Bergson’s theory of duration understands that time is in a
constant state of change and that this makes it impossible to measure. It poses
the idea that time and consciousness cannot be reduced to scientific
measurement and instead must be recognised as an ineffable, temporal
heterogeneity (Bergson, 1910). Time confounds mathematics and science because
both attempt to measure time in an immobile complete line whereas actual time
is mobile and incomplete (Bergson, 1910), it therefore has no fixed beginning
or conceivable end (see figure 1). In other words, time is too great, rich, and
diverse to be explained numerically, and should therefore be acknowledged as a
qualitative multiplicity rather than a quantitative multiplicity. Bergson also
realises that time is not able to be measured because as soon as you attempt to
capture a moment, it is so fleeting that it has already passed (Bergson, 1946).
The notion of immeasurability is considered in Roni Horn’s
artwork, ‘Still water (The River Thames, for Example)’ (1999), which is
comprised of fifteen large-scale photo-lithographs, all depicting vastly
differing images of small sections of the river Thames (see figure 2). The
images each have a delicate grid layered over them and are extensively
footnoted with fragmented writings by Horn. She also contemplates
immeasurability in her following book, ‘Another Water’ (2000), which contains
further footnoted images of the river Thames (see figure 3). The images of the
water have an immense variation between them; the ‘colours range from black to
blue and from dark green to khaki-yellow, and in each case the water’s texture
is differently augmented by tidal movement and the play of light’ (Tate). Horn
is quoted as saying of the river: ‘it moves very quickly…Every photograph is
wildly different – even though you could be photographing the same thing from
one minute to the next’ (Tate, 2009).
Horn’s use and presentation of the river relates to the concept
‘panta rhei’, meaning ‘all things flow’ (Kaufmann, 2008, p.19), which is a
school of thought by Heraclitus, the pre- Socratic Greek philosopher.
Heraclitus likened everything in existence to the flowing of a river because
everything is in a constant state of change and that nothing can be as it is
again. He had the understanding that, “In the same river we both step and do not step, we are
and are not” (Kaufmann, 2008 p.20). By this, it is meant that everything is in constant flux:
the universe is in a constant state of change and so are we as part of it. Even
though we may step into the body of a river we have stepped into before, the
water that flows will not be the same as even a millisecond before it. There is
similarity but not sameness.
In Horn’s images of the Thames, we witness the river act
as a physical and visual representation of how fleeting and rapidly shifting
time is. We see how moments change constantly and fluidly from one to the next.
The river is in constant flux, and Horn would not have even been able to
capture the image that she saw through her camera lens as she made the decision
to take the photograph. Even in the micro moments it would have taken her to
press down on the camera shutter, the surface of the water would have changed.
When we attempt to measure duration in the mathematic or scientific sense, each
moment is so fleeting that in striving to capture one, it has already changed
to another. Bergson further recognises that ‘no two moments are identical’
(Bergson, 1946, p.164), and therefore, as you try to measure a moment, it is
gone forever, never captured. We observe this in Horn’s images; each time she
comes to the Thames she photographs something different from the last, and she
will never be able to take a shot the same as a previous one. Each image acts
as a fossil in time; it is a unique fragment of a moment.
Time is infinitely divisible, and consequently, it does
not matter how miniscule the scale with which we attempt to measure or capture
a moment, it will still have already passed. This
infinite divisibility is an issue within quantum theory, the branch of science
that deals with the motion and interaction of subatomic particles. This is
matter and moments in the smallest form that we, as humans, can deal with them.
It ‘cannot predict the outcome of one experiment but can… calculate
the probability of its occurrence’ (Metiu, 2006, p.66), meaning that quantum
theory is based on probability rather than certainty. A reason for this is
because time is so momentary that no matter how miniscule a scale we try to
measure it, there can always be a smaller scale due to time being an infinite
multiplicity, there will consequently always be uncertainty. Therefore, when we
attempt to measure, or capture, a moment ‘we
are not dealing with…moments themselves, as they have vanished for ever, but
with the lasting traces which they seem to have left in space on their passage
through it’ (Bergson, 1910, p. 79).
The example of water is clear because there is noticeable
movement. We cannot approach it without observing instability. Yet, everything
that exists is in a constant state of fluctuation, and anything that seems as
though it is still is merely a seeming stability. For example, an ancient tree
or a colossal mountain may seem solid, yet both are in a constant state of
change. A tree grows and loses leaves in and endless cycle; it slowly builds
rings, growing thicker and thicker the older it gets. And deep below a
mountain, hot moving mantle pushes tectonic plates together and slowly it
elevates the land higher. There is no stability within the universe no matter
how it may seem. Metal will rust, and wood will rot: everything is in flux.
Anything one can imagine, material or immaterial, is in a state of change. And
let us not forget that the moon that we see at night is constantly moving
around the earth, and the earth spins on its axis as it orbits around the sun
which circles around the centre of the Milky Way. And galaxies slowly move away
from each other due to the expansion of the universe brought on by the big
bang. And nothing that exists within the universe, no matter how small, is
still even for a moment.