Harald Szeemann, installation overview ‘a-Historical soundings’ (‘a-Historische Klanken’), Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, 1988. Photo © 2023 Jannes Linders
‘The end of art history’ – or just the end of linear time? A conversation with Julia Alting
Can the past or the future interrupt the present? Could a nonlinear approach to art historical time introduce more plurality to the discipline? Such questions are at the base of Julia Alting’s PhD-research at the University of Groningen. Cara Farnan met with her to discuss the possibilities, pitfalls and politics of temporal structures.
Could you begin by introducing your PHD project; Canon, Timeline, Trace: (Reviving) Nonlinear Approaches to Art Historical Time, which is supervised by Ann-Sophie Lehmann and Hanneke Grootenboer?
‘In my work I am specifically interested in critiques of art history’s basis in linear time. A traditional conception of time in art history, but also in history in general, is usually represented as a timeline that moves from the past to the present. So, conventionally, we base art history on a linear conception of time, in which firstly, the past flows in a unidirectional way to the present and the future; secondly, the past, present and future are separated from one another; and thirdly we tend to indicate historical moments as “points in time” on this linear timescale. Dominant temporal structures often operate in obscure ways: a first objective of my research is to highlight the importance of implicit time conceptualizations. A second objective is to investigate the consequences of a nonlinear conception of historical time for the discipline, asking what possible narratives open up if we do so. My overall research project is structured around three concepts: canon, timeline, and trace. I think a conception of nonlinear time in art history could potentially introduce more plurality to the discipline; or at least accompany the multiplicity of times better. Linear time complicates relationships between different times because it cannot encompass multiple times simultaneously, and presents the past as if it is “closed off” from the present. This is not to say that nonlinear time will solve all our problems; but just that it is worthwhile to see what it could offer us.’
You have said that one of the first objectives of your research is to highlight the importance of implicit time conceptualisations, could you explain a bit more what you mean by that?
‘Often when I start talking to people about my project, they’re sort of like “Ohh wow time, that’s a really big thing!”. I think it is also something that people really take for granted, especially linear time. There is a sense that linear time is common sense; we grow older and not younger. Something that I found really interesting when I was getting together the proposal for my PHD was the political aspect of linear time, and of those implicit time conceptualizations. They’re always obscured and they’re not made explicit. So one of the first objectives with my research is to really focus on the politics that are underlying temporal structures; the way we tell history and the way we tell art history specifically. I think that politically it’s important to do that because how we connect stories or how we connect historical events is very crucial to how we think of change, especially political change.’
‘Linear time complicates relationships between different times because it cannot encompass multiple times simultaneously, and presents the past as if it is “closed off” from the present’
Could you give an example?
‘ Before I got into my PHD research, one of the MA theses I wrote focused on an event in the Netherlands in 2002 celebrating the 400th anniversary of the VOC (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie/Dutch East India Company). I analysed different exhibitions that took place as a part of that, and the connections that were being made between the colonial past and the postcolonial present. The official account from the Dutch Government centred around entrepreneurship; positing the VOC as the first multinational. And then in contrast to that you had Shilpa Gupta, who made this work at the Scheepvaartmuseum (Maritime Museum) in Amsterdam, which was a completely different perspective that emphasised the continuity of violence between the colonial past and postcolonial present. Especially in the context of a postcolonial Netherlands, there is obviously a political aspect to how history is viewed.’
In using the word ‘revive’, you are acknowledging that this is not a new idea. How has non-linearity been approached within art history previously?
‘There have been many attempts to do so, but they have stayed more on the sidelines of the discipline and have not been taken up as much; or, so to say, they have not unsettled the hegemony of chronology. For example, Henri Focillon’s ideas on stratified time in the beginning of the 20th century, which inspired George Kubler’s The Shape of Time (1962), Georges Didi-Huberman’s work on anachrony, Aby Warburg’s Nachleben, the juxtapositions in André Malreux’s musée imaginaire, or something like Mieke Bal’s concept of ‘preposterous’ history, and Keith Moxey and Dan Karlholm’s recent volume on time in the history of art.
