I’m terrible at keeping journals. I admire their purpose, but I can never keep up with the commitment. I always stop to doodle and quickly get sick of hearing myself talk about the same things over and over.
Despite the distracting nature, I’m still fascinated by the concept of tracking growth over time. Some of my favorite artworks are those that do exactly that – without a clear end goal. Instead of developing an art piece based on an argument the artist wants to make, these works develop a framework for creating and let time take the reigns. Maybe the piece does make an argument, but it appears organically as the work incrementally changes. It’s not the driving force. It’s time-based, but instead of the “time as a medium” mindset of other “time-based” art forms like film or performance, this type of work invites the force of time to be a co-artist.
Bre Boersma’s 2018 Sunrise Trek project is a great example of this. Every morning for a summer, Boersma woke up at 5:45 a.m., took a picture of the sunrise and created a color palette of it. The framework is simple, but the results are intriguing. You can take a lot of conclusions from this work if you want – maybe we should wake up earlier, maybe we should appreciate sunrises more, but it’s not about the conclusions. It’s about the process of letting forces beyond our control drive what we make.
There’s a concept that information designer Giorgia Lupi calls “data humanism,” which champions the collection and visualization of subjective, complex and personal data. She makes highly rendered, sprawling depictions of gathered information that take time to interpret. Every one of Lupi’s graphs needs a key. Her infographics are beautiful, yes, but their delight goes beyond aesthetics. They’re a way of telling a story by inviting the listener to look closely and put together the pieces.
But not just any story. It’s always a personal story, as benign as showing every instance Lupi looked at a clock in a day and as emotionally heavy as representing the daily experiences of a child with a serious illness. Lupi knows and embraces the fact that these works cannot help but be subjective. That’s what communication is: a flawed interpretation and subsequent representation of a subject. We unavoidably filter everything we say, show, write and express through our own viewpoints. That’s what art is, too.
At a young age, I switched from keeping journals to sketchbooks. I’ve got piles of them at home, going back to when I was seven or eight years old. A lot of the sketches are embarrassing to look at now, and I probably won’t ever show them to anyone else. But I’m glad I kept them. It’s a record of change that I never could have predicted, both in the development of artistic skills and the development of my own personality.
I can track my growth over time, from drawing princesses as a child up through my emo comic book phase as a teenager. I can look through these drawings and pinpoint the moment I decided to go to art school. I have nearly 50 sketches of the same friend over the course of four years, showcasing not only my friend’s rapidly-changing haircuts, but the way our friendship changed over time.
The University of Michigan Museum of Art has a piece by Felix Gonzalez-Torres called “Untitled (March 5th) #2” which consists of two lightbulbs, cords intertwined, affixed to a wall. Either of the lightbulbs can go out at any time. One of them will always go out before the other, but the artist and the museum have no control over when that happens. It’s a simple but profound framework where the outcome is determined by time.
Gonzalez-Torres made this piece in response to the AIDS crisis after the 1991 diagnosis of his lover, Ross Laycock. It’s one of many lightbulb pieces he made in the years after, a way to deal with ideas of connection and mortality in a time of hurt and uncertainty.
Right now, we’re also living through a time of uncertainty. No one knows exactly how our days are going to progress or how life will change. It’s set a lot of people’s lives and art goals into limbo – canceled shows and lack of access to materials and equipment can be a major setback for professional and amateur artists alike. But rather than be consumed with frustration at the roadblocks to other projects, there’s another option: Start something new.
You don’t have to set up a time-consuming, complex framework. You don’t have to know how or when you’re going to end it. There’s something comforting about starting an art project without planning the finish. It means accepting that you don’t have total control over what happens next.
As someone who revels in careful routine and planning, it can be worrisome to give up any control. But you can still set parameters for yourself. Maybe you photograph all of your daily meals. Maybe you record yourself playing a song every day. Maybe you make color swatches based on your outfits. Maybe you stick with a tried-and-true journal. Maybe, if you’re like me, you just set aside daily time to sketch.
So if you’re stuck in limbo, worrying about the future, try starting a routine art practice. Let time work with you, and see what happens next.