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the glorious time machine

January 1, 2010

[NYTimes] In a way it seems a trifle odd that artworks are such superb instruments of time travel. Time is not visual, after all, unlike space. And most works in museums are static, unchanging objects. And yet art is loaded and layered with different forms of time and complexly linked to the past and the present and even the future. The longer they exist the more onionlike and synaptic they become.

For starters, each has withstood the test of time — a portentous phrase, but really no small thing: each object at the Met has been built to last by someone, for some reason. It may have fallen out of favor or fashion and lain undisturbed in the earth (or some attic) for centuries. But it remained intact long enough to be rediscovered, cherished once more, and studied, preserved and passed down through the generations for more of the same.

A special condition of art encourages such treatment. Each piece of it is a concentration or distillation of ideas, inspiration, sensibility and craftsmanship into a frozen, obdurately physical moment that focuses our attention and then unfolds in the mind. Sometimes what unfolds is a chronological narrative conveyed by a single representative image or a series of them; sometimes it is an intense experience that seems to takes you out of time, yet persists and reverberates in the echo chamber of personal memory. Usually it is a combination of both.

At the Met time is everywhere, even in the labels, which not only tell us when a work was made but also when it entered the collection, joining the other moving parts of the glorious time machine.

But there are certain artworks that make us experience time with particular sharpness, deepening our emotional understanding of its nature. What follows is a tour of some of those pieces at the Met, arranged according to a few of the many ways time can inhabit art. These divisions are loose and permeable, as is inevitable with something as pervasive, powerful and unruly as time. (read)

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