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Els Dietvorst & Dirk Braeckman on Time/the afterlife

‘Our decline is inescapable, but let’s at least give it the lustre of beauty.’

It was 2009 and a warm day in my garden in Brussels, we were drinking mint tea and eating biscuits. Between us lay eight books (Tacita Dean, The Whole Earth Catalogue, Gerhard Richter’s Atlas, La photographie pauvre, Flaubert, etc.) and a yellowed newspaper article (about Rainer Maria Rilke und die Bildende Kunst), which led our conversation towards things we had in common: humanity and commitment, honesty and necessity, utopia, curiosity, fragility.
And we acknowledged our unease. About time. About taking time. Unease about the future of the world, but also unease about the future of art. The future of the artist. 
What we had in mind was a book which would be a collection of ideas, writing and images. A collection which would start with a strictly personal invitation – a real “letter” – from the curators to a large number of people – close to home or in far-away places – people with whom they feel a connection of one sort or another or whose words or works are in some way connected to their own approach.  The contents of the time festival book took shape on the basis of contacts and correspondence with these people in an organic process and tries to do justice to the complexity of the project. Not as a result of coercive requests, but more by means of a chain of related or conflicting ideas and often serendipitously, with something unexpected and useful turning up in the process of searching for something entirely different. 

It is June 2019. We are sitting outside on a warm day in Ostend. Dirk is showing me articles he has collected.
“A million plants and animals are threatened with extinction due to human activity. In order to reduce its impact, humanity must reinvent itself.” 

In response I place “Art Can Help” by Robert Adams on the table. 
“It is the responsibility of artists to pay attention to the world, pleasant or otherwise, and to help us live respectfully in it. Artists do this by keeping their curiosity and moral sense alive, and by sharing with us their gift for metaphor. Often this means finding similarities between observable fact and inner experience, between birds in a vacant lot, say, and intuition worthy of Genesis.
More than anything else, beauty is what distinguishes art. Beauty is never less than a mystery, but it has within it a promise.
In this way, art encourages us to gratitude and engagement, and is of both personal and civic consequence.”

This is the moment we decide that Robert Adams will be one of the key figures to be interviewed and invited for Time 2019. Robert Adams, now 82, became known for his pictures and his book “Turning Back” illustrating the impact of clear-cutting in the American Northwest. 

This shows him to be a prophet with his photographs foretelling the contemporary destruction of the jungles of the Amazon basin. 

“If you get close to a clear cut what you are reminded of is a battle scene, everything is torn to pieces.
Art is in a desperate struggle with nihilism. That’s why I picture these clear cuts because I think you cannot look at this sort of scene very long, every day, and not change. Frankly something so close to despair and a desperate attempt to find a basis for hope.”
(Adams, 2019)

Dirk gives me a serious look and says, “We have to do something”. We both agree that our initial worries have grown. That we have to act not just as citizens but also as artists.

We thought that the questions raised in our 2009 book would have been resolved or become irrelevant but instead these questions have become even more urgent. We talked about we how we wanted to get young art students to think along with us about these questions, how art could be used differently, become more engaged, more radical and more committed, maybe outside the conventional art circuits. We agreed that we had to take a step beyond the boundaries of our own practice if we were to achieve anything. 

The Time 2009 book was to be the basis of new work and be the inspiration for the upcoming generation by creating awareness and confronting them with deeply engaging starting points. Indeed, there a lot of answers, suggestions and trigger points already present in the book. We agreed we would take the content of Time 2009 as an invitation to work with, to think about, to engage with, in real life as artist to artist, scientist to artist and researcher to artist. 

Time 2019 is a think-tank, a place for dialogue and encounter, a place that offers a counterbalance to “the absent-mindedness of our fellow man” - a mental survival kit for the world.


Written by Els Dietvorst & Dirk Braeckman, who will give the masterclass 'Time is a book (is Time)', during ARTICULATE, the festival for research and arts.