Grace Weir
Published for Time tries all things, Institute of Physics, London 2019

Capturing time on film

Ruth Garde

The title of Grace Weir’s new commission for the Institute of Physics, Time Tries All Things, takes us hundreds, if not thousands of years back in time. From at least the early 16th century, this proverb and its variants has been used to suggest that time will test, judge, and ultimately determine the truth, whether of an event, claim or belief.

The irony is that while this proverb implies that time possesses the power to reveal the truth, Grace Weir’s film is a vision and an experience of time that is multi-faceted and exploratory, ambiguous, unsettling and occasionally deceptive. Drawing on extensive research and her close collaboration with theoretical physicists Professor David Berman of Queen Mary University of London and Professor Fay Dowker of Imperial College London, Grace Weir invites us to ponder the very nature of time, one of the most intractable questions of contemporary physics. Her film encourages us to question both our intuitive thinking about and our lived experiences of time.

Weir’s installation is saturated in time. It suffuses the film’s structure, style, sound and content. It materialises as a cinematic feature, a philosophical concept, a property of the universe, an object of scientific enquiry, and as a human experience. The film’s two channels, which run in parallel, have distinct editing styles. One focuses on Professor Berman at a desk in the Octagon Library at Queen Mary University of London, and is shot in one hypnotically slow and continuous take. The other, featuring Professor Dowker sitting in the Senior Common Room in the same institution, consists of static shots cut together. This stylistic contrast endows the film with a structural echo of the divergent theories of time proposed by Berman and Dowker. Berman questions our intuitions about time passing in a series of events; we humans move so slowly that we sense a distinction between time and space that is not how nature operates in reality. Meanwhile Dowker believes that our experience of events happening in discrete moments should be built into a theory of the universe dynamically “becoming”. We hear their voices meditating on the physics of time, both historical and current, and their own particular theoretical perspectives.

This dual presentation immediately confronts us with the ambiguities of its ‘cinematic’ time. This ambiguity is emphasised by the voiceovers, which are not synchronised with the images of the speakers, as well as by the film’s structure, in which certain images are seemingly repeated, interrupting any expectation of linearity. The close observer will notice that even the times on the clock tower, which features in each of the channels at different moments, are several hours apart. These slippages in the film’s chronology are uncanny and unsettling: here, time does not flow according to our lived experience or expectations of conventional film narrative.

One of the film’s replayed images is that of Weir herself, in the act of taking a photograph. We see this moment early in the film and again towards its end. At its heart, Time Tries All Things is an unfolding of this moment when time is captured, frozen. By means of this unfolding Weir explores the limitations of both photography and film as a medium to represent the elusive, fleeting quality of time. In their monologues, Dowker and Berman also speak of the limitations of language in representing time as it exists in nature. Artist and scientists are united by this preoccupation with the slippage between how time ‘is’ and its representation.

As we listen to Berman’s and Dowker’s commentaries, we see images that speak of our relationship with time, of its flow, and of our passage through it. Sunlight streaming through the Senior Common Room window (and the shadows it casts) is the astronomical manifestation by which humanity has measured time for millennia. Several shots of clocks remind us of the human need to construct, shape and measure time. A World War One monument is a poignant symbol of our urge to memorialise momentous events of our past. Lingering shots of the clock tower’s pillars and columns, redolent of Ancient Greek and Roman architecture, send us deep into human history, hinting at our impulse to segment and categorise time into ages. As the camera slowly circles around the Octagon library (the movement itself echoing the circular motion of clock hands, or perhaps hinting at an orbiting planet), it lingers on sculptural busts and plaques honouring great writers of the past, and surveys shelf upon shelf of books bearing witness to intellectual endeavour throughout history. This focus on the accretion of human knowledge, built over millennia, reminds us of the foundations on which current scientific theories of time have evolved.

The carving of a stone plaque, a central motif in the film, is itself a marker of the passage of time, both geological and human. We watch the metamorphosis of the stone as a scene is carved into being, the creative process harking back to bygone artistic practices.

The tableau of the carver, in his rural workshop visited by roaming chickens, is one example of the profoundly human focus of the film. This is a hallmark of much of Weir’s work: how she deftly intertwines the most complex cosmological questions with everyday activities. It is by means of these close-up, intimate details of human craft - hands sketching with pencils, carving with chisel and hammer, or staining stone with a clump of grass – that we gain access to the film’s profound themes. The same is true of the film’s elegantly framed shots of architecture. While we listen to Berman and Dowker ruminating on the fabric of the universe, from its unimaginably vast to incomprehensibly tiny components, the camera lingers on the everyday building blocks of our familiar urban fabric. We are invited to contemplate vast cosmological mysteries at a human scale, approaching the complex and the infinite through Weir’s poetic images of the earthbound.

There is a moment in the film where, with her characteristic elegance and precision, Weir unifies the two channels with images of hands drawing; on the left is Berman’s, sketching a diagram to articulate our experience of space and time. On the right is the carver, drawing the scene on the stone that is soon to be chiselled out. Like the film as a whole, the image marries scientific and artistic practice, epitomising the creative striving of both to make and convey meaning. The beauty of Time Tries All Things is that by interweaving these diverse disciplines, Grace Weir enriches and illuminates both.