Do humans perceive the passage of time from some internal, eternal clock, or through external clues? On the one hand, there is an objective dimension tok measuring time — astronomic and measurable, directly related to sunlight and darkness cycles. On the other, society establishes rules, rhythms, and times for production and rest, historical times and cultural conventions related to dates and temporal perception, which also vary from person to person. There is biological time, psychological time, relative time and geologic time. Which measures time correctly? Perhaps time can be considered as an idea — one that functions in a subjective and relative way, but that can be measured with the help of instruments. In any case, for visual arts to deal with it, new tools of representations are required.
“What is time? We don’t know,” asks and responds Michel Siffre, French explorer and scientist whose underground experiments provided foundations for research in cronobiology. Cronobiology explores human biological rhythms. Siffre’s experiments consisted in isolating himself in a cave, without any kind of clock, watch or instrument for measuring time. He intended to explore geological formations, but mostly to study biological time — the cycles of wakefulness and sleep dictated by the needs of the body and beyond the effects of culture.
Interested in exploring these notions, artist collective Rosa Chancho constructed an artificial cavern in their workshop. The group also decided to continue Siffre’s investigations with one of their own — this time in La Caverna del Caos (Chaos Cavern) in the Catinzaco region in the Argentine province of La Rioja. They wanted to explore their own cronobiological rhythms and so they went into isolation collectively. The exhibition, Sopor, at Mite, relates the experience, transferring or “transcribing” it to the gallery space.
Rosa Chancho has translated this transformation into the exhibition space, thus turning the gallery into a cavern as well. The “void,” for instance, appears as a tangible object — a sculpture at the center of the room. It looks like a kind of timeless totem from the caverns, covered with craft paper. The sculpture represents, according to Rosa Chancho’s Javier Villa, the “hole of emptiness” that the group has used for discarding excrement.
The group has visually organized the exhibition around this sculptural, brown object of indefinite shape. On one of the walls around it, in front of the entrance, a board displays a sort of bibliography of caverns — Siffre’s journals, a scientific encyclopedia and pages from popular science magazines, graphics, comics, photos, sci-fi stories and comments on the vision of color. It provides a variety of fictional, scientific and pseudo-scientific literature, mixed with theoretical and practical texts about caverns, isolation and the exploration of unknown worlds.
Meanwhile, to the left, two snails with a red body slide across the image projected on the glass window overlooking the street.
On another wall, diagonally in front of the bibliography, hang nine framed pages transcribing the notes taken during the group’s experiences at Chaos Cavern. Beside it, a dark wooden stand supports two microphones that wait for a speaker who will pronounce a speech looking out the window over Santa Fe Avenue. On the glass panel, four projected images alternate at 20-minute intervals,in a sort of slow and endless PowerPoint presentation. The speaker is absent, but the traces of the speech still appear on a whiteboard showing graphics and the traces of detailed explanations, perhaps derived from the hallucinogenic imagination of a scientist that never arrived.
Reading Rosa Chancho’s annotations, the text becomes the center of the exhibition. It further explains how the group’s experiment hasn’t really concentrated on the specifically crono-biological effects or on the search for a scientific truth. Instead, it focused mostly on the symbolic implications of being isolated from light and the consequences of that on the mechanics of thought and memory. “Surrounded by darkness,” they point out, “with just a light bulb, memory stops capturing moments. You forget. After two or three ‘days’, we didn’t remember what had been done before. All was black.”
In the darkness, movements also take on a different shape and meaning. “We spent a long time without moving (…). It’s hard to tell who said what first and what came later,” notes Rosa Chancho. Siffre had also observed that he’d “had the impression of remaining motionless. However, I knew I was being carried by the continuous flux of time. Time was the only moving thing through which I was advancing. I tried to determine it, and each night, I knew I had failed.”
However, when a light unexpectedly floods the nave, it alters the “perception of space, perspective, volume, emptiness and color. Images disappear. Symbolic, associative thinking vanishes. No point is more special than the others to look at.” The limits between the body and the space surrounding it begin to melt. Stalactite and mud become embedded in bones, skin and mouth.
When thought can’t fix on any particular object, the process of metamorphosis is permanent and in this subterranean logic, dreams reproduce daily reality from the outside world.
In these experiences of ethereal obscurity, of a long endless day, in the absolute absence of cycles that alternate between day and night, the notions of “before” and “after” disappear. Without them, narration ceases to make sense, deeply transforming the meaning and shape of all things and thoughts.
Although Siffre distinguished between night, darkness, opacity and shadow, their meanings continued to trouble him: “Subterranean night isn’t the cosmic night; opacity is absolute. In this world where all is nothing, one thing persists, my thought: Is it going to sink into the shadow of endless nothingness too?”