Tarkovsky: Sculpting in Time

I. Sculpting in Time

Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky saw film as ‘sculpting in time’, a concept which can be contemplated through philosophical and artistic notions of duration, presence and perception, of materiality and embodiment. But how are these ideas manifested and contradicted in the director’s own cinematic endeavours? To what extent can time itself be defined as a sculptural and cinematic dimension, and how far can film be seen as an artistic manifestation of time?

Time is a concept pondered by philosophers and artists, poets and scientists alike. Our perception of time is subjective and fluid, different for each of us – one person’s time passes slower or faster than another’s at any given moment. Time is a condition for the existence of ‘I’; it links an individual personality to the conditions of its existence, a marker of human subjectivity and contemporaneity. Art Critic Boris Groys writes of the ‘con-temporary’, being with rather than in or out of time. The present is on the threshold between past and future, already past at each moment of existence. ‘Only if the present passes away at the very moment of its existence, can the new present come to be’, argues curator Susanne Gaensheimer, thus the past is inherent in the present, and ‘if it was not already past at the same time as being present, the present would never pass on’. The recollection of the present exists simultaneously with that very present, in a perpetual déjà vu, therefore we are always ‘with’ time, and it with us, but never ‘in’ or ‘out’ of it.

Time can be conceived of as a shifting yet continuous form made up of different modes of temporality, many of which are dealt with in some way by Tarkovsky. Time can be that of history, of memory, a remembered past, or something yet to come, a sense of futurity. It can signal the present, the here and now, which can be divided in the context of film into the present of filming and the various presents of successive viewing events.


II. Cinematic Time

Film is inherently a time-based art form, traditionally used to transport the viewer to another place, age, or time zone, ‘organising spatially localisable visual elements in time’. It is temporally polysemous, siting the viewer in more than one place and time at once, in a separation of body and mind. This proposes a figura, a projection of a past or future time or event which in no way undermines the literal fact of the present. There occurs a transcendence of the physical body, without denying the literal reality of that body – it is sited in two places and times simultaneously. The viewer is absorbed into the time of the film or narrative yet still exists in the time-frame of present lived time. In traditional narrative film the mind is elsewhere – in the past, future, or geographically distant – while the body remains in the physical world of the here and now. For example in Tarkovsky’s ANDREI RUBLEV (1966), the turbulent medieval world of the great icon painter which is shown on screen exists simultaneous to the time of the viewer and that of the film’s making and setting, just as the viewer exists in their own present and that of the past portrayed.

Film is contemporary to the time in which it is made and that in which it is viewed, as well as, in narrative film, the time in which it is set. The viewer is thus contemporary to the artist, the artwork, and other viewers past, present and future. Art creates interhuman relationships, an idea which expands to the relationships between humans and inanimate objects or works of art. Media theorist Laura U. Marks calls the way an object can encode social processes its ‘aura’, explaining how a relationship to an object can become like that to another human being through the object’s prior contact with that person, as the ‘energy field that is held to emanate from a living being’ is transferred to the object itself. An early draft of Wordsworth’s poem The Ruined Cottage provides a resonant illustration: ‘…time has been / When everyday the touch of human hand / Disturbed the stillness’. This is particularly relevant given film’s inherently poetic indexicality, the beauty of a compositional structure which necessitates the being-together of object and film at the moment of filming. Later, at the moment of projection, there occurs a cross-identification, a mutual transformation between one viewer and another, between viewer and work. Each is altered by the presence of the other through shared time, space or experience. This does not have to be literal co-presence, however. Each context and screening of a film adds to its meaning so that the film carries within its very ‘skin’ traces of previous viewings. It becomes a ‘fossil’ of the trace left by another encounter, with a person, situation or material object.


