Essays
Published in In my own time, Science Museum London, ISBN 978 1 900747 63 9

Cherry Blossom Time
Francis McKee

'Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the maples, singing songs, drinking wine, and diverting ourselves just in floating, floating…'

These lines from the 17th century Japanese writer Asai Ryoi have survived for 350 years. In them, he describes life in the ‘floating world’ of Edo, the old capital of Japan, in which pleasure and entertainment were combined with a heightened sensibility attuned to the beauty and transience of the seasons. The concept of the ‘floating world’ had its roots in Buddhist teaching where ‘Things are valuable to us precisely because they are so fragile, temporary, impermanent’ and our perception of life’s brief duration makes us realise that ‘A thousand years is a single night's dream.’

This sensibility is alluded to in Grace Weir’s Picture of the Floating World (2007), in which a woman simply observes the beauty of nature: goldfish lazing in a pond, a rain of cherry blossoms falling on grass, bubbles swirling and eddying on the water’s surface, the reds and yellows of a duck’s beak. We are vaguely aware that the scene takes place at the heart of an industrious city, yet the film focuses our attention on the rhythm of the seasons. At a certain point the bubbles on the water’s surface begin to rotate around each other, reminding us of planets orbiting the sun. We cannot be sure what we are seeing is real…

Bubbles, of course, have a long history in art as symbols of transience and in science today there are theories that an entire universe might blossom from a bubble of energy, that there may even be a stream of bubbles creating multiverses. Weir’s glimpse of the macrocosm in foam on the surface of a pond, though, has the effect of grounding contemporary physics and astronomy in the everyday experience of the world around us. The concept of time, as imagined today by scientists, often appears strange and challenging. Weir’s subtle series of images silently places their theories within a chain of allusions that at once gives us access to these ideas through the familiar experience of nature while also making strange the world we think we know well.

In a novel entitled Einstein’s Dreams, the writer Alan Lightman works in a similar way. A series of surreal chapters present the reader with multiple versions of the experience of time as dreamt by a young Einstein. At one point Lightman describes time as a sense which each person experiencing events according to their own sense of time. He goes on to explain that Some few people are born without any sense of time. As consequence, their sense of place becomes heightened to excruciating degree. They lie in tall grass and are questioned by poets and painters from all over the world. These time-deaf are beseeched to describe the precise placement of trees in the spring, the shape of snow on the Alps, the angle of sun on a church, the position of rivers, the location of moss, the pattern of birds in a flock. Yet the time-deaf are unable to speak what they know. For speech needs a sequence of words, spoken in time.

In her 20 minute silent film, A deep field for the time deaf (2007), Grace Weir presents the painstakingly slow unfolding of an image of deep space. To watch the piece in real time requires a recalibration of our expectations as a viewer of the moving image. Film demands action and moves relentlessly forward in linear time. Physics, however, tells us that the further we look into deep space, the further we look into the past. Kitty Ferguson puts this succinctly saying: Only comparatively recently have we realised that when we gaze at the stars we’re looking at the past. Light and other radiation don’t reach us instantaneously across space. They travel at approximately 300,000 kilometres (186,000 miles) per second – not a speed to be scoffed at – but the distances involved are so enormous that it takes billions of years for images of the most remote objects to flash across the universe to our telescopes, computer screens, and photographic plates. When such ancient light left its source, there was no human pondering the night sky. There is no way these images could get here quicker. Building more powerful telescopes doesn’t speed them up. We are like settlers in the old West waiting for the stagecoach to arrive, having to content ourselves with old news. And so, over the 20 minutes of Weir’s film we become aware that we are staring into the past. Gradually, too, we become aware of the medium Weir has chosen – film - which itself is composed of light.

A deep field for the time deaf also could be placed within alternative histories of cinema in which time and action refuse to conform mainstream plot and narrative. In his treatise on film, Sculpting in Time (1987), the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky argues that ‘the rhythm of the movement of time is there within the frame, as the sole organising force…’ Weir’s films often adhere to this principle, relishing long shots, lingering on scenes beyond any narrative imperative, privileging the simple presence of the landscape or the real time duration of an action.

