] Sekula and others have argued that it is the illusory belief in pure denotation that elevates the photograph to the “legal status of document and testimonial” and is responsible for the “mythic aura of neutrality around the image.”[5] Because of its more explicit pretensions to neutrality or objectivity, the documentary photograph is especially vulnerable to this charge. The problem is that, as one observer wrote, “In stamping photography with the patent of realism, society does nothing but confirm itself in the tautological certainty that an image of reality that conforms to its own representation of objectivity is truly objective.”[6] Put more simply, the objectivity of the photograph depends on a pre-existing, socially determined understanding-or “representation”-of objectivity. And this representation is not far removed from Barthes’s mythology, since both involve the naturalization of a cultural construction.

In the same way Durant confronts our representation of historical objectivity by calling into question the neutrality of its photographic documentation. As Sekula concluded, it is the photograph’s context, including its accompanying text or caption, that determines its meaning. In the light boxes Durant separates text from image because, although some of the texts will seem dated to the viewer, they don’t divulge their historical origin the way the photographs do. But the photographs themselves contain both image and text. This situation is further complicated by Durant’s presentation of the recontextualized phrase as an image, since it’s not just the text but an image of the text that he appropriates when he transfers them to the light box. Like the photograph, these texts are both indexical and iconic (they look like their referents), factors that rarely, if ever, enter into discussions of a text’s signification. Although we certainly notice that the signs’ texts look handwritten, we have become accustomed to “reading through” the printed text itself, looking at the words formed rather than the form of the words to determine their meaning. It is our anticipation of this transparency, of course, that makes us notice their idiosyncratic lettering in the first place-especially in the context of a commercial sign where a text’s formal uniformity (in brand names or logos) is crucial to its bid for another kind of transparency (its capacity to minimize our awareness of its solicitation). Now that they are no longer embedded in the photographs, however, the texts’ meaning becomes dependent on their new frame or context, including the narrower frame of the commercial sign and the broader frame of their site.

Occupying the space of advertising, the now-emblazoned texts of the light boxes seem to want something from the viewer-or, like the ad, they want the viewer to want something-but it’s not clear what that is. Reading this “occupation” as the expropriation of the advertisement is therefore too simplistic. Instead, it cuts both ways: even as the text displaces the ad, its recontextualization here alludes to the idea that it is the reification of the sign of radicality that has led to the mythologization (and subsequent packaging) of the 1960s. The disjunction between the quirky, uneven letters of the quickly made protest signs and the commercial slickness of the light boxes’ vinyl lettering and colorful plexiglas is not so much jarring as curious-a subtle indication that something is a little off. Similarly, a phrase like “Tell it like it is,” in particular, might remind us of the challenge to “Just do it,” except of course that this coolly understated directive is punctuated by a sleek corporate logo rather than a slightly crooked exclamation point. But once the viewer reconnects the light boxes’ texts with their sources, the slightness of the slippage between slogan and plea might be unsettling. For, having “taken these words out of context,” Durant puts them back, providing for the reintegration of the phrases into their original contexts.

The original hand-lettered signs and Durant’s unique drawings contrast with the reproducibility of the original photographs and the mass-produced commercial signs, creating a kind of chiasmus, or inversion, between two pairs of terms: text/image and unique/reproducible. The texts were handwritten on flimsy posterboard in the original signs, but the illuminated signs are reproducible (in fact, they are made in editions of three); by contrast, the reproducible photographic images have been converted into unique drawings. Multiplicity and singularity therefore co-exist in both past and present components (and in some cases Durant has made drawings and posters after the original photographs). The unique drawings do not represent a plea for a return to a more authentic or engaged (i.e. mythologized) past through the valorization of the handmade original. Instead, Durant emphasizes that repetition allows for reconnection as well as reinterpretation: as the hand of the artist merges with the hand of the writer, text and image are rewritten and represented, drawing together the past and the present.

In his 1939 “Theses on the Philosophy of History” Benjamin sought to delineate a properly dialectical model of history that was not characterized by the historicism usually considered to be intrinsic to the structure of historical materialism. As he wrote,

History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogeneous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now [Jetztzeit]. Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of the continuum of history. The French Revolution viewed itself as Rome incarnate. It evoked ancient Rome the way fashion evokes costumes of the past. Fashion has a flair for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it is a tiger’s leap into the past. This jump, however, takes place in an arena where the ruling class gives the commands. The same leap in the open air of history is the dialectical one, which is how Marx understood the revolution.[7]

Thirty years later, Smithson, too, would propose a dialectics divested of the historicism of formalist modernism’s “perpetual revolution,” but, rather than a “tiger’s leap into the past,” Smithson conceived of an ongoing dialectics that eliminated progression or development through a similar rejection of “homogeneous, empty time.” The tiger’s leap was a way of imagining a certain experience of the past as a potentially disruptive, if not revolutionary, force. In the same way, the dialectical leap that Durant’s work suggests does not involve the passive contemplation of a reified image of the past but an active engagement with it that affects not only the present’s perceptions but potentially its actions.

