The Moment in an Hourglass, Jay Griffiths, 2022
One moment in my childhood was momentous. I was in the garden of my parents’ house. Alone. At night. Blanched by moonlight and terror.
Why? Because I was looking at the stars and was suddenly over-awed by the infinity of space, cowed and soul-broken to be so small and unmattering. I felt a pang, a sharp constriction of anguish at the centre of my being. It lasted only a moment but it was a total eclipse of the spirit.
Katie Paterson’s artwork The Moment is an hourglass, containing only dust from before the sun existed. It makes me feel again what I felt that night as a child: the enormity of space, the eternities of time.
As a child, my mind would never have grasped that there was such a thing as ‘before the sun’. My mind can hardly grasp it now.
Our sun was formed 4,567 million years ago, when a cloud of dust and gas (a nebula) collapsed under its own gravity; the cloud spun and flattened into a disk with our sun forming at its centre, while the disk’s outer edges became the solar system. Dust from that time is in the hourglass now, and, in that dust, all of life crouches like the ur-hermit in the vast desert of desolate space. That dust comes from before it all.
Before Grief existed, or Laughter.
Before Light, Life and Love.
Before Breath, Thought or Spirit.
Before Sky and Cloud.
Before the sand at the seashore felt flecks of life pick its way out onto the land.
Before that Sea.
Before Ears to hear the music of the spheres.
Before Chlorophyll’s love affair with sunlight to create green, green life.
Before the Alphabet.
Before Time, or any way of counting it.
Before the Solstice, times of prayer or my mother’s watch.
Before Levity and Leverets: Grace and Graylags.
Before East and Easter: West and Westerlies.
Before Day and Daisies: Night and Nightingales.
All this, before Sun was.
When the All that Is was still to come.
Paterson’s The Moment invites reflection. It is sited in places of concentrated spirit associated with the Venerable Bede. It is timed to measure fifteen minutes, a common duration of prayer or meditation. It is designed to make the viewer pause, participate and attend – for time is precious.
The hourglass symbolises time past, present and future. The past is the dust below, the ‘dust to dust’ of a life past; the future is the promise of time to come; the present, at the hourglass’s centre, is where time is most alive in the racing, tipping, collapsing sand. All the lines of the hourglass point to its centre, the small aperture of Now, the passing moment when time is most charged with life.
The heart of an hourglass is its narrowest point, and the Latin for ‘narrow’ is angustus. It means not just narrow but limited, constricted, choking. Angustus gives rise to many words: anxious, angst, anger, anxiety and indeed angina, that painful constriction at the heart.
Ours is the Age of Anxiety, and the hourglass is its quintessential expression. Time seems in short supply, making individuals feel hurried, pressured, driven by speed, and many people feel the angst of angry stress. Pervasive anxiety is the signature emotion of modernity. There is a longing for time to be sustained and sustaining, for the future to be infinite again: the sands of time stopped in their crazed cliff-edge rush, the hourglass held gently and laid down on its side, sleeping easy in the symbol of infinity, the ∞, the 8 on its side, the hourglass’s opposite.
An hourglass is different from other traditional time measures. The sundial shows time’s constant cycles, as does a clock face. Myth shows time as an infinite, self-replenishing thing: the Greek sun god Helios drives his horse-drawn chariot across the sky each day and the horses are refreshed by night. The river is a universal symbol of time-passing and, crucially, it flows and runs, but does not run out. Unlike these, the hourglass carries a warning: time is short and can run out. Contemporary symbolism casts the hourglass in a circle as the symbol of extinction, wherein the circle represents the world, with the stylized X as the hourglass, the two together showing how time is running out for so many species. Creatures are forced into extinction at the fastest rate ever, the life-spirit of this mosaic world being plunged into starving darkness. It would sadden the very sun.
Young people are suffering a never-before-known sickness, climate anxiety, as time is running out for the climate, the soil and the oceans. The Dominant Culture is breaching the limits of what the world can stand, a transgression like no other in its consequences. In a few decades, it has seized resources, broken the wise and necessary limits, taken more than its due, stolen life itself from the future. In its greed and in its hubris, it has endangered the coral reefs, the bees, the insects, the Everything.
There is a goddess for this moment. Her name is Nemesis.