In A little bit of unknown (2007) the film’s technique successfully employ precisely these kinds of shots within a larger, more orthodox documentary framework. As we might expect in a conventional film, the camera edits set up an encounter between Weir and physicist Paul Tod as if a student were arriving for a tutorial. Within that conventional framework, however, there are long observational shots of the sky, clouds skirting the sun as we hear of supernovas and black holes. There is a mimetic quality to the film work too. As we hear of searches for the black holes in night skies, the film traces a visit to a telescope at night, when the discussion turns to gases swirling into black holes we meditate on images of dark clouds and our familiar sky is rendered gaseous. Later, when a black hole is defined as ‘a region of space and time (space-time) from which you can’t escape’, we are caught within the ceiling dome of a closed observatory unable to see the world outside.

Tod has been offering his own simplified explanations of a black hole throughout this film but Weir offers a second, visual layer of interpretation that grounds the imagination in the world around us. This is something that goes to the heart of Grace Weir’s artistic practice and also harks back to the early roots of scientific experiment. In Leviathan and the Air-Pump (1985), Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer outline the foundations of experiment in the 17th century. They focus on the work of Robert Boyle who insisted that experiments should have a public dimension, being witnessed by others and the facts thereby established being broadcast as far as possible. The emphasis on performance and witnessing is something that runs through Weir’s work. Her images, in the medium of time and light, often embody the scientific point being made in her films. Simultaneously, they offer a gloss on the phenomena being observed, reminding us of our human perspective as observers of these phenomena.

In my own time (2007) offers the clearest example of this approach to film-making. The title itself echoes Einstein’s dictum that an observer influences the outcome of an experiment as Weir presents a work on time, in her own time or style. It also refers to a moment in the film where she tells a farmer to start milking a cow ‘in your own time.’ This rural episode gradually turns out to be an experiment as we discover that ancient measurements of time ‘were regarded in terms of direct experience.’ Other assertions on time in the film are accompanied by experimental performances with lasers, mirrors and Bunsen burners. Each though is couched in a colloquial, domestic setting in the Irish countryside. The camera idles in these scenes, following the progress of a dog, catching the light on the hills or minutely recording the crystalline raindrops on windows, and plants. Observers of phenomena in the film imprint themselves on our minds as they chat while waiting for an eclipse or gauge the quantity of milk a cow provides on a daily basis.

These moments ground the contemporary scientific theories of time in a longer historical tradition. Understanding how analogy and domestic standards for the measurement of time were used in the past helps us to consider that present theories of time may also be grounded in the personal, no matter how outlandish and complex they may appear. When Weir mentions Professor Ronald Mallet’s experiment on time travel it sounds futuristic and abstract. Newpaper articles though point out that ‘When he was 10 years old, his father died of a heart attack at age 33. After reading The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, Mallett was determined to find a way to go back and warn his father about the dangers of smoking.’ Science and our curiosity for knowledge, then, can often be found rooted in personal desires and motivations. The imperfect world of direct experience plays a vital role in our understanding of the more perfect theoretical concepts. Weir always reminds us of this and just as importantly she always keeps the wonder of science in focus. It is not coincidence that she highlights Paul Tod’s casual comment on singularities – the little bit of unknown. It is that unknown that makes science so fascinating. There is a magic to science that is often obscured by its complexities. Weir understand this and uses the medium of film to return us to the wonder. In my own time twice refers to Steven Spielberg, mentioning Close Encounters of the Third Kind and through the final images of a Delorean car, referring toBack to the Future (produced by Spielberg). These films recaptured the magic of cinema while pondering the nature of time and Weir traces this lineage right back to the Lumiere brothers and their actualities. In doing this she outlines the history of her own artistic medium and its close relationship to time, evolving almost in synchronicity with the theories of quantum physics and the big bang.