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The Artistic Space-Time Continuum

By Cherie Z. Hu, Contributing Writer

The artists:

- Sean K. Rodan ’17, Music concentrator in Adams House; classical composer, singer, flautist, and music director of the upcoming Cabot House Musical, “Once Upon a Mattress.”

- Jiye Ha ’16, History of Art and Architecture concentrator in Dunster House, currently studying abroad in Paris, France; aspiring visual artist with experience in drawing, painting, and other two-dimensional art.

“Music is liquid architecture; architecture is frozen music.” In saying this, German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe suggests a continuous exchange of aesthetic perspectives between music and visual art throughout history as well as underscores the different ways in which these two art forms treat time and space. Music is more temporally dependent than visual art, as time must pass in order for a musical composition to be heard in full; on the other hand, visual art is more spatially dependent, as drawings, paintings, sculptures, and buildings must be conceived in two or three dimensions. That being said, music also depends on space for sound to be transmitted to listeners’ ears, and the act of moving a pencil or paintbrush across a page is just as immediately temporal as the performance of a musical piece. Therefore, despite (or perhaps because of) their spatial and temporal differences, music and visual art are not entirely distinct disciplines, but are rather complementary, interlocking pieces in a holistic aesthetic puzzle. What brings Sean K. Rodan ’17 and Jiye Ha ’16 together is their mutual interest in exploring these different understandings and manifestations of time and space in art through interdisciplinary artistic collaboration.

The combination of time and space in the form of spacetime is an important topic in physics, but the concept also has an analog in the arts. One could call the artistic equivalent of spacetime “gesture,” a word already widely used in multiple artistic disciplines. A “musical gesture” can be defined as the combination of various sonic elements (volume, duration, pitch, panning) into a single phrase whose multilayered complexity gives it some perceived sense of physicality, while a “gesture drawing” in visual art is a drawing or sketch defined both by its rapid execution and by its attempt to capture an active or moving subject.

Jiye works primarily with drawing and painting, which often lack gestural connotations due to the reduced significance that traditional media assign to time. When viewers look at a static drawing or painting, they have the entire composition laid out immediately before their eyes—as opposed to a musical composition, which is unveiled gradually rather than momentarily. Despite this absence of an objective dimension of time in her work, Jiye understands visual art as fundamentally temporal and therefore gestural in its amalgamation of time and space. “All art operates on some bodily level,” says Jiye. “Even when you’re doing 2-D artwork, you have to use your arm to draw or paint, to make the art materialize.”

Gestures of notation, however, often become lost in their final presentation as a fixed canvas or object, potentially leaving the audience with an incomplete picture of the creative process. The disconnect between the action of input and the inaction of output in traditional art reinforces how the perception and communication of gesture depends not only on the artist’s actions and intentions but also on what the artist’s audience can see. For Jiye, then, what is exciting about interdisciplinary collaboration is the possibility of seeing the inherently gestural nature of her artistic process materialize in the final product. She hopes to work with another art form whose output not only fundamentally changes over time, but also visibly “uses the body to its extreme … [and] requires rigorous physical training to reach the level of perfection.”

Interestingly, Sean, a classical composer, understands music as the isolation, rather than development, of particular moments in space and time. Although music is arguably the most fleeting art form—after all, one cannot preserve sound waves in space—Sean sees music as a powerful means of preservation. “Music is like freezing emotions,” he says. “You have a memory, often a feeling of affection for something, and music is a way to freeze that feeling.” These thoughts on music as a freezing rather than flowing art form provide a striking reinterpretation of Goethe’s description of architecture as a frozen form of music. Sean remarks that collaborative musicians today face interesting creative possibilities amidst an increasing trend in the arts toward visuality and physicality. “We have access to lots of visual technology and media, and we are becoming a much more visual culture,” he says, citing film as one of his points of increasing artistic interest and exploration.

The influence that visuality and space exhibit on Sean’s creative process and the influence that more immediately temporal art exhibits on Jiye’s artistic outlook reinforce how music and visual art may be missing links for each other. Visual art can lend to music its facility for multidimensional spatial capture, while music can lend to visual art a more perceptible dimension of time and therefore the possibility of truly temporal delivery in the final output. The result of combining these two art forms could be a demonstration of space working in tandem with time to create a single, multifaceted work—a genuine artistic space-time continuum.

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