III. Presence, Observation, Passage

Tarkovsky made films of a narrative tradition familiar to many viewers, but while conventional narrative cinema employs storyline as a ‘spatio-temporal regulator’, an organisational tool for the treatment of space and time, Tarkovsky’s ‘loose narratives’ are non-linear and non-progressive, displacing spatial coordinates and forcing ‘temporal leaps’ into a ‘cinematic labyrinth’. Tarkovsky believed that true time is contained within film by the witness of the reality facing it at the time of filming, that this truth can be found in the cinematic. The director simply records, and time is inherent in the footage – editing is just ordering, arrangement and selection, the ‘sculpting’ of these imprints of time. The cinematic is based on observation, time printed in factual forms and manifestations, the cinema image simply the observation of a phenomenon passing through time, ‘to convey a sense of fact and texture, dwelling and changing in time’. In STALKER (1979) – a tour-de-force of a film tracking the journey of three men into a devastated future landscape in search of their deepest desires and selves – colour in autumn leaves, moss-blanketed rocks, rust-riven train carriages and abandoned military tanks reveals the texture and condition of physical matter over time, suggests gradual change, ‘nature immersed in duration’. Current time cannot be removed from the image – it ‘lives within time and time within it’, in each frame.

This time is not necessarily singular, however. Meaning shifts with culture and the course of history; the past is more stable than the present, lived experience acquires weight in recollection. Time is ‘tangible’ when one can sense something significant beyond the events on the screen, not limited to the visual – the film is bigger than it is, there are more thoughts and more ideas than the author consciously evokes. Layers are established over time, images are evocative of other things, due, according to Tarkovsky’s logic, to the observed truth contained within the image. Images are all referential, all events contingent on other events, referring to objects or people not materially present. The detritus of vehicles in STALKER signifies human life once present, people once living, a metaphorical echo of cinema as absence made present. Even dust and scratches on a piece of film refer to the process of its making, and the subject of an image may be absent while its recorded trace remains present and real. Tarkovsky’s historical films contain the physicality of the past in their heightened observation of the present. In ANDREI RUBLEV the viewer is offered a real world tangible to the viewer in their own present, rather than an ancient Russian world so stylised that it is not believable. Tarkovsky presents what one could call a human truth – it is a truth of direct observation rather than an academic truth of archaeology and ethnography. Truth, in the context of film, means to acknowledge the reality of what it is capturing. It is not enough to show reconstruction of a past time we know is gone: it is arguably truer to acknowledge the very present nature of time. Scenes of half- painted stone churches and wooden scaffolds, of belted tunics and wise-man beards present the modern viewer’s idea of what the reality of the time would have been.

Exact reconstruction is impossible. Time is irreversible, one cannot bring back the past. In STALKER we hear the plea ‘How do we get back?’ The answer? ‘Here, you don’t get back’. Tarkovsky’s awareness of the time was different to that of those who lived then, just as ours is different to his. But in the context of art, this is unproblematic. Rublev’s painting of the Trinity (1411 or 1425-27) is thought of differently now to then, yet still lives on. A viewer at the time it was made could relate to it just as one can relate to it now – it links those who lived then and those living now, in its emotive human and spiritual meaning. To shift to another mode of temporality, Tarkovsky’s treatment of the future is equally grounded in present-tense observation. In his science-fiction films, STALKER and SOLARIS (1979), he shows that anything will seem real if based on things seen in the past or recognisable in the present, just as he makes history real in ANDREI RUBLEV. Within film, which makes visible the invisible, science-fiction can make possible the impossible if it resounds clearly enough in the reality of the present. Hallucinations and strange happenings in SOLARIS question the nature of memory, believable in their juxtapositions of real and experienced things. During his investigations of the failure of the scientific mission aboard a space station orbiting fictional planet Solaris, the film’s protagonist, psychologist Kris Kelvin, begins to suffer from the same psychological disturbances which he is observing in his colleagues. Fevered dreams and memories of his long-deceased young wife Hari are so vivid to him that the romantic relationship between them begins again as she appears to him nightly in her pre-suicidal form. Close-ups of the texture of her hair, her skin, the folds of her clothes, coincide with Kelvin’s raw emotion and confused thoughts to make this apparition lifelike, human and real. In this attention to minutiae Tarkovsky sculpts in the tangible details of the present everyday and the future depicted, thereby sculpting in time itself.