She is a goddess who gets a bad press. She is maligned and misunderstood, spoken of as if she were spiteful, vengeful and punitive, as if she relishes the retribution she serves. Not so. She represents divine justice, specifically the importance of respecting boundaries. If you cross the line, if you break the laws that are inherent in physics and metaphysics alike, you will suffer Nemesis, swift and certain. Where hubris, there Nemesis. As a goddess she is often pictured with a sheaf of flames and an hourglass, the exact emblem of a defined and foreseeable limit.
We know our individual lifetime is limited. It is harder to think larger, to imagine humanity as a species having limited time. The Venerable Bede, though, a historian of the huge who attempted to calculate the age of the world, turned his mind to this. He wrote down one of the most exquisite images for the brevity of life, pictured as a sparrow flying for a moment through a banqueting hall. The image came from a king’s chief, but it was Bede who caught the image in flight and gave it wings.
The life of humanity upon Earth, he writes, is ‘like the swift flight of a sparrow through the mead-hall where you sit at supper in winter, with your Ealdormen and thanes, while the fire blazes in the midst and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad’. The sparrow flies in at one door and almost immediately out of another. Inside, for that brief moment, he is safe in the warm bright hall, but then vanishes again out of sight, ‘passing from winter to winter again. So, this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all’.
The cold dark eternities of that nothingness filled me with a dread anxiety as a child, seeing the Earth sunlit and bubbling with life in a vast abyss: the terror taught me that life is sacred, and time is short and precious. When, shortly after, I read these lines from the Rubaiyat of Omer Khayyam: ‘One moment in annihilation’s waste. One moment, of the Well of Life to taste’, I felt my anxiety was understood and comprehended.
Paterson’s The Moment comprehends the anxiety of the present. It is intended to be held in people’s hands, so that people feel its weight. The hand may hold this hourglass but the mind staggers under its symbolic freight, because right now, those of us alive today are holding the future in our hands. The power to destroy is in our hands, or the power to protect, and at this acute moment in history the sands of time are at their tipping point, falling fastest and most alarmingly. We know we could turn the hourglass again – that is its grace – but there is no certainty that we will. It is in our hands.
The hourglass tells us that we are exceeding the limits. Requiem‘s urn offers details.
Urns are vessels of ritual significance, containing sacrifices or relics; the ashes, perhaps, of a life lost. Here, this urn is cast to hold relics of another order of magnitude, a reliquary to memorialise not one lifetime but all Life. It holds a collection of dust from a huge variety of times and places, compared to which human history is just a speck of pollen in a bee’s pocket. The urn is an anthology of life, with, for example, remains of flowers, technofossils and jewellery; the bones of coral, and dust from the submerged Doggerland. An ordered index of destruction. If the hourglass makes the psyche stagger at ‘Nothingness’, the urn makes the mind aghast at the ‘Everything’ that is threatened.
Bede, when he was praying, spoke ‘not in a loud voice but with tears welling up from the depths of his heart’. The urn and the hourglass are created in the same spirit, the softly spoken prayer-art that carries such charge as can break the heart with the clarity of its vision: the unhallowed destruction of the living world. ‘Making this work was a distillation of pain and an act of truth-telling,’ Paterson says.
It hurts to have held in her hands dust that speaks of injury and death: she went on the dark web and bought cobalt, a conflict mineral; she held ash from a wildfire caused by global heating; plastic from a baby albatross; and stones from the first glacier to disappear in Iceland.
She suffered for what has been lost. She has also broken these things: smashed them, pulverised them. Crushing an example of the first writing was really difficult, she says, sobbing as she speaks. She wept, too, breaking these things because she was broken in the making, stricken at the thought of this trespass on the hallowed ground of cultural treasure. The work is necessarily transgressive – society’s norms dictate that culture and human objects should be treated with reverence – but she needed to break those norms to demonstrate that ‘while art and history are treated as sacred, Life is not: everything is turning to dust and we have to protect it’.
She has sacrificed things to render them into a new significance; not so much destroying the objects as bringing them to life in the mind. They have been broken into meaningfulness. Artists of all kinds are required today to go where imposters fear to tread, into places of jeopardy. This necessary work is dearly bought, paid in the coin of anguish.
Half gasp, half siren-cry, anguish combines fear, remorse, pain and anger: we are collectively at the heart of the hourglass, its tightening, constricting chest-pain is a world-reckoning anguish as the narrowing chance of change is closing, moment by moment by moment.