The artist Madeline Irvine marks the COVID time with the pandemic clock: The artist from Austin has turned a daily practice into a way of counting down the lock – art
From the Pandemic Clock (Retrospect series) by Madeline Irvine (Photo by Madeline Irvine)
Blursday. This is what time in the year of COVID has focused on: a drop of equality, from sun to sun. Work and sleep in the same place, stare at the same screens and go through the same routines. There is no way to distinguish Tuesday from Friday from Sunday, April from August from November.
Unless you’re Madeline Irvine. In the murky era of the novel coronavirus, this Austin artist came up with a novel way to keep things different every day – not just on the days of the week, but every week of the past year. She calls it the pandemic clock – which is kind of a misnomer, she admits, since it has no face, no hands, no gears. Nonetheless, she says, “I call it a clock because I hear the time go by, but visually I imagine it to be a calendar.” In fact, there are only a few dozen washers that Irvine moves into new positions and photographs each day to document that day’s arrangement. The “pandemic” part of this is that it measures the time we’ve spent and continue to be sheltering from COVID.
Marking the daily routine by taking pictures of washing machines can sound like an unnecessary, even pointless exercise. The same effect could be achieved by crossing out dates on a print calendar – and with much less effort. But, as with any daily practice, it is less about what is done than about doing. You come to an activity on purpose and come to it with the same intention day in and day out. Over time, this can lead to something remarkable – like the conceptual artist On Karawa, who regularly painted the date of the day in white letters on a plain canvas; He started this Today series in 1966 and by his death in 2014 he had produced nearly 3,000 paintings. This repeated application of intent can also be a key to artistic development; Irvine says, “It’s the daily process of doing it over time that makes the job. Every day matters, whether you can see it or not.” It can also be a fundamental force in person: Given the trauma of the coronavirus, George Floyd’s murder, the elections, and more, Irvine says, “The daily practice of working on the pandemic clock has me both in life and in the studio anchored. “”
Given the trauma of the coronavirus, George Floyd’s murder, the elections, and more, Irvine says, “The daily practice of working on the pandemic clock has anchored me in both life and the studio.” – Rustic Irvine
Not that Irvine started the pandemic watch for that purpose. She didn’t even have the concept in mind when she started. The trials of 2020 had kept her away from her studio in the spring and summer. It wasn’t until September that she finally felt like doing art again. “After a while, I often start working in the studio again to clean up,” she says. “That’s when I tripped over the washers in a closet and took them out and started playing with them. Oddly enough, I spiraled and photographed them pretty quickly. And I decided to do one a day to mark my days in the pandemic . I have no idea why. “
That was September 22, 2020, but it took Irvine time to see this practice as a project. “I didn’t know I was going to do the pandemic watch for about six weeks,” she says. “I worked on it instinctively until I found the right words for it.” And even after naming it, it took more time for her to see its full scope. Rather than marking the time just for herself, she realized that she was “making a pandemic watch for everyone. Whether you seek refuge on the spot or on the front lines, we are all in the pandemic together.” In addition to the Spiral series, which marks each day in the future, she started the Retrospect series, which ran from its first spiral on September 22nd to the day the pandemic impacted on March 16th in Austin was first felt after being marked backwards.The date falls to Irvine because cataract surgery was scheduled that day. “I realized I could have one eye done, but in three weeks I might not be able to have the other done because they said elective surgery was going to be closed.” So she postponed the operation.)
Irvine has been expanding the pandemic watch for six months. Every day she goes to her home studio at the end of the driveway. On a large drawing table with good lighting, she lays the red studio apron she wears when painting, and then covers it with a black velvet sheet, which she has “to get excited about”. She puts down the washers, which have different sizes, shapes and colors – “like us,” she remarks – and has different signs of wear and shine and winds them into a spiral. She uses a template to keep the image centered and a small wooden stick to measure the distance between the edges of the spirals and the frame of the camera. When she has centered the image, she climbs a ladder and photographs the spiral of that day with her cell phone.
The seven-day progression of the pandemic clock (spiral series), week 37 (Photo by Madeline Irvine)
“The spirals seem to have a life of their own,” says Irvine. “Some days they are calm and closed, other days exuberant and open. Like me, their tenor changes daily. They don’t reflect me, but they reflect the energy that is contained in a day. Their limited severity reflects that Pandemic Resists and Ties It I didn’t see it at the time I started this, but I think doing the pandemic clock was an attempt to bring order to a chaotic world, even though I’d like to believe that I can accept chance and change. We have to choose our change where we can. “
Irvine has no idea how long she’ll mark this time like that. She intends her project to be “a countdown clock to the end of the pandemic,” but when that happens will depend on different strains of the virus, the effectiveness of the vaccines, and whether enough people are taking them. What she does know is that the pandemic clock is recording a historical shift. “It’s a way to bring the community together before and after you zoom in,” she says. “It started in one era of the President and continues in another. For me, the clock has become a document of our time.”
A printed version of this article was released on March 19, 2021 with the headline: Marking Time