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About Time: Temporality in American Art and Visual Culture

Université Paris Cité, November 4-5, 2021
Yana Shtilman

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1The international conference “About Time: Temporality in American Art and Visual Culture” took place on November 4-5, 2021 at Université Paris-Cité. It was organized by Hélène Valance, an associate professor of American studies at Université de Bourgogne Franche-Comté and a CNRS research fellow at LARCA (Université Paris-Cité) and Tatsiana Zhurauliova, an associate researcher at LARCA (Université Paris-Cité). However, the conference started a day earlier, on November 3rd, at the Institut national d’histoire de l’art (INHA) with a conversation with contemporary Haitian artist Fabiola Jean-Louis, setting the tone for the following days. The artist, who works with a wide range of media such as photography, sculpture, and performance, addresses diverse issues such as identity, history, and trauma. Her recent series “Rewriting Histories,” which is particularly relevant to the conference topic of temporality in American art, has been acquired by Yale University as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. During the conference, Fabiola Jean-Louis contended that in “Rewriting Histories” she attempted to claim back and reappropriate identity by shooting portraits of people belonging to minority groups dressed in eighteenth-century clothes, normally worn by the nobility. The conversation with the artist is available online, on the Youtube channel of the Institut national d’histoire de l’art.

2The main idea behind this scientific gathering was to shift the focus from traditional discourses about space to discussions about the notion of time and trace how they have been integrated into different forms of American art during various periods, from the seventeenth to the twenty-first centuries. Thus, the papers presented were neither limited by a specific art movement nor a period and explored the given subject from six different points of view as the event consisted of six panels. The plurality of topics addressed by each paper aimed to introduce the concept of time from various perspectives. The other goal was to link art practices with cultural and historical events in the U.S. such as industrialization, colonialism, and other social, technological, and economic factors.

3In the first panel entitled “Temporality of an Artwork” the speakers reflected on materiality and memorialization in relation to different art forms. Jennifer Chuong (Institut für Kunst-und Bildgeschichte, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) opened the panel with her presentation “The Unfaithful Surface: John Trumbull’s ‘Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776.’” By providing the audience with a detailed analysis of the painting and merging several mediums (music and visual art), she associated the eighteenth-century painting with present-day social events. According to Chuong, contemporary popular culture—rap music in particular—redefines our understanding of foundational events, as depicted in iconic works such as Trumbull’s classic rendition of American independence. She therefore concluded that our memory of certain events may be influenced by depictions that are historically inaccurate. She was followed by Cyrielle Durox (Le Musée Rodin), who presented her research entitled “La notion de temps dans la série photographique du ‘Balzac’ de Rodin par Edward Steichen (1908).” Durox elaborated on the life-long relationship between Edward Steichen and Auguste Rodin, where the latter became a mentor and a supporter of the former and talked in detail about the collaboration of the two artists. Steichen’s idea behind this project was to shoot Rodin’s “Balzac” sculpture at different times of the day: sunrise, noon, and sunset. By doing so, the photographer reflected on the notion of time and tried to show that photography could be as picturesque as painting. Andrew Witt (ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry) devoted his presentation to the documentary depictions of jazz musicians by analyzing the African Americans’ daily routine, and city life captured by Roy DeCarava. Witt studied the notion of ecstasy in photography and music and the ability of the camera to depict a unique instant of emotional climax.

4The second panel entitled “Perceptual Time” featured Alex J. Taylor (University of Pittsburgh), who presented his paper “Time Suspended: Alexander Calder in Airplane Mode” on Alexander Calder’s mobiles, which he installed in several airport terminals in the United States. Taylor elaborated on how Calder’s creation altered the airport space and created a vision of the passing of time, which influenced and merged with the travelers’ expectations of their future journey and the fast changing pace of the landscape. Magdalena Nielsony (Vienna University) presented “Exercises in Slow Perception: Nancy Holt’s and Richard Serra’s Investigations into the Televisual Presence.” Nielsony explored the question of time perception in photography and film by taking the example of the video titled Boomerang (1974) by the two above-mentioned American artists. The words of the artists in these videos are suspended in space and time and form a new realm of double reflections.

