What Does “Deep Time” Mean to You?

An art exhibition at the National Academy of Sciences offers perspective on our geological past and future

Sun/Moon (Trying to See through a Telescope), 2010: Using a digital camera, Sharon Harper photographed the daily phases of the sun (left) and moon (right) through a telescope. "She’s kind of playing with the idea that when you’re looking through a telescope you’re not actually experiencing the moon and the sun," says Talasek. Sharon Harper
Black Maps (Bingham Canyon, UT 5), 1988: Photographer David Maisel took aerial pictures of mines in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Montana from 1983 to 1988. These images formed a series, Black Maps. "It’s almost as if we as human beings have lifted the veil on [the earth], and so we see a different kind of strata, something that’s a little more man-made," says Talasek. David Maisel
Void, 2011: This work, by South Korean artist Chul Hyun Ahn, is actually seven feet tall by six feet wide, and its depth is a visual illusion. Reflecting light and mirrors give the appearance of infinity. Chul Hyun Ahn
The Age of Reptiles, 2012: Perhaps the only piece specifically created with the idea of deep time in mind, this painting by Seattle-based artist Alfredo Arreguin again touches on different themes from the larger exhibition, from the cycles of the moon to how we imagine ancient life here on Earth. When Talasek first contacted Arreguin, the artist said he didn't have any pieces that might work for a deep time exhibition. "About four or five weeks later, he said he’d been having dreams about deep time ever since and had started producing work," says Talasek. Alfredo Arreguin
Cryptolithus & Eumorphocystis, Ordovician Period, 440 mya - 500 mya, 2005: Part of a series entitled Organic Remains of a Former World, this photograph depicts the organisms that inhabited marine environments of the Ordovician period. To make these images, Alison Carey casts clay models of the organisms and stages them in a water-filled aquarium, which she photographs using antiquated techniques. The result is something akin to a museum diorama. Alison Carey
Boston Basin, photographed 2004, composited 2005: To make this image, photographer and geologist Jonathon Wells photographed specific types of sediment and rock. Based on a 1983 scientific analysis of Massachusetts bedrock, Wells created the stratigraphic layers that underlie the city, which appears miniscule in comparison. The basin area depicted spans 16 miles wide and four miles deep. Jonathon Wells
Cyclists Inspecting Ancient Petroglyphs, Utah, 1998: Texas-based photographer Terry Falke captures several of the exhibition's themes in this image of cyclists examining petroglyphs and bullet holes in a stratified rock face by the side of the road in Utah. "You’ve got the ultimate strata, which is man-made, so the idea is that we are impacting, we’re leaving our mark on the Earth over time as well," says Talasek. Terry Falke
Beholding the Big Bang, 2009: Artist Arthur Ganson contemplates the Big Bang theory with this kinetic sculpture. A motor (on the left) powers a series of gears, turning the first gear, which turns the second, and so on. But, Ganson built the sculpture, so that it will take 13.7 billion years (the estimated amount of time since the birth of the universe) for the last gear to turn. "You can imagine what human existence is within this larger continuum," says Talasek. "We wanted to make sure we had some experiential pieces here because time is experiential." Arthur Ganson
Views from Marble Canyon Platform, 2008: Artists Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe found this 1882 map drawn by explorer and cartographer William Henry Holmes in the Library of Congress and took snapshots of the landscape from the same perch using a military spotting scope. "What they counted on was the fact was that the drawing was so accurate that they were able to match them up," says Talasek. Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe
Columbia Triptych II: Vertical Aerial 1981-1999, A, B, C after Austin Post and Tad Pfeffer, 2010: Philadelphia-based artist Diane Burko painted these images based on aerial photos of the Columbia Glacier in Alaska. The lines in the first image (far left) show the lowest reach of the glacier receding from 1981 to 1999. "She’s trying to bring that aesthetic of scientific notation into her vernacular," says Talasek. Diane Burko
Dead Huon Pine adjacent to living population segment #1211-3509 (10,000 years old, Mount Read, Tasmania), 2011: Part of Rachel Sussman's book The Oldest Living Things in the World, this photo depicts a dead portion of a conifer forest in Tasmania. It's right next to a living portion that's 10,500 years old, genetically speaking. "I think one reason I was drawn to this is because it does fit into the ideal of a personal relationship with deep time," says Talasek. "You’ve got this pathway that goes through the forest." Rachel Sussman

