Conundrum of Time: Clepsydra
Miha Vipotnik, Gallery of the Université Saint Esprit de Kaslik (USEK) in Beirut, May 2002.
Miha Vipotnik has been a video artist, filmmaker, and commercial director in Ljubljana and Los Angeles for nearly twenty years. He was also the creator and curator of the International Video Bienniale during the 1980s, and earned MFAs in 1990 at the California Institute of the Arts and in 1979 at the Academy of Fine Arts at the University of Ljubljana. His recent works include a video installation Journey to the End of the Ends (2000), a video art piece Gazelle (2000) about the poetics of observation and motion, and Moc Usode (The Power of Destiny, 2001), an experimental documentary about opera composer Guiseppe Verdi for TV Slovenja. Vipotnik’s most recent work is Conundrum of Time: Clepsydra, the first in a series of three video installations to explore the measuring of time.
Conundrum of Time: Clepsydra opened in May 2002 at the gallery of the UniversitÈ Saint Esprit de Kaslik (USEK) in Beirut. The piece was installed in conjunction with a video art workshop conducted by Vipotnik for USEK students of art and architecture, film, video and television. Vipotnik roamed Beirut with his students instructing them to capture a medley of scenes with digital camcorders.
He then selected images from this cityscape footage and worked with students to create 3 twelve-minute video sequences, each of which became part of the installation.
As the visitor enters the gallery exhibition of Conundrum of Time, he/she glimpses in the far corner of the room a dimly lit Phoenician Clepsydra dangling from the ceiling.
This ancient water clock was designed to measure time for eight hours; but instead of filling it with water, Vipotnik chose to fill it with red wine that drips rhythmically onto the floor, conjuring a licentious appreciation for Phoenician gods Baal, Astarte and Simios.
Before seeing the waterclock up close the visitor encounters video projections that appear on a 9x 3 meter translucent screen in the center of the room.
The projections also pass through this screen and appear larger on a massive white wall that spans the length of the gallery. The three video sequences are lined up in triptych, and the projections are carefully timed and choreographed in relation to one another.
The projected video sequences feature images from Beirut shot with multiple camcorders, generating a videographic homage to Dziga Vertov’s “Man with a Movie Camera” (1929), but revealing a fascination with postcolonial/postwar Beirut instead of communist Russia.
Traffic scenes demonstrate the lawless cacophony and flow of movement through a city in the process of re-building itself after a long civil war.
Architectural forms embody the confluence of ancient and modern structures, and still standing Las Vegas-like casinos suggest an escapist need for postwar fantasy and excess.
Situated amongst Beirut’s neon (the city’s postcolonial nickname is the “Paris of the Middle East”) Vipotnik displays a regime of military checkpoints manned by Syrian and Lebanese soldiers, who are videotaped by students from rooftops above, surreptitiously observing their procedures and movements from a distance.
Such rapid shifts from the allure of the casino to the influence of state surveillance feel jarring yet frank. As an indication perhaps of his many years spent working in Los Angeles, Vipotnik presents Beirut from the perspective of the highway as well.
He uses camcorder and car as a hybrid machine to map urban and rural arteries that connect Beirut to the ancient ruins, nearby villages, factories, and refugee camps that define it as a modern metropolis.
As much as Conundrum of Time exposes Vipotnik’s process of trying to figure out how a Middle Eastern city works, the installation constructs a position between cultures and epochs, between video signals, between electronic and geophysical materialities.
The installation is spatially organized to encourage the visitor to trespass a time/space between as he wanders through a video corridor where projections on either side of the body might also land upon and reflect off the skin.
Vipotnik has a clever way of forcing the visitor to contemplate the longevity of the ancient water clock (and its technique of measuring time through drips) in relation to the temporality of the video image (and its technique of measuring through frames).
The spatial layout of the exhibition requires the visitor to recognize that the time it takes to move from modern electronics to the ancient artifact might be measured in footsteps, drips, or views rather than seconds, minutes or years.
In this sense, the installation is also about a legacy of changing materialities as much as it is about measuring time: the visitor is unable to discern whether the Clepsydra is actually a physical artifact or a screen memory.
The uncanny positioning of the Clepsydra in this gallery is reminiscent of a technique Vipotnik used in a previous installation Journey to the End of the Ends (2000), in which a working telephone booth was installed in the gallery only to be dematerialized behind screen projections.
Its loud ring, however, resonated in the space, reminding visitors of its physical presence and offering the temptation to answer it. In Conundrum of Time, the visitor experiences something similar with the Clepsydra.
As the ancient artifact materializes from behind the screen its audible liquid falls systematically to the floor, measuring the duration of black silences as they fall upon the video screen. When video re-appears on the projection screen a spotlight transforms the matter of the Clepsydra into an illusion again.
To exaggerate this point, another light is carefully placed to illuminate the wine accumulating on the floor and its circular ripples become a barely visible projection of moving light on the dark wall. What is intriguing here is the way that the installation disguises the materiality of an actual ancient artifact as the immateriality of video.
While the Clepsydra revivifies the ancient within this video installation, the crimson stains of the water clock also allude to the recent blood spilled in Lebanon’s fifteen-year civil war. And since Vipotnik comes from former Yugoslavia, his Conundrum of Time arguably delivers a layer of the trauma there as well.
Conundrum of Time ultimately seems to be about a conceptual practice of video layering, accumulation, sedimentation. As the visitor stands near the Clepsydra and looks back toward the entrance, he sees three video projections of scenes mostly from Beirut, but also from Slovenia and California projected on the screen in the middle of the room and the wall.
These segments from outside include a close-up of a vintage clock that appeared in Vipotnik’s influential piece Sketch Tape No.3 (1988), the full moon shot in Slovenia, and panoramic views of American deserts, segments that relate to Vipotnik’s own position in the world.
Vipotnik immerses his visitor within these video layers, encouraging him/her to understand the practice of measuring time as one that involves a recognition of the flesh as a sensor and a screen.
While listening to the drip of an ancient water clock echoing off the walls, the visitor might also hear church bells ringing, Muslim prayers booming from city loudspeakers, and an old car’s muffler rattling.
Western codes everywhere mix with Arabic signs and the visitor is challenged to edit (to absorb, filter and arrange) multiple video projections in their own minds as they bounce around the gallery on walls, screens, and skin, spreading into one another, and breaking frame.
Vipotink explains, “In order to see and experience this installation, the visitor must walk around the room as if he were walking around a statue, and he or she must allow images to be projected on his or her own body to observe the installation and other people in the room.”
We experience in Conundrum of Time: Clepsydra a feeling of openness proving to us that a closed system is never absolutely closed. It is always connected to other systems by a fine thread. This installation by a video artist working between Ljubljana, Los Angeles and Beirut is particularly significant in the context of ongoing global struggles between the West and the Middle East.
This project establishes a useful paradigm for the way artists might continue to think and work between and across national borders within such conditions, particularly given the obstacles that are increasingly being put into place.
More than ever there is a need for “visitors” – not only the kind of visitors that one finds in the galleries of video installations like Conundrum of Time, but the kind of visiting that involves a serious and sustained cross-cultural engagement across and within national borders.
As an established video artist Vipotnik participates in this cultural work by fostering post civil war imaginings, exchanging his technical and conceptual skills with a new generation of Lebanese youth, helping them to generate visions of their city and its future.
We can only hope that the next two installations of Conundrum of Time: Sun Dial and Nano Tower, which will be exhibited in Europe and the US in 2003 and 2004, will continue to chart trajectories that provoke us to see the world between cultures, through time and beyond matter!