The persistence of time Patrick Bernatchez
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
THIS GLOWING TRIPTYCH RETAINS A PECULIARLY OLD-FASHIONED SENSIBILITY, DESPITE THE MODERN APPEARANCE OF THE RIDER’S BOOTS AND HELMET. BERNATCHEZ’S FILM LOST IN TIME PLAYS IN A DARKENED THEATER AROUND THE CORNER.