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What Is There in a Clock That Can Capture Time?


This exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art celebrates the European tradition of watchmaking as an artistic means of understanding time.

Time is fascinating, in the most sensitive sense of the word: it is enough to lend ourselves to contemplating the passage of time to feel submerged in its flow, hypnotized, wholly taken over by that irrepressible force, surrendering ourseles to the incomprehension that it inspires.

But at certain time our minds also attempt to fix time with intellectual resources, and its measurement is perhaps the best example of that. Contemplation takes place in parallel to restraint. Measuring time is the way that our species found to give meaning to that element of reality that in other ways could be terrible, just as Borges saw it:

Time is the substance of which I am made. Time is a river that snatches me, but I am the river; it is a tiger that destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire.

In this sense, measuring time becomes an art, both technically and ornamentally. Looking at the stars, following the passing of the seasons, calibrating a water clock or an egg timer, all of that requires careful moments of observation, registration and learning. And all of that knowledge found the perfect correspondence in the objects in which it materialized: those clocks that, between the simple and the incredible, took the abstract element of time to the palpable reality of the mechanisms in which it found expression.

Through March 2016, the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York houses an exhibition celebrating the luxury that accompanied the measurement of time between the 16th and 19th centuries in the construction of European clocks and watches: Wall clocks, pendulum clocks, clocks with mechanisms that signal the passing of an hour (such as the Swiss cuckoo clocks), heavy lounge clocks, precise astronomical clocks and an abundant and surprising etcetera that testifies to the desire of humans to understand time.

The majority of the clocks and watches are from the museum’s collection and its department of European Sculpture and Arts. The exhibition was curated by Clare Vincent and sought to create an encounter between the admirable artistry of the exterior of the clocks and watches and the precise techniques of their inner workings. The exhibition is accompanied by four books alluding to this same watchmaking tradition.

Without a doubt the exhibition presents a precious reminder that even though time presents itself in an incomprehensible form, or if we feel that it overwhelms us, there is an almost magical artifact created by us that appears to trap it.


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