‘Tempus Fugit’ at the American Philosophical Society

To turn back the pages of time

15th Century 'Book of Hours': More comforting than a digital clock.
15th Century 'Book of Hours': More comforting than a digital clock.

In most contemporary art galleries or exhibits, the only thing on the walls as large as the artwork is a florid written statement from the artist or curator, to say nothing of the individual signs that accompany each piece.

Chicago-based artist Antonia Contro, in "Tempus Fugit," takes the opposite route, and it's an especially surprising choice for a show that pairs museum pieces with works of contemporary art: She resists the urge to post any text or titles alongside the pieces, leaving visitors free to browse the exhibition in the silent grip of their own imagined narratives.

At first glance, the white walls of the display, designed and built in a V-shape to evoke a giant open book in the American Philosophical Society's small gallery, seem to cry out for some written explanation of Contro's curious assemblages, which inhabit small, ingeniously-lit rectangular cubbies in the wall.

(To be sure, visitors can pick up a catalogue or an unobtrusive laminated sheet of brief but poetic explanations.)

Contro was commissioned by the Philosophical Society to select artifacts from the Society's collection and pair them with her own artwork. Consequently, the contents of nine boxes set into the walls walk a fine line between historical exhibit and artistic meditation. As the exhibit's title implies, the result reflects on the passage, perception and human measurement of time.

Sunrise over the Arctic

While visitors can easily come and go without perceiving the given titles of any of the pieces on exhibit, each piece does have a name, as well as a theme inspired by musical terms for timing. "Adagio" deals with geologic time, the slowest measure of all. Here, Contro's Nord/Sud (Tribute to Amundsen) combines cutout and collage to turn a weathered, rust-colored book cover into a sun rising over a map of the Arctic Circle.

It's grouped with a 19th-Century gold nugget, a piece of petrified wood donated to the Philosophical Society in the 1920s, and Contro's Le Alpi, a clay model of the Swiss Alps molded atop the wooden figure of a woman's shoe.

"Sognando" refers to astronomical and scientific measurement. This theme pairs Heaven's Dome, Contro's backlit aluminum cut-out, with a cucumber-like green glass tube used in Benjamin Franklin's experiments with static electricity in the 1750s.

In "Crescendo," Contro pairs her August (gouache on panels, one of which shows a lushly detailed pine bough whose needles are beginning to slide into watery oblivion) with an 1807 "Chronological, Historical and Biographical Chart." This chart branches like mutant aortas from Adam and Noah to the Republic of Carthage, from Alexander the Great to Charlemagne and the Republic of Holland, ending with the U.S. Founding Fathers and the Louisiana Purchase.

Darwin and a moth

A few other human-designed trees of time and development include an early 1960s computer model. In the associated materials, Contro muses that we forget time's eternally cyclical nature: "Our paradigms of linear time ignore the essential return."

Alongside the artifacts and art of the "Crescendo" box is a real treat: an opened 1860 First American Edition of Darwin's Origin of Species, displaying the book's only original graphic and Darwin's cryptic explanation for it: "The accompanying diagram will aid us in understanding this rather perplexing subject."

The next box, titled "Coda," includes an 1882 invitation to the "Funeral of Mr. Darwin" at Westminster Abbey, Wednesday April 26t, "at 12 o'clock precisely." Contro pairs it with a minute video installation (in collaboration with Joseph E. Merideth and Julie Naggs) that shows a single fluttering moth wing. As the grainy black image on a white field pulses into the distance and back again, it evokes a quivering protozoan or gamete before becoming a solitary wing. The viewer may be reminded of chaos theory's "butterfly effect" and consider that Darwin's theory continues to rock the world long after his death.

No didactic panels

The last box, titled "Aeon," pairs another tiny video installation of endlessly turning pages with a gorgeous illuminated "Book of Hours," probably from the 15th Century. Contro urges the viewer to consider that our modern demarcations of time"“ like digital clocks or LED displays"“ fail to offer the sense of comfort and order of the illustrated breviaries of the Middle Ages.

In another use of pages to signify the passage of time, the exhibit provides an audio component: While visitors browse the displays, an intermittent recording of rapidly turning book pages ripples through the room like a gentle rain.

"We force time into carefully calibrated vessels of our naming," Contro says of the exhibit's opening piece, which features the first known written time line.

At the opening reception earlier this month, Contro remarked that she "begged" the Philosophical Society's to leave out "didactic" panels that would have transformed an aesthetic experience into a historical or educational one. In this case, the choice to leave viewers free to name their own impressions of these pairings of artifact and art was a good one.

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.