Nevertheless, the leap itself is more modest than Benjamin’s in both scope and intention. For one thing, it is a much less distant moment than ancient Rome that is to be “blasted out of the continuum of history.” It is this proximity, in fact, that allows us to underestimate the need for historical distance and, at the same time, to deny this image of the past as one of our own concerns. One might argue, however, that Durant reads the tiger’s leap through Smithson-meaning that it is inverted.[9] Rather than “a past charged with the time of the now” Durant’s signs offer “the time of the now charged with a past” in both senses of the term: the present is also charged with a responsibility to or for the past. In this way, the past and the present are not only brought together but also pulled apart, providing the historical distance necessary for the present to recognize this image as its own concern. (This is the reason for Durant’s insistence on pairing the light boxes with an index whose medium differs from that of the original source document: the new image’s medium differentiates it from its predecessor; at the same time, the exact replication of the original image itself connects past and present.) Durant’s critique is thus linked to Smithson’s idea of time as “a place minus motion,” which, like Benjamin’s, was a rejection of the connection between progression and progress. “The concept of the historical progress of mankind,” Benjamin wrote, “cannot be sundered from the concept of its progression through a homogeneous, empty time.”[10]

The naturalization of the myth of progress has made recognizing its effects that much more difficult. “From a contemporary vantage point,” Rita Kersting noted at the beginning of a 2002 interview with Durant, “it is tempting to assume that life in the 1960s was more clear-cut: black or white, left or right.” In response, Durant observed that, “The world was certainly different thirty-five years ago. But although the responses were different then, many of the issues are still the same today. I would even say that certain social and political conditions are much worse now than they were in the late ’60s.”[11] Kersting’s remark acknowledges the mythologization with which Durant had been dealing for some time, but Durant’s reply brings the discussion back to the present and to the issues it shares with the 1960s. To cite only one specific example (and there are many) of the degeneration Durant refers to, one might consider the recent media focus on the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education-a catalyzing event for the civil rights movement-which, prompted by a desire to commemorate its fiftieth anniversary, signaled the need for its critical reengagement. Writing in The New York Times, Adam Cohen discussed a series of Supreme Court decisions in the 1990s (sometimes referred to as the “resegregation cases”) that have made it easier for school districts to circumvent desegregation orders already in place. Two cases in the early 1990s made it less difficult for school systems still considered to be segregated to achieve “unitary status,” which meant they were deemed to be legally desegregated (implying that they could start becoming segregated again). “In the majority’s view,” Cohen writes, “desegregation was no longer a state for America to aspire for and work toward, but a punishment imposed on districts that had once done wrong, to be lifted as soon as possible.”[12]

Durant’s project does not refer to this or any other issue either directly or indirectly (and, again, the texts he chooses are intentionally non-specific). However, the assumption that an issue like desegregation is a thing of the past makes it difficult to see it as one of our own concerns. What the tiger’s leap that Durant’s work might comprehend is an understanding that retaining a mythologized view of this period stymies the social and political action that is necessary to continue working for what we nostalgically (or cynically) believe to have already been achieved. In other words, jettisoning the idea of progress from historical narratives (which Smithson’s generation initiated and Durant’s generation has seen realized) should not entail a similar approach to social change that is considered “progressive.” Barthes maintained that revolutionary speech cannot be mythical because it “generates speech which is fully, that is to say initially and finally, political, and not, like myth, speech which is initially political and finally natural.” Blasting the 1960s out of the continuum of history is not intended to enable the recovery of the past “as it really was,” but to provide the critical distance necessary to make it possible to speak-and therefore act-politically rather than mythologically.

Smithson’s generation initiated the critique of grand narratives (including historical materialism) that contemporary artists have inherited in the form of a pluralist and, some would say, posthistorical art world. It is therefore not historicism but “posthistoricism” (its inversion) that a contemporary artist’s tiger’s leap might be said to address. The pluralism of the art world now stands in for the plurality that writers like Barthes and Jacques Derrida posited in relation to a work’s signification. As Barthes wrote in 1970, “To interpret a text is not to give it a (more or less justified, more or less free) meaning, but on the contrary to appreciate what plural constitutes it.”[14] In place of this multiplicity of meanings, there is now a multiplicity of individual practices. Although the modernist narrative may no longer govern the historical interpretation of contemporary art practices, a kind of “grand” narrative has arguably been reinscribed within some of those practices themselves-that is, a narrative informed by a similar totalizing impulse. Comprehended within the work of artists like Matthew Barney and Matthew Ritchie is a symbolic, cosmological, or personal narrative, which, however decentered, is conceived under the sign of a posthistorical pluralism.