What is quite interesting in reading different philosophers or theorists on historical time is that often there is this opposition being created. For example Victoria Browne has this book Feminism, Time and Nonlinear History (2014) and in it she describes that there’s a lot of critique of history in general because of the singular perspective from which it’s been practised, and the oppressive side of it. However often the response to that is a complete abandonment of history. But I don’t want to throw away the baby with the bathwater, I don’t want to throw away history with linear time. When I read discussions around abolishing linear teleological time, it always sounds as though this is something completely new. But often with different kinds of activisms or critical thinking, when you look back historically there is always something there that can be interesting for the present. So for Victoria Browne or in the case of feminism, it’s very obvious that the wave model constructs a model of progression; with the second wave seen as representing solely white feminists and the third being more inclusive. But that idea completely denies the various forms of Black feminism that were already happening at the same time of these earlier waves.’
So how do you begin to formulate a different approach to non-linearity?
‘I have started my research focusing on a chapter around the concept of the timeline. This chapter looks into transhistorical curating and how different curators have tried to employ a nonlinear approach, specifically in collection presentations. As a part of my research I’m going to Rome to see the collection presentation at La Galleria Nazionale there. The collection presentation is called Time is out of Joint, and as its title indicates; it tries not to take a historical chronological approach, but to combine works from different times. That was super controversial when it was first opened in 2016. It was a huge debate in the Italian context where two art historians from the scientific board of the museum resigned and all these professors were saying “This is the end of art history!”. So in my chapter I look to this example but then also to Harald Szeemann’s a-Historische klanken in the Boijmans in 1988. And also to design by Lina Bo Bardi; the Crystal Easel display design for the São Paulo Museum of Art in 1968 – way earlier. So it’s quite funny in a way to see that in all these different times, this nonlinear approach is seen as super shocking and controversial again and again and again. Which I guess says a lot about art historians and the discipline.’
‘This nonlinear approach is seen as super shocking and controversial again and again and again. Which I guess says a lot about art historians and the discipline’
Why do you think this nonlinear approach, to art history specifically, is consistently shocking to people?
‘I never officially studied art history, and if you look at other disciplines like cultural analysis, visual culture, even gender studies and feminism; this approach is not controversial at all. However the linear chronological timeline is so implicated and is such a base frame of art history, and for the “story” of art. I recently wrote something about contemporary artwork alongside 16th century painting, and people have super strong feelings that this is “breaking the rules” or that it is not academic. Linear time and the timeline is a way to structure the discipline. I can’t remember who said this, but art history has the problem that it has too many objects, so the timeline is a device to organise that. And I guess on the other hand, the linear idea of time is a point of ideology, where it’s just really seen as common sense.’
Topics of colonialism and decolonial theory have already come up a little in our conversation. Could you talk a little about the connection between them and non-linear temporality?
‘I guess for me this was actually my introduction to the politics of time; these sort of decolonial critiques of history and of art history. Ann Laura Stoler has that great concept of duress, which is that the colonial past is pressing upon the present. Decolonial theory emphasises that the history of colonialism not only continues to the present, but heavily influences structures of thinking today; how we see race is the most obvious example. So that is a past that’s very active in the present. Therefore you cannot have this linear separation between past, present, and future. The past is still here because it’s influencing how we see difference in societies. And I guess with art history there’s also this demand and desire not to have the same old European story. Academics are realising that it is also tricky to incorporate those different histories within this big framework of art history because it is organised in a linear way. There’s not really a lot of space for plurality; there’s not really space for different conceptions of time. If you want to have an art history that’s not only taking place in Europe, you will have to incorporate different ideas of time and different places that are important. With linear time, that’s just not going to happen.’
Your project focuses on three main concepts; you have talked a bit about the timeline already, which is the current chapter you are working on. Let’s turn to the canon, which will be the concept you work on next. How could non-linearity disrupt our current ideas of the canon?
‘I think what’s funny is that often these things are already happening. Coming from the demands of the present to have a more inclusive story, there is already much more research and exhibitions and more women artists and artists of colour being bought for museum collections. I would say that this is already showcasing a nonlinear historical temporality, because guided by what we want for the present, we are changing our narratives or are changing the canon. But I think that there are also dangers to retroactively canonising. I once said this, and someone responded by saying “canonization is always retroactive,” and yes, of course. But I guess the problem is when the focus becomes too much on the personal identity of the artist – decontextualizing their work. Sometimes at exhibitions I get the feeling that women artists are getting isolated from their own place and time. Especially when we say that “oh they were doing exceptional work for their time!”. For example in discussions around the first abstract paintings – Malevich or Kandinsky or others – and then we realise that Hilma Af Klimt was so much earlier – but why are we so invested in pointing out “the firsts”? Additionally, women artists become positioned as if they are not implicated in their own time, as if they are sort of “ahead of their time” and not related to it at all. This is tentative but those are the things I’m thinking about for that chapter.’
