The per­sis­tence of time Pa­trick Ber­natchez

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rt doesn’t need to be com­pli­cated to be good, of course, but when it’s both com­pli­cated and good, things cer­tainly get in­ter­est­ing. As part of SITE Santa Fe’s re­launch, the Mon­tre­al­based in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary artist Pa­trick Ber­natchez was given mul­ti­ple gallery spa­ces to dis­play Lost in Time, a mul­ti­me­dia project nearly a decade in the mak­ing. From a sen­sory per­spec­tive, the work is rich and nu­anced, com­pris­ing sound, film, pho­tog­ra­phy, and ob­jects.

“It’s im­por­tant to know about me,” Ber­natchez said dur­ing a re­cent tour of the ex­hi­bi­tion, “that I work for many years on a sin­gle project.” This does much to ex­plain his com­plex yet ul­ti­mately co­he­sive in­stal­la­tion, which be­gins in a small room just past SITE’s main en­trance. One’s pre­lim­i­nary im­pres­sion is of en­ter­ing a tiny cathe­dral, whose monas­tic calm is pierced by the mag­ni­fied sound of a tick­ing time­piece. Af­ter a mo­ment, our eyes ad­just and fo­cus on a spot­lighted vit­rine against the back wall, which con­tains a leather-banded wrist­watch named BW (Black Watch or Ber­natchez-Winiger). It’s not un­til peer­ing through the glass that we re­al­ize the time­piece is miss­ing its num­bers, and that the move­ment of its sole hand is im­per­cep­ti­ble.

The wrist­watch was in­spired af­ter Ber­natchez vis­ited an ex­hi­bi­tion of clocks, “some whirring very very quickly, others slowly,” he re­called. Soon af­ter, he con­tacted Swiss watch­maker Ro­man Winiger with what must have been a pe­cu­liar re­quest: Could the ar­ti­san cre­ate a time­piece that only ro­tated once ev­ery thou­sand years? The re­sult­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion pro­duced 10 watches, the fourth of which is on view at SITE. By iso­lat­ing a sin­gle, small ob­ject in a dark­ened room, Ber­natchez wanted to cre­ate what he called “a space where you can think about your own life. So, in a hu­man life­time, the watch’s hand will only move about three mil­lime­ters,” Ber­natchez said, adding with a laugh, “or maybe five, if you’re lucky.” This ab­surdly im­prac­ti­cal time­piece has mul­ti­ple in­ter­pre­ta­tions. It may be con­sid­ered a clever, even hi­lar­i­ous com­men­tary on the fu­til­ity of keep­ing track of or mea­sur­ing time. Or, from a more sober­ing per­spec­tive, BW ex­am­ines the in­ex­ora­bil­ity of time, mea­sured in the watch’s un­fath­omably many-min­uted, tick-tock­ing ro­ta­tions.

Although, ac­cord­ing to Ber­natchez, the wrist­watch is “like a sun around which the rest of the works or­bit,” the ac­com­pa­ny­ing ex­hi­bi­tion el­e­ments are ver­i­ta­ble su­per­novas in and of them­selves. Just steps away from the room hous­ing BW is an an­gu­lar cor­ri­dor, hung with a three-part il­lu­mi­nated pho­to­graph whose sepi­atinged pan­els de­pict a horse and rider against a snowy background. This glow­ing triptych re­tains a peculiarly old-fash­ioned sen­si­bil­ity, de­spite the mod­ern ap­pear­ance of the rider’s boots and hel­met. Ber­natchez’s 46-minute film, Lost in Time, plays in a dark­ened the­ater around the corner. The film de­posits view­ers into a tun­dric land­scape, across which a horse and rider (the same as in the triptych around the corner) travel be­fore be­com­ing dis­ori­ented. Soon the rider, who is wear­ing BW on his wrist, aban­dons his ail­ing horse to wan­der alone; he quite lit­er­ally ap­pears to be lost in time — and space. With­out giv­ing too much away, it’s safe to say that noth­ing is cer­tain in this lit­tle movie.

The film’s male nar­ra­tor (French neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gist and philoso­pher Henri La­borit, who died in 1995) acts as a tour guide, ex­trap­o­lat­ing on themes of death and con­scious­ness in so­porific over­tones. For the in­stal­la­tion’s sound el­e­ment, Ber­natchez con­scripted the Mex­i­can com­poser Mur­cof to make a piece in­flu­enced by Bach’s fever­ish Gold­berg Vari­a­tions, im­bued with am­bi­ent sound, La­borit’s dig­i­tally ma­nip­u­lated voice, and most mov­ingly, a chil­dren’s choir singing the com­po­si­tion’s aria. In a 2014 in­ter­view with Casino Lux­em­bourg gallery di­rec­tor Kevin Muhlen, Ber­natchez said, “My in­ten­tion was to take a clas­si­cal work more or less frozen in time and to breathe new life into it.” Later, he re­marked, “My work can ap­pear dark, even black to some eyes, but it is ac­tu­ally ten­der pink, very pale and al­most sheer com­pared to re­al­ity.”

In tack­ling a sub­ject as broad and in­her­ently un­wieldy as time, Ber­natchez el­e­gantly ex­plores themes of tem­po­ral­ity and ex­is­ten­tial­ism with­out veer­ing into pre­ten­tious­ness. Lost in Time is sprawl­ing both phys­i­cally and in­tel­lec­tu­ally, but it’s never un­man­age­able. — Iris McLis­ter



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