Smithson’s critique of the modernist narrative also involved the incorporation of history within the work. His site-specific installations took history not just as their subject but as their content: embedding the work within its site allowed history to be contained within the work-in the form of its ongoing change and gradual disintegration-rather than the other way around, at least in part. However, this strategy involved the real temporal effects of entropy rather than a mythological narrative severed from real time and space. In the work of these later artists, history and myth are collapsed in a highly subjective narrative to which the viewer has access only through personal identification. This is another approach to the problem of how-or where-history might enter into contemporary art practices, but it is a history in which the viewer cannot participate. Because Durant’s work deals with a shared history that is now in conflict with its own mythologization, it calls for an active engagement on the part of the viewer. Like Smithson’s, the work of artists like Durant and Renée Green (to provide another example) is porous to the history that has shaped it, resulting in a self-consciousness with regard to its own historicity that allows or perhaps obliges it to recognize history as a problem for contemporary art.[15] And this problem is, at least in part, the legacy of the ’60s.

Reading the displaced texts of the illuminated signs not only through the specific images from which they were culled but through the image of the 1960s that they have been instrumental in constructing, Durant allegorizes the process of mythologization itself, making the viewer a reader in turn. But this reading doesn’t necessarily take place within the space of the museum, which means that the texts are not always read through an identifiable institutional framework. Moreover, in some cases (such as their installation at Project Row Houses in Houston) the viewer might not connect the texts with their historical sources at all because the illuminated signs are installed outside the exhibition space. It is the possibility of different-even conflicting-readings, however, that destabilizes myth by splintering and dispersing it. And Benjamin found that the space of advertising had its own dialectical contribution to make even, or especially, in the absence of critical distance. “Criticism is a matter of correct distancing,” he wrote, “It was at home in a world where perspectives and prospects counted and where it was still possible to adopt a standpoint… What, in the end, makes advertisements so superior to criticism? Not what the moving red neon sign says-but the fiery pool reflecting it in the asphalt.”[16] Perhaps “correct” distancing (itself part of the myth) is impossible; but Durant’s signs might offer a way to create some kind of distance, even if only momentarily, precisely by making what the signs say-their “perspectives and prospects”-count for the present. And creating this distance involves a historical approach that doesn’t attempt to understand the 1960s “as they really were” but as “a past charged with the time of the now” which, with any luck, will blast us out of posthistory.


[1] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1968), 255.

[2] The colors of the plexiglas are not themselves symbolic but allude generally to the American and African National flags as well as those of other African countries (e.g. Ethiopia). Sam Durant, artist’s statement, 2001.

[3] Roland Barthes, “Change the Object Itself,” Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977): 165.

[4] Allan Sekula, “On the Invention of Photographic Meaning,” in Thinking Photography, ed. Victor Burgin (London: Macmillan Press, 1982), 87.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Pierre Bourdieu, cited in Rosalind Krauss, “A Note on Photography and the Simulacral,” October 31 (winter 1984): 57.

[7] Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 261.
[8] As Smithson put it, “Time becomes a place minus motion. If time is a place, then innumerable places are possible Time breaks down into many times.” Robert Smithson, “Entropy and the New Monuments,” Artforum 4 (June 1966): 26. For a discussion of modernism’s “perpetual revolution,” see Michael Fried, “Three American Painters: Noland, Olitski, Stella,” Cambridge, MA: Fogg Art Museum, 1965), 8.

[9] Smithson’s interest in inversion is manifested by his extensive use of the mirror and the photograph. Beginning in the mid-60s, he also began ordering negative prints of his photographs, which was one of the ways Partially Buried Woodshed was originally documented.

[10] Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 260.

[11] Rita Kersting and Sam Durant, “Interview with Sam Durant,” Sam Durant (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2002), 57.

[12] Adam Cohen, “The Supreme Struggle” The New York Times, “Education Life,” Section 4A, January 18, 2004: 24. Leo Casey also discusses the relationship between resegregation and the widening “achievement gap,” among other things, in “Still Separate, Still Unequal: The Continuing Struggle for Racial Justice in American Education,” Dissent (winter 2004): 117-125.

[13] Roland Barthes, “Myth Today,” 146.

[14] Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974), 5.

[15] Green’s Partially Buried (1996) also deals with the history/myth of Smithson’s woodshed. See Alex Coles, “Revisiting Robert Smithson in Ohio: Tacita Dean, Sam Durant and Renée Green,” Parachute 104 (2001): 130-8.

[16] Walter Benjamin, “This Space for Rent,” 476.

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