French theorist, writer and filmmaker Guy Debord describes the consciousness of dreams as a lived reality made up of observed forms of life, elements of reality refracted in sleep’s layer of consciousness. In the dream sequence in STALKER, the viewer is mesmerised and drawn in to underwater visions of syringes, old coins, worn religious icons, familiar items in the foreign wasteland of the Zone, signs of a future past that is our present, ‘an hallucination that is also a fact’. A whispered Biblical passage from Revelation sounds apocalyptic and strange, rendered unrecognisable yet familiar in combination with these out-of-context relics. The camera passes slowly and contemplatively over these refracted, watery objects, so close they are almost rendered abstract. The only suggestion of the passing of time is the subtle ripple of water in a tentative breeze. These long tracking scenes embody the passing of time – becoming, change, passage – but the form of what passes does not change.

Tarkovsky captures, as philosopher Gilles Deleuze has argued, ‘a little time in its pure state…everything that changes is in time but time itself does not change’. Deleuze terms these moments not Movement-Images but Time-Images, ‘purely optical situations’. He defines the Movement-Image as the sensory-motor narrative process in which characters in certain situations act upon what they perceive, and past, present and future are clearly distinguished and chronologically defined. A Time-Image, however, is non-chronological, with no sense of action-reaction linearity or definitive delineation of past, present and future tense. A direct Time-Image ‘gives what changes the unchanging form in which the change is produced’. Tarkovsky is against ‘dead’ still-life images, but the idea of the Time-Image, of perception as a cinematographic process offering ‘snapshots’ from ‘passing’ reality, could be applied to his long tracking passages. Examples include the aforementioned dream sequence, or the six-minute scene in STALKER which, focusing on the back of Writer’s head, documents the passing barren landscape of a journey along miles of disused train tracks. Nothing and yet everything happens. One cannot tell how much time has passed or is passing, as ‘landscapes become hallucinatory…their nature cannot be explained in a simply spatial way. They imply non-localisable relations. These are direct presentations of time’. But in the elevation of the temporal plane, there is no disruption of spatial continuity; time is spatialised, tangible as it envelops the viewer. Film as a series of frozen snapshots of time is melted into spatio-temporal continuity so that when the black-and-white image symbolically emerges into full colour upon entry into the Zone the change is imperceptible, the exact moment of transformation simply one in a continuation of many. The journey is ‘within the finite but it is impossible to discern the length of finitude’, entering a ‘chronic non-chronological’ time, paradoxically immeasurable and tangible.

IV. Haptic visuality

Tarkovsky states that the director should ‘fix time in its indices perceptible to the senses’, in the movement of persons through space, the echo of laughter, the sounds of water, in a bid to make time sensible, visible and of sound. Laura U. Marks expands on this idea of sense perception, writing of ‘haptic visuality’ in cinema, of touching an object with the eyes. She believes that knowledge is embodied – concrete, perceptible, incorporated into the perceiving body – and that the skin possesses its own memory so that by seeing an object on-screen sensations of previous tactile encounters are reembodied. Memory is embodied in the object whether it is physically present or not. Inscribed on the very ‘skin of the film’, the object is simultaneously present and absent. The film bears witness to the object and thereby transfers its presence. The representation of the object on screen cannot replace its physical presence, but can induce the physical memory of its presence. The object is tangible on screen yet intangible, just as a memory can seem tangible in a physically present object but remain out of reach. An object, even when physically present, can never satisfy the memory it evokes. It is a ‘mute witness to history’, present in space yet distant in time, just as memory itself is the embodied manifestation of absence and presence. In remembering we bring the past into the present and the present into the past.

American avant-garde filmmaker Hollis Frampton questions the very nature of memory in NOSTALGIA (1971; not to be confused with Tarkovsky’s 1983 film of the same name), made only eight years before STALKER, using the evocative power of sound before and after the appearance of images. Ten photographs slowly burn on a gas ring, one by one, beautifully and hypnotically curling then reduced to ash. The resonant destruction of each image is accompanied by a spoken description of the previous, so that the first virtual images are imagined, then the recollection of imagined images serves as a projection of future ones. Memory of the past is intermingled with experience of the present and imagining of the future until past, present and future are one.


