Arturo Vergara

I am a blooming iOS developer, high school student and aspiring computer scientist. Passionate about cinema, reading and occasionally, photography and other arts. I have also been a musician for most of my life.

On the visual and written representation of time

This more than a philosophical treatise, is an open questioning (wondering?) about the difficulties and obstacles met with the conceptual representation of time in visual and written work, proceed with caution.

This discussion with myself originated after a very short conversation (read: 5 word phrases at maximum) I had during a (mediocre to say the least) art appreciation class with a teacher about the very basic concept of perspective and the representation of the three “standard” dimensions in paintings and photography.

Now, those who know me in person (and well enough), know that I tend to drift away in my own thoughts whenever something triggers these “self-discussions”, and I can be lost for hours (not that I ignore people I am with at that moment, as I drift away only when I am in silence and there is no one interacting directly with me, e.g. some boring class, which I am not proud of, by the way).

My teacher mentioning how after man discovered how to capture in a painting the three dimensions of our universe (it triggered here) a world of artistic possibilities opened up, made me first think about how revolutionary it must have been at the time. Seconds after that I noticed something was wrong with what she had just said: Our universe, as it is now commonly accepted, has four dimensions, not three.

If you are not familiar with the concept of our universe having four dimensions, you must be thinking “What’s wrong with this guy? He’s an idiot! Everyone knows we have three dimensions, just like everyone knows that Elvis isn’t dead, he just went home”. But let me tell you: you sir, are wrong (according to Einstein anyway). And now, to demystify the fourth dimension, a quick list of all four of them:

  • Width
  • Height
  • Depth
  • Time

What a shocker huh? I bet you didn’t even imagine (if you are the guy I was talking to in the last paragraph) the fourth dimension is time.

Well, now that that is out of the way, let’s get back on topic.

One can only assume that the discovery of the visual representation of the first three dimensions derived from observation. Many, many hours of observation. Observation and long hours or thinking. Long, long hours of thinking. Not an easy process, but a simple one, and probably very slow too.

It was only until late in history that man got a hold of the concept of time as a dimension. Early cultures gave time a lot of thought, but I assume that after the discovery of many technological advances at which point time became nothing but a standard measure and a marker to compare our lives to and to keep track, it became irrelevant and man stopped thinking about it in the philosophical manner, and thus eliminating the need to incorporate it into other areas of life. Hell, time is not even part of any areas of life other than chores and day-to-day stress.

And now it is where it gets interesting (or not, depending on if it was already interesting to you or if you are hating every word I have written, in which case I would suggest you stop reading as soon as you can and go watch some TV).

The central question for this essay(?) is: We know how to represent the first three dimensions in visual work and even how to describe them in written work, in fact, we dare experiment with them to create interesting visual effects and atmospheres. But what about the fourth dimension?

Now, probably your most immediate reaction is to first answer “Clocks you idiot! Clocks!”, and then proceed to rant and even hate yourself for reading this far, only to get to such a silly question with such a stupid and obvious answer. But, again, you’re wrong. You see, clocks and any other timepiece (chronographs, chronometers, timers, etc.) are merely the instrument man has created to measure time, and not a representation of time itself. Time is an absolutely abstract thing (but so is love, and yet, we manage to represent love). You wouldn’t use a measuring tape to represent height/width/depth, would you? The same applies to time. How can one capture time in a painting or photograph? How can one capture a lapse, or rather, a segment of time in a visual medium? How can one make observers feel time? What about a written representation? The same occurs here: You are probably pulling your hair, yelling at your monitor “Hours, minutes and seconds! Hours, minutes and seconds! Is that so hard, you moron?”. Yes it is that hard, because again: hours, minutes and seconds are only the units and sub-units man has created to keep time measurable. How can one express time within a written piece of work without using any of those words? Of course you can explicitly say “…and a long time went by…”, but the point here is to give readers the feeling of time, and please note: feeling.

I lingered with those thoughts for at least an hour, I went back and forth, thinking “Surely someone has already figured that out, I am sure someone has had the same questions I have right now. With all the talented and revolutionary artists we have had throughout history, one is sure to have at least attempted to do it.”

Silence, some more thoughts…

…And then I short-circuited. I dried up. I fell asleep. I passed out. I became confused. I was empty. I was lost.

I was lost without an answer, dear readers. I was stopped short in my tracks, and I never like it when that happens.

I have since been thinking about it. I try to forget about it, but then some trigger-word reminds me of it and I drift away. It becomes frustrating and I become useless.

So: how, in God’s, Thunder’s, Ala’s, Buddha’s, Tlaloc’s and Wind’s name, do we represent time in a written or visual work!?

You, dear readers, are welcome to share your thoughts with the rest of us, the lost ones. Pretty please?

  • 1 September 2011
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