TIME: Past, Present, Future

Time shapes our existence and orders our daily life. It can appear to speed up or slow down. We are often preoccupied with it – being on time, having time, making up for lost time, keeping time.

But what is time? It can be defined as a distance or a measure, in relation to the earth, objects and humans, or as an abstract concept. It can be identified as a specific moment when something happens, or as a continuous state, with events occurring from the past through to the present and into the future. Time has been understood differently across global contexts. While some think of time as flowing in one direction, some religions and cultures, such as Hinduism, Buddhism and the Hopi people of northeastern Arizona, have a cyclical view. This approach to time has often been influenced by the cycles of the natural world: the seasons, the tides, day and night, and the changing appearance of the moon.

The artists featured in NOW all work with and respond to time in different ways in their art: as an idea, a material, a process for making, a cycle, a journey or in relation to space and the universe. Seen through the theme of time, this blog introduces highlights from the exhibition alongside texts and quotations by contemporary writers and thinkers, bringing in perspectives from poetry, cinema and literature.


The girl I was is out at sea.
Isn’t that funny? She just walks
further and further away, slowly.

Soon I’ll think we had different lives
me and her, her and me.
Maybe I’ll wave to her across the sea,

Lift my arm high above my shoulder
and wave to the wee girl with the black curly hair,
her skirt, way above her knees in the dark sea.

-- Jackie Kay, The Past

Darren Almond, Fullmoon@Neban Point, 2007 C-print, 127.5 x 127.5 cm © Darren Almond. Courtesy of the Artist and White Cube

Darren Almond, Fullmoon@NebanPoint, 2007

This work by British artist Darren Almond is from his Fullmoon series. All the photographs in the series are made by the light of the full moon, using long exposure times of fifteen minutes or more. This blurs shadows and forms to reveal a new vision of the landscape. The unexpected light in the images appears to turn night into day. Ancient rock formations, forests and oceans take on an ethereal presence.

Lucy Raven, The Deccan Trap, 2015 (still). Photographic animation, colour, sound, 4 mins 19 secs © The Artist

Lucy Raven, The Deccan Trap, 2015

In The Deccan Trap, Lucy Raven leads us on a journey through time and space – from the production of 3D computer-generated images in modern-day India for Hollywood films, back to the intricate carvings of the ancient Ellora caves in Western India. These carvings are cut into dramatic rock formations known as the Deccan Traps, formed over 66 million years ago from volcanic eruptions said to have led to the extinction of the dinosaurs.


‘In a certain sense the past is far more real, or at any rate more stable, more resilient than the present. The present slips and vanishes like sand between the fingers, acquiring material weight only in its recollection.’

-- Andrey Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema

Shona Macnaughton, Progressive, 2017 (detail) Script, photographic documentation, Baby Box, Jacket Photography: Matthew Arthur Williams © The Artist. The University of Edinburgh Art Collection

Shona Macnaughton, Progressive, 2017

Macnaughton made her site- and time-specific performance on the afternoon of 11 December 2017 while almost nine months pregnant. This work can only be re-enacted if the artist is pregnant again. The performance responded to Graham Square in Dennistoun, in the east end of Glasgow. Formerly the site of a meat market and labour exchange, the area is now filled with new apartment buildings. Macnaughton’s script features the style of language used to promote such property developments, altered with personal references.

Katie Paterson, Timepieces (Solar System), 2014 Photo © John McKenzie Courtesy of the artist and The University of Edinburgh Art Collection

Katie Paterson, Timepieces (Solar System), 2014

What time is it on Jupiter right now? This series of nine clocks tell the time on the planets in our solar system and on Earth’s Moon. The durations of day and night range from planet to planet, from the shortest on Jupiter to the longest on Mercury. Each clock is calibrated to tell the time in relation to the other planets and to Earth.

Durations of the day:
Mercury 4223 hours
Venus 2802 hours
Earth 24 hours
Moon 708 hours
Mars 24 hours 40minutes
Jupiter 9 hours 56 minutes
Saturn 10 hours 39 minutes
Uranus 17 hours 14 minutes
Neptune 16 hours 6 minutes


‘There is good news! The future of everything doesn’t exist. There is ‘an everything’ but we don’t know what it is, so there’s no point in talking about it … there isn’t any ‘The Future’ graven in stone towards which we inevitably trundle … There are an infinite number of possible futures, and which one we get will depend partly on decisions we make now. On the other hand, a few volcanic eruptions beyond our control could change the equation considerably.’

-- Margaret Atwood, ‘The Future of Everything’, The Walrus Talks: The Future, 21 June 2018

Katie Paterson, Future Library, 2014-2114 Double-sided foil block print Edition 376/1000 National Galleries of Scotland. Purchased 2018 © Katie Paterson

Katie Paterson, Future Library, 2014–2114

A forest has been planted in Norway, which will supply paper for a special anthology of books to be printed after 100 years. One writer every year contributes a text, with the writings held in trust, unread and unpublished, until the year 2114. This printed certificate allows National Galleries of Scotland to receive a full set of the printed texts, once produced. Writers to date include Margaret Atwood (2014), David Mitchell (2015), Sjón (2016), Elif Shafak (2017), Han Kang (2018) and Karl Ove Knausgård (2019).

You can watch Katie Paterson’s film Future Library: A Century Unfolds 2019 online here.

By Lucy Askew, Màiri Lafferty and Leila Riszko