V. Editing and Montage

Montage of the kind used by Frampton shows ‘relations of time in the succession of images’ – it is indirect, tries to create a sense of time, rather than acknowledging the time already inherent in the image. Techniques of editing and montage articulate a post-production aspect of ‘sculpting in time’, by shaping and ordering captured footage. German curator Susanne Gaensheimer claims that the shot is a direct ‘form of time in image’, capturing time in its true form through film’s indexicality. But if, as Tarkovsky also professes, time is captured in the shot, inherent in the image, how does editing alter the time frame? The course of time within the frame is defined as rhythm, so that ‘time pulsates through the blood vessels of the film, making it alive’, with varying rhythmic pressure. Editing simply organises it according to its own intrinsic pattern. Once recorded on film, time is there, given, immutable, even when intensely subjective. ‘Just as life, constantly moving and changing, allows everyone to interpret and feel each moment in his own way…a real picture, recording on film the time which flows beyond the edges of the frame, lives within time if time lives within it’. This subjectivity applies to director as well as audience, as each has his own innate sense of rhythm, undertaking in the editing process his own search for and method of sculpting in time.

The grand master of Russian cinema Sergei Eisenstein, however, believed that montage is the ‘essence of cinema’, found not in the images themselves but in relations between them. In BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (1925), montage ‘puts ideas into motion’ and ‘shapes the poetic form’ of the film through conflicting consecutive images and juxtapositions. A shot of a baby in a pram follows the image of massacred bodies, aiming to bring two distinct events together to suggest a new meaning for both images through their synthesis. But while Eisenstein was an important influence on thinking about the bringing together of different worlds and thus times, the cinematic is surely more than a constructed set of mechanised relations, not ‘all ideas can be transposed into the stimuli of associations’. Images are surely already symbolic, not rendered thus. Rather than sculpting in time, montage suggests a process of sculpting in associations. Time, according to Tarkovsky, flows in a film ‘not by virtue but in defiance of montage-cuts’. So while Eisenstein’s conception of montage ranges throughout his theoretical career from the optical effect of reproducing movement, to emotional or psychological associations, to the intellectual or metaphorical leap between images in the ‘absolute liberation of the action from its determination by time and space’, in Tarkovsky’s view this is insufficient in the image itself is empty of meaning in time.


VI. Materiality

With analogue film, film and object are inextricable. Light inscribes the object onto the physical material of the celluloid, granting it what philosopher Roland Barthes terms an eternal ‘thereness’, so that from that moment its absence and presence are simultaneous. It is ‘irrefutably present, yet already deferred’, the celluloid a material manifestation of captured time. The film embodies production as a record of its own making, at once object and procedure, indexical and real. It is ‘alchemical, about light and dark’, transmuting the ordinary into the extraordinary, material life and light into cinematic experience. Structuralist filmmaker and theorist Stan Brakhage adopted the concept of light being captured within film, when the object off which it bounces is ‘done with it’ – light for him is a ‘carrier…that makes everything visible’, so that everything that has taken shape on earth has had its shape defined for it by light before it came into existence. Each being or object possesses an intrinsic light which emanates from within so that, in the words of Scotus Erigena, ‘all things that are, are light’.


VII. Projection, Duration, Perception

This sense of awareness, of being in space, is what Maurice Merleau-Ponty termed the ‘phenomenology of perception’. For Rosalind Krauss, American art critic and founder of art journal October, it is the temporal experience of material reality, as the bodily effort required to move in space, or indeed to remain still, serves as a reminder of the passing of time, the temporality of experience. Perception thus activates a preobjectival sense usually experienced with the viewing of sculpture, so that by looking around and ahead at the same time as inhabiting one’s own never totally static the viewer experiences where they are yet also where they will be. Though Krauss was referring to traditional notions of sculpture when she claimed in 1979 that it could occupy an ‘expanded field’ whereby former demarcations of medium and inhabitance of space no longer apply, one could argue that this can be expanded even further so that a film could thus be a sculpture, blurring boundaries between what were termed, respectively, the art of time and the art of space. The spaces of film and physical reality become one; ‘ideas are made into space but not objects…objects made into space but not ideas’. The viewers, in their living, breathing materiality, inhabit the ‘errant space’ of cinema as Deleuze’s Time-Image is liberated from space’.