How are you approaching all of this research? Do you work alone a lot, or do you also work with museums or other people and institutions?
‘A lot of the research is me, working by myself, which is different to some PHD students who have much larger research projects, but I quite like having my own project, which is just my own responsibility. I really have to plan it and make sure that it happens. I am also researching these different institutions, so I would go to the Boijmans to read about a-Historische klanken and Harald Szeemann. And for these exhibitions, I decided to highlight one or two objects in the exhibitions to see, what does this sort of non-linear approach bring out in the objects themselves, what does it emphasise? So in the Harald Szeemann show in the Boijmans it’s this super interesting portable cabinet from Sri Lanka placed next to a Man Ray sculpture. He (Szeemann) took works from all the different departments of the museum, combining contemporary works, which for him was the 80s, next to works from the 15th century. So this cabinet from the late 17th century was made in Sri Lanka and is placed next to the Man Ray sculpture L’Enigme d’Isidore Ducasse, the one with the blanket wrapped around a sewing machine.The focus of the exhibition lay mostly in aesthetics; what looks good together. But I became really fascinated with this cabinet because it’s one of the few non-western objects in the exhibition. I started researching from there; in the 18th century it was in the possession of this rich family and then eventually given to the museum, where I visited it in the depot. It was restored for a period of 10 years, it had been made with a tropical wood core covered in ivory, but all of the wood had decayed so it was replaced with European birch wood on the inside. It has had such a complicated life and there was not really a space for that in this exhibition. The main approach to it, by putting it next to the Man Ray, was to look at its surrealist or mysterious side, instead of there being a place for this very complicated history of the object. So yeah, these are different kinds of research methods. I have a file where I keep a list of possible case studies. I very purposefully didn’t want to focus on one artist or one time period or one place. I like that it’s eclectic. But that’s also a little bit of a challenge. I’m still thinking a lot about how to combine these aspects.’
‘Harald Szeemann took works from all the different departments of the Boijmans museum, combining contemporary works, which for him was the 80s, next to works from the 15th century’
What could you see as practical ways in which this nonlinear approach you are exploring might influence museums, institutions and art history in general as a discipline?
‘I’m starting with these concepts and analysing these case studies; asking what has been tried before, what can we take from that, what works, what didn’t work maybe? Where can we be critical? Then I hope that this will end with more of a propositional stance, where I can take something away from those case studies. Ultimately it does come down to how you structure a narrative, or how you formally give shape to nonlinear historical time. I think I tend to be sort of theoretical, so when I think “what would this actually look like?”, that would be interesting to tease out some more. With the analysis of case studies that I’ve done now with this chapter on the timeline and transhistorical curating, one of the pitfalls that emerges is the emphasis on the act of viewing in the present. The art objects are (mostly) arranged on the basis of aesthetics, and therefore easily reduced to their formal qualities. The complicated temporal layers or histories art objects always carry with them remain underemphasized: attention is directed mostly to how the juxtaposition of works together looks in the present, not the past or the future of the artworks. So that is what I would like to see; if there is a nonlinear approach, that it doesn’t become ahistorical and that there is space for all those different layers of history.’
What are you excited for as you move forward with your research?
‘Sometimes it still feels a bit like the beginning. I am now in my second year, but this year I was on sick leave for almost half a year. Just as I was getting into it everything had to stop for a while. One of the difficult things about doing a PHD, which is also really fun, is that you’re constantly balancing two things that have different senses of time. There’s the long term project, four maybe five years, and at the same time there’s all these other things that you’re doing, conferences you’re going to. I taught a course for the first time last semester which is really fun, but it also takes up a lot of your time; so there’s constantly different balancing of short term and long term tasks. In the PhD I’m doing a lot of types of research that are sort of new for me, which is really exciting. I also recently started interviewing people like Victoria Browne, I’m really excited to do that more. It’s been really good for my research. I’m not sure yet how it will feed into the writing; whether it will be its own section or if I’ll just refer back to what this artist or this curator has said. And of course I’m very excited to go to Rome and see the exhibition there, to do a lot of writing, and to keep interviewing and speaking to people!’
is a visual artist and educator