Salvador Dalí, 'The Persistence of Memory' (Oil on Canvas

Mythological Time: Model-Dependent Realism in Art

In Arts, Arts and Culture, Culture, Essay, Spring 2015 by Kaitlin MooreLeave a Comment

“He comes from both sorts of time. He pops up in linear time, the time that gives us death and babies and old relatives. And yet there he is in mythological time: circular time, the time where the seasons die and resurrect, and so do gods and heroes. Where the people who’re in stories, live forever.” —Sarah Sutton as Nyssa in Doctor Who, “Circular Time”


Mythological time. Nietzschean eternal recurrence. Pali patisandhi in Buddhist doctrine, Greek Ouroboros in Norse mythology— reincarnation, death as the impetus for birth. Destruction begets creation.

Mythological Time, in both science and in art, is a diametric antithesis to linear time. The imperceptible paradigm of subjective time is often given physical legitimization through the arts, which are bounded only by the scope of imagination, which even Einstein attested is infinite.

Despite its heavy influence in the arts—the surrealism of Dalí, the space-time bubbles of Tomás Saraceno, the overlapping temporality of Richard McGuire’s comic Here—Mythological Time has its foundation in scientific principle, in the ideas of model-dependent realism.

Mythological Time serves as the foundation for my personal view of the universe, which I call lenticular reality: perception is dependent upon perspective. Just as Mythological Time exists in different forms according to one’s perspective—as does the presence of time in art, for art can have different meanings to different people—so, too, do different views of reality. No one reality is any more or less real than the other.

Back in 2010, the town of Monza, Italy, made it illegal to keep a goldfish in a fishbowl. The council’s argument was that a curved fishbowl distorts the fish’s perception of reality, limiting or distorting its own understanding of space and time.

The Italian goldfish in the fishbowl is indicative of a larger scientific idea. Modern theorems of physics are based on model-dependent realism, where two conflicting observations of a physical phenomenon from two independent perspectives are both correct. Relative time, and by extension Mythological Time, are likewise influenced by a similar structure of model-dependent realism. If the fish states that space is curved by the distortion of his glass bowl and the universe has existed for only three seconds, then he will formulate a framework of laws to explain the physics of his curved pocket of reality. Who am I to refute the fish’s observations? If his curved reality, and thus his curved time, is the only reality he knows, then who am I to say his world is any less real than my own? Our own physical framework extends from similarly limited observations.

Model-dependent realism asserts that reality does not exist independently of observation, and thus that there is no such thing as an objective reality beyond our immediate perception. Reality, as in time, or space, is subjective, like a lenticular photograph or a fish staring out at the world from within a fishbowl.

Einstein, the father of relative time, asserted that time is little more than a stubbornly persistent illusion; the demarcation between past, present, and future is blurred. However, the fact remains that we cannot transcend time. We cannot change the past or visit the future. We, like the goldfish, are confined to a narrow stratum of temporality. We exist in a model-dependent universe, and the model of linear time we have conceived for ourselves comes from our inability to exist simultaneously in past and future time.

However, if our perspective were to change, if we existed outside the Minkowskian model of space-time, in a place where time has the fluid, physical presence of Dalí’s clocks, then we would be able to perceive past and future time as more than mutually exclusive entities. If our human perception of time comes from our model-dependent realism, where what we perceive constitutes reality, then what would time look like beyond individual perception? What does a lenticular photograph, and by extension a lenticular reality, look like from all perspectives at once? If we were to remove ourselves from our fishbowl, if all images in a lenticular photograph were seen at once, then we would perceive past and future simultaneously. We would see, in essence, Mythological Time.

Model-dependent realism has limited us to one subjective stratum of time. In art, however, perspective still equals perception, but perspective is not limited to a single moment caught in the transition of past to future time. Consider M. C. Escher’s stairway: his artwork is a visual representation of space, as well as its conjugate partner of time, compacted into a small slice of perceivable reality. The series of photos in Adam Magyar’s project, Stainless, which combine thousands of pixel-wide slices into a single image, trap time through motion. In a recent series of photographs by the Hubble telescope, a long-exposure shot of the Horseshoe nebula’s light emission spectrum captures a physical representation of gravitational lensing and Einstein’s relative time. One of my personal favorites is a painting by the metaphysical surrealist artist Charnine, who claims the fish in the fishbowl is not so limited in his perception as the town council of Monza once thought.

Lenticular reality is unkind to humans. We cannot perceive the interlocking strata of past and future time. But, in art, multiple realities can be portrayed through multiple perspectives, with a sort of indefinable beauty hidden behind perfect simulacrums of itself. Mythological Time can be perceived by those whose minds and imaginations have transcended space and time, who have seen a little bit further than most.

Kaitlin MooreMythological Time: Model-Dependent Realism in Art

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