This is not, however, the ‘haptic visuality’ of Tarkovsky’s spectator-screen perception, but real sensory experience, not the triggering of remembered sensations of touch but present-tense perception of surrounding space. But how can light be tactile, sensuous to anything but the eye? Light is intangible, cannot be touched. Light is arguably more illusory than Tarkovsky’s on-screen space, but it is precisely in the texture Tarkovsky so beautifully conveys that it becomes tangible. It provokes in the viewer a hypersensitivity to the perception of barely sensual phenomena. The cinema in its roaring, quiet attentiveness draws attention to the far-from-silent nature of being-in-time. The viewer becomes more aware of his or her breath and that of others, of their own and other bodies, of ambient noise and light. Modern-day philosopher Peter Osborne writes of ‘reception in distraction’: here, film both distracts and is received in distraction. It is the object of ‘contemplative immersion’, complete absorption to the point of apperception. The viewer’s attention is drawn to the clanking, whirring, sighing of celluloid moving through a projector, the mechanics of film-making. The self-perpetuating projector renders the work as apocalyptic and strange as Tarkovskian scenes of abandoned machines in STALKER and eerie near- silence in IVAN’S CHILDHOOD, in which a flooded forest seems to immerse its self-enclosing population of half-drowned trees in reverent, even fearful, quietness. Impossibly bright and loud seem the light and sounds of the outside world as the viewer is implicated in the work in its intersubjective existence, situated as a kind of observer whether next to a stranger or alone, much as the camera takes the role of detached observer of the effects of light on water, the aimless movements of people on the periphery.

The heightened awareness of the viewer in the moment of projection is similar to that of the characters of STALKER. As they venture into the mythical Zone, a barren land strange yet familiar, foreign in its similarity to the world from whence they came, one man utters ‘how quiet it is’, but this is a quietness made up of the sounds of birds, wind and water. French film director Robert Bresson wrote that the world shown is simply ‘this world perceived with unprecedented attentiveness’. Film ‘makes visible what…might never have been seen’. As they enter the Zone the three men cross into a world already hidden beneath the surface of their own. Their travels simply bring them back to the here and now, as attention and duration are engaged in presence and existence in time.

Philosopher Henri Bergson defines a consciousness of ‘pure duration’, wherein film outlasts the initial state of  perception. There is no distinction between present and prior states, just continuity, the non-hierarchical unfolding of perceptual activity. The time of composition is simultaneously past, present and future and knowledge is endlessly built on experience in time, in a process of temporalisation. Each frame of memory is layered onto the present, the future layered on the past; there is no stasis, only duration. It is for the viewer an extremely present experience of ‘sculpting in time’.


VIII. The search for time

To conclude, then, Andrei Tarkovsky captures time as a cinematic and sculptural dimension in the process of making art, engaging in a practice of ‘sculpting in time’. He takes time as a key consideration, even medium, in filmmaking. He makes past and future time tangible in the present, engaging in the viewer a sense of haptic visuality through the observed image of the real filmed present on screen. He is a sculptor in time, redefining that very materiality as ephemeral light and engaging both time and space as he releases the cinematic from its restriction to a flat screen into three-dimensionality. Tarkovsky, with his ideas of indexicality, of light inscribing time into filmic image, distils cinema to light, to ‘give light a dimension in time’, and thereby distils cinema to the search for time itself. He undertakes, through cinematic explorations of duration, embodiment and materiality, presence and perception, the very search for time.

So can film, as Tarkovsky proposed, be described as sculpting in time, as the artistic manifestation of the mystery of time? In his aesthetically beautiful yet poetically real films, the great director addresses issues such as truth, contemporaneity and time; history, presence and future. He prompts a return to the here and now, to the reality of art, our bodies and the world in their being in space and time. He asks us to contemplate what, and where, is time, and how do we exist within it?


One thought on “Tarkovsky: Sculpting in Time”

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