Saturday, 11 July 2015

Time Shifts

Wimbledon’s on the telly again. It seems to have come around very quickly since last season. Is time compressing as I get older? Certainly the days no longer seem, as they used to, endless and ready to be filled with whatever adventures come my way; the weeks are pitilessly brief, leaving no time for idle frittering; the end of the month seems to loom as soon as it begins; and years feel rationed, inducing the onset of a certain anxiety to get things done before time runs out. All of which might explain a late-flowering of interest in subjects which, in my younger days, would have been peripheral to my consciousness.

Time is limited but subject matter is limitless – this is a formula which induces mild panic attacks, causing me to hop from one subject to another. This last week, for example, I saw a show of Jackson Pollock’s Black Paintings, an exhibition of Ancient Mayan artefacts, a contemporary dance production called The Tree of Codes, a documentary film about Scientology and the first 15 minutes of Shaun the Sheep. I also visited Vindolanda and took a short walk along a section of Hadrian’s Wall. But I have not been watching Wimbledon: you have to draw a line somewhere.

It’s nothing more than coincidence, but I did have pollock for dinner on the day I went to Jackson Pollock’s show and, while I haven’t found time to research whether the names have a common origin, I did read that the artist was (understandably) displeased by his nickname “Jack the Dripper”. Beyond that - and the wonderful paintings - the thing that struck me was that he died suddenly, at the age of 44 which, in my experience, is too young to get a real sense of time running short.

At the Mayan exhibition I studied a time-chart which showed the beginnings of Mayan civilisation coinciding with the building of Stonehenge at around 3000 BC. A few days previously I had been at Hadrian’s Wall, built by the Roman Army in the AD 120s when the Mayan civilisation still had another 1400 years to run before it was smashed by the Spanish colonisers. Dominant civilisations lasted for millennia back in the days before intercontinental travel became possible: they were able to develop and mature slowly and in relative isolation from each other. The contemplation of such long time-spans can be quite unsettling when you’re anxious about your own fleeting span.

I saw a lot of stonework, the tangible, durable legacy of these ancient civilisations. I haven’t been to Mexico to touch the ruined Mayan temples but I did lay a tentative finger on a large fragment of sculpture in the museum; I have stroked Stonehenge - back in the days before it was fenced off; and I patted the face of Hadrian’s Wall when I stopped for lunch last Thursday. I was attempting, in each case, to connect viscerally with the past by way of what remains. It’s a form of time-travelling which helps me to appreciate how people lived in ancient times, and it leaves me in awe at how hard they must have worked to construct their temples, walls and palaces.

Ancient civilisations pushed at the limits of what it was possible to build without the benefits of mechanisation and, in doing so, left us with impressive monuments, valuable information - and something else: objects were made by hand, generally according to the stylised pattern-books of the day, but every now and then we see the individual touches of the maker which reveal our common human traits. Their lives were different - more rigidly controlled and less free - despite which they found time for artistic expression. Perhaps mine is a quintessentially modern, first-world dilemma.

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