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Art can change our understanding of time


Visual art can give people a new understanding of time and in so doing contribute to the creation of a sustainable society. This is one of the conclusions drawn in a new doctoral thesis in Art History and Visual Studies from the University of Gothenburg.

Earthrise at Christmas. Photo: Foto: Apollo 8, NASA.The first photographic image of the Earth, Earthrise at Christmas from 1968, sparked a desire to take care of the planet . Photo: Apollo 8, NASA.

Visual art can give people a new understanding of time and in so doing contribute to the creation of a sustainable society. This is one of the conclusions drawn in a new doctoral thesis in Art History and Visual Studies from the University of Gothenburg.

Ann-Louise Sandahl has used contemporary art, films and other aesthetic expressions to explore how the concept of time is represented in contemporary visual cultures. Her thesis is a contribution to the relatively new field of environmental humanities, in which climate issues are addressed and discussed from perspectives of the humanities.

‘Ever since the dawn of industrialism, people in the Western world have mainly associated the concept of time with standard clock and calendar time. However, the units used to describe this type of time are not sufficient if we are to ever understand the many different time perspectives that are relevant in the modern world. For example, immensely drawn out climatic events and extremely fast computer processes occur on time scales that just can’t be represented with a wrist watch or a calendar, or with any other tool we use in daily life to understand time,’ says Sandahl.

Sandahl shows in her research that artistic expressions can contribute with new understandings by representing time in new ways and visualise conflicts between short-term and long-term scales, between the time perspectives of culture and nature.

Time as a scarce resource

One film that deals with the conflict between short and long time perspectives is Into Eternity (2010), which is a documentary about the final storage of radioactive waste.

‘The waste will be harmful to all living beings for 100 000 years, but there are no good answers to the questions of how it can be safely stored for that long and how future societies and civilisations can be informed about the nature and dangers of the storage facilities. It’s like modern society is exceeding its available time resources.’

Ann-Louise Sandahl. Photo: Thomas Melin.Another visual expression that represents time as a scarce resource is the conceptual Doomsday Clock, which sends out its stern warning from the cover of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

‘The time of the Doomsday Clock indicates how much time we have left before the end of the world. Once a year, a group of researchers determine the positions of the arms of the clock based on factors such as climate change, wars and global access to nuclear weapons. Right now the clock is three minutes to midnight.’

One object intended to create an awareness of a time scale that reaches far beyond any person’s life span is The 10,000 Year Clock, a very slow clock of monumental scale that is currently being built inside a remote mountain in Texas. When finished, the clock will measure hours, days, years, centuries and millennia for 10 000 years and the idea is to give visitors a feeling of being inside the passing of time.

‘In texts about the clock, years are written with five digits instead of four, so 2016 is written 02016 as a reminder that the initial zero will eventually change to 1, 2, 3 and so on.’

Can give rise to insights about time and space

It is difficult to understand time on scales that cannot be directly related to human life, such as extremely short or extremely long time periods. For an understanding to occur, a person has to become aware of perspectives that differ from those in everyday life, according to Sandahl.

Earthrise at Christmas (1968), the first photo of Earth taken by a person in space, is a good example of a visual representation that opened up people to a new, large-scale perspective. The picture of the fragile little blue planet that rises above the grey lunar landscape, surrounded by an endless black space, represented a new, expanded and breath-taking perspective of time and the universe we live in.

The picture showed people that their planet stands out from its cosmic surroundings in a dramatic way. It enabled humankind to realise its position in time and space and sparked a desire to take care of the planet.
‘Art and visualisations have an ability to impact their beholder at a very deep level. Visual expressions can shed light on ethical issues, they can both inspire and instil concern, they can give people new insights about time and space – a task that at this point in history seems to be one of its most important,’ says Ann-Louise Sandahl.

Click the links below to read about some of the works of art that Ann-Louise Sandahl has studied:

More information:
Ann-Louise Sandahl, doctoral student in Art History and Visual Studies and artist, tel.: +46 (0)705 53 30 76, +46 (0)340 848 07, email:

Thesis title: Temporality in Visual Culture. On the Contemporary Aesthetics of Heterochrony
Date, time and venue of the thesis defence event: Friday 9 September 2016 at 1.15 pm, Department of Cultural Sciences, Vera Sandbergs allé 8, Gothenburg
External reviewer: Professor Max Liljefors, Lund University
The thesis can be ordered from: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, Box 222, 405 30 Gothenburg