5The last panel of the first day was named “Time / Space Dislocations” and included two presentations. The first paper by Jonathan Dentler (Histoire des arts et des représentations [HAR], Université de Paris Cité) entitled “A Land that Time Forgot: The Atlantis Myth in Interwar American Art” was devoted to the depiction of prehistorical times in U.S. art and analyzed the relation between mythology and real historical events. The second paper was by James Nisbet (University of California, Irvine), who introduced his book Second Site. The main concept of this work is a reflection on the effects of the passing of time and of climate change and the consequential shift in the meaning and appearance of site-specific art. Even though these two last presentations focused on different periods, they completed and engaged with each other.

6The second day of the conference included three panels, which were devoted to different effects and impacts of time. The fourth panel entitled “Weaponizing Time” studied the specific relation between time and art when the former becomes a tool for a protest or reappropriation of one’s identity. Margaret Schmitz (Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design) elaborated on “Indigenous Temporal Enmeshment in Akwesasne Notes.” In several case studies, Schmitz showed how contemporary indigenous artists reworked and challenged the old stereotypical and degrading pictures of Native Americans. By adding captions and by painting over the printed images, the new generation of artists gave back individuality and voice to indigenous people. José Segebre (Hochschule für Gestaltung [HfG], Offenbach) emphasized the importance of time in performance art by looking at Lorraine O’Grady’s act “Mlle Bourgeoise Noire.” Segebre described O’Grady’s technique as a performer in detail and contended that by making her audience wait for her to change the mood of the performance—“to explode” as he called it—the artist took control over the spectators. Segebre linked O’Grady’s act with activism against colonialism and capitalism and thus, situated it within the field of race and gender studies.

7In the fifth panel, “Layered Time,” Kalvin Schmidt-Rimpler Dinh (University College London) continued the conference with a paper entitled “‘Telescoping Time:’ Romare Bearden and Historical Compression. His presentation was devoted to Afro-futurism, collage art, and, of course, time and its ability to overlap and shrink. After explaining the historical context, Schmidt-Rimpler Dinh provided his listeners with a close analysis of one of Bearden’s collages. This close reading illustrated the scholar’s idea according to which different time periods can be merged in this art form. The second speaker in this section was Helena Lamouliatte-Schmitt (CLIMAS, Université Bordeaux Montaigne), who focused on the series of works by Joel Sternfeld, Hart Island Series. Lamouliatte-Schmitt based her research on Melinda Hunt’s book Hart Island: Discovery of an Unknown Territory. She analyzed several photographs of Hart Island, a place with an unusual history. During different periods, it used to serve as a cemetery, a women’s hospital, an asylum for people with mental health issues, and a prison. The scholar discussed how photography reflected the passing of time and the changes that altered those places.

8The last panel of the conference was titled “Time in the Making.” The first participant was Jenni Sorkin (University of California, Santa Barbara), with a presentation on “Santa Barbara Hairwork c.1893 / c.1993.” Focusing on the intersections of material culture, gender, and contemporary art, she studied different ways of using hair in modern sculptures and installations by creating a link with the use of hair in other art objects of the past. The closing presentation of the day and of the conference was “Once Upon a Quilt: le patchwork américain au fil du temps” by Géraldine Chouard (Université Paris-Dauphine). The scholar reflected on the patchwork in American art and explained how it merged the realms of the personal and the political. She suggested looking closer at different textile surfaces and, through their patterns, finding the meanings that could help discover and understand authentic American culture.

9During the two days of the conference, the participants introduced new ways and approaches to the notion of time. They managed to convey the main concept of the event by plunging into the past and jumping into the future, by compressing time and space and expanding them into infinity and even by treating them as a weapon or a tool to subvert the outdated vision of the past. The issues and questions raised by the speakers throughout the enriching debates after each panel were the logical continuation of their presentations and made the event very engaging for the audience.

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Yana Shtilman, « About Time: Temporality in American Art and Visual Culture »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 02 juin 2022, consulté le 10 août 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Yana Shtilman

Université Paris Cité

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