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Elements of Art: Movement and Time

Author: Lucy Lamp


Art exists in time as well as space. Time implies change and movement; movement implies the passage of time. Movement and time, whether actual or an illusion, are crucial elements in art although we may not be aware of it.

An art work may incorporate actual motion; that is, the artwork itself moves in some way. Or it may incorporate the illusion of, or implied movement.


Actual movement or motion

Artwork that incorporates actual movement is called kinetic. An artwork can move on its own in several ways: through natural properties or effects such as air currents, or it may be mechanically or technologically driven, or it may involve either the artist or the viewer moving it.


Moving through naural properties.

Art that moves through the effect of natural properties, either its own inherent properties or their effect, is unpredictable.  Spatial relationships within the work change continuously, with endless possibilities. One of the delights of experiencing such artwork is the element of change and surprise. It's as if every time we look at it we are seeing a new artwork.


Alexander Calder

Alexander Calder, Sumac II, 1952   Sheet metal, wire, and paint  29 1/4" x 48" x 35"

Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Alexander Calder is known for his development of moving sculptures, which he called mobiles. (He called his stationary sculptures  stabiles). Each section in this sculpture, or mobile, can twist and turn on its own through air currents, causing an endless amount of variations in its form.


The Alhambra

Court of the Lions, The Alhambra, Grenada, Spain

Photo: Lucy Lamp

The Alhambra is a massive complex in southern Spain built by Moors during the 14th century. Its funtion was twofold: as a fortress for protection and defense, and as a palace for relaxation and luxurious refreshment. Southern Spain is dry and hot, and one of the delightful and remarkable aspects of the Alhambra is that water flows throughout the whole complex in surprising and ingenious ways. All of this was engineered using forces of nature and the qualities of how water moves. Around every corner, in gardens and courts and staircases the water flows. It bestows a profound sense of renewal and rest.




Mechanical or technologically driven movement in art.

This type of movement may be more predictable and limited than movement through natural properties, or it can seem endless, depending on the complexity of the system that moves the artwork. The motor or movement system may be purposely revealed or it may be hidden