Darren Almond: All things pass

by James Jack

Special To The Japan Times

A wall of 450 flip-clocks all display 15:26 in the entryway to “Second Thoughts” at Contemporary Art Gallery, Art Tower Mito. Seconds pass … CLICK, all synchronized to the minute. The sound of 15:27 is so overwhelming it’s surprising to see only one digit change: 6 to 7. Standing, waiting for 15:28, I ponder the moment, the point between what has passed and what is to come. Is this everything, or is it nothing? Just one second to the next. Then all the clocks flip to 8.

Darren Almond’s artistic investigation of the world could be said to be characterized by a deep interest in time. Largely renowned for video works, he often plays with our perception of duration as both a personal and a politically engaged subject. But his works are about much more than just time. They investigate existence, life, travel, endurance, cycles, industry and much more, as he explained in this recent interview.

What was your first encounter with Japan?

In 1998, (the curator) Takayo Iida invited me to be part of a British Video Art Show in Tokyo. I was very impressed with the way in which that was handled. At the time, video wasn’t the prevalent medium that was being addressed within the London art scene. I had only shot the one piece “Schwebebahn,” on 8 mm. I had been mainly working with the BBC, setting up direct links between my studio and a market, a prison and the Institute of Contemporary Arts.

In the first monograph published on your work, writer Martin Herbert stated you are “creating a blend of personal and social biography.” Does this apply to the works at Art Tower Mito?

Something had happened while producing this work, and that was an openness to accept biographical influences as part of the practice. This is most apparent in the central space (of the gallery), the video installation “Traction” becomes the point of balance for the show.

It is a blatant confessional conversation of a working man’s life — my Father’s. Within the piece you have Catholic undertones that are emphasized not only in color and composition but also by the silence of the strong female lead taken by my Mother.

Where does “Traction” fit into your “Anthropocene” section of video works?

On either side of the gallery, you find two recent video works, “Sometimes Still” and “All Things Pass”. Both are precisely choreographed multi-channel installations of an architectural scale. They are at once figurative and abstract; both address the passing of time within a limitless dimension.

So, with “Traction” you have a very finite human life and scale on which to reflect, which is book-ended by a spiritual practice and an architectural device that both transcend the scale of “self.”

What impact does the Tendai monk in your work “Sometimes Still,” have on us today?

You have encountered a Japanese monk who acts as a protagonist from within the darkness, a guide who has been close to the end. He has enlightened my experience of time here within this life, as he introduced me to a time frame that is known collectively as civil dawn. This is the low-lying blue-light moments before sunrise; in the video you see him offering a blessing over the slowly awakening city of Kyoto.

He introduced me to new light with which to photograph, from the valleys of Mount Hiei to the gardens of Monet.

How did the experience of running along with him at night affect you?

The running monk who, through extraordinary physical endurance and repetition of route along the same mountain path, attains an enlightenment after a grueling distance equal to that of completing an equatorial run around the earth. I realized the world that is around us is what I see from where I stand.

How did you achieve the poetry of water drops in “All Things Pass”?

Fueled by little more than my inquisitive nature, I visited the greatest of the step wells of the Rajasthani Desert.

Designed to catch rainwater during the wet season and store them for the dry season, the inverted pyramid of sorts is 13 stories deep and has sadly fallen into redundancy, an architectural wonder and now a national heritage site with extraordinary sophistication.

The well has 17 independent solutions for the interconnecting geometries, which are brought into line by the stonemasons as they form sandstone into a rational alignment with the heavens. When under a heavy downpour, the structure isn’t far from a sublime experience.

This is where the show ends — with a seemingly simple architectural solution that was devised for our survival, quite the antithesis of the show’s departure. All things pass.

Among your numeric paintings that deal with chance, I am mystified by the painting of a zero.

“Focus” is a two-part painting of a grounded zero in stark black and white, figurative in extreme, relative to “nothing,” without which we would have no attainable knowledge or conception of scale. Without the zero or naught, we would have no negative or positive. I like that we need to know nothing in order to understand anything.

“Darren Almond: Second Thoughts” at Contemporary Art Gallery, Art Tower Mito, runs till Feb. 2; open 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥800. Closed Mon. (except Jan. 13) and Jan. 14. arttowermito.or.jp