Earth is roughly 4.5 billion years old—a number that is hard for humans to grasp. “For someone whose life expectancy is usually less than 100 years, it’s nearly impossible to imagine something so vast as geological or deep time,” says J.D. Talasek, director of cultural programs at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.

To help us wrap our heads around this time scale, Talasek and his team identified 18 works by 15 artists across the country that provide some perspective. A light installation that evokes the infinite scope of time, a traditional oil painting that looks like rock strata and a sound sculpture that reads seismic waves like a musical score are among the pieces on display in “Imagining Deep Time,” an exhibition now at the National Academy of Sciences headquarters through January 2015.

The concept of “deep time” dates back to 18th-century geologist James Hutton, who proposed that Earth was a lot older than 6,000 years, as most people thought at the time. However, writer John McPhee officially coined the term in his 1981 book Basin and Range, saying:

"Numbers do not seem to work well with regard to deep time. Any number above a couple of thousand years—fifty thousand, fifty million—will with nearly equal effect awe the imagination."

McPhee went on to describe our place on the geological time scale with this metaphor:

“Consider the earth’s history as the old measure of the English yard, the distance from the king’s nose to the tip of his outstretched hand. One stroke of a nail file on his middle finger erases human history.”

As Talasek argues, the best way to imagine deep time is through metaphor and that's where art can lend a hand. “That’s what artists do. They deal in visual metaphors. So this seemed like the perfect sort of area to explore,” he says.

In the exhibition, certain visual motifs—lines, arrows and circular patterns—are used to capture the abstract concept of time. Photographer Sharon Harper, for instance, depicts the cycles of the sun and moon as seen through a telescope.

Other artists convey time through portraits of geological strata. A composite image by geologist-turned-photographer Jonathon Wells depicts the city of Boston sitting atop massive rock formations, as it might be viewed from the bottom of the Boston Harbor. Meanwhile, Rosalie Lang paints rock faces from photographs that she takes of formations along the California coast.

“The idea is that art is a cognitive tool, a way of understanding,” says Talasek.

Some work in the exhibition harks back to the influence of museums, textbooks and movies, which have in essence provided a way for viewers to travel back in time and imagine dinosaurs and other organisms that once inhabited Earth. Clay aquarium scenes constructed and photographed by Alison Carey are based on 21st-century data but evoke 18th-century dioramas of geological eras.

But, unlike the frozen image of a diorama or a photograph, time doesn’t stop, and some works in the exhibition play off the idea that we’re on a continuum. For instance, a light installation by South Korean artist Chul Hyun Ahn entitled “Void” conveys time’s depth using a simple trick of mirrors and LED lights.

The exhibition doesn’t directly reference the Anthropocene, the proposed geological era of human influence that some scientists think we’re currently experiencing. Yet it’s clear from David Maisel's aerial photographs, which depict mining sites in Utah, that we’re altering our landscape, and that humans have to make decisions with regard to energy and climate that will impact the future. “We’re a species that has trouble planning for our retirement, never mind what’s going to happen thousands of years down the road,” says Talasek.

“Considering our brief amount of time on Earth, no other species has had such an impact on the way the Earth is moving forward,” he adds.

“Imagining Deep Time” is on view at the National Academy of Sciences (2101 Constitution Ave., N.W.) through January 2015. On September 18, 2014, the NAS will also host a DC Art Science Evening Rendezvous on the exhibition, featuring artists Rachel Sussman and Byron Wolfe, as well as other speakers.

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