24 April 2006

A Challenge to Time's March

A few days ago I wrote about the time-as-narrative phenomenon that characterized modernism, and indicated that some artists have taken stabs at throwing off time’s tyranny. Sally Mann’s most recent series, What Remains, provides a good example of this. The series focuses on the aftermath of death, on the connection between the earth and the dead she subsumes.

Death presents an assault on time without any assistance from art. It is among a very few universal human experiences, and as such it connects peoples, times, and cultures that otherwise are irreconcilable. Mann's series includes pictures of bones, decaying bodies, the earth. Although these images are recent (the earliest from sometime during 1999), there is nothing inherently recent-seeming about them. The images are not dated, but if you sift through a good half-dozen of Mann’s interviews, you can figure out roughly when each section of What Remains was created. But why bother? It adds nothing. Finally, Mann made all the images of the series (except for one) with a camera and a process that are over a century old, a revival of technologies that died out a long time ago.

Death itself, Mann’s portrayal of it, and her method for doing so are irritants if you wish to place these images in time. And although the earth’s process for reclaiming the dead is at the heart of this series, not even that process is presented in a meaningful chronology. Her dog’s bones appear first. The dog’s remains are in a far more advanced state of decay than are the human corpses that follow them. These corpses range from initial to late stages of decomposition and after these images the narrative of decay jumps backward again to the moment of death rather than its aftermath. This portion is followed by landscapes taken at a Civil War battlefield, several generations after death and decay touched the soil. The final segment returns us to the present, with contemporary close-up portraits of her (still living) children.

Time’s power is challenged by the anti-chronology of this series, which is also a hindrance to the narrative of decay. There is no progression from early to late stages, future to past, start to stop. As such, a force that would otherwise be a powerful source of insight is abstracted into irrelevance.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I understood the concepts you and Stella presented in your duet better but this is interesting to think about also, just way over my head. You and Katherine seem to be able to communicate at this level, probably because you have some common information base to work from, called intelligence. I however, operate very well at optimally at kindergarten and below. How will the doctor's ever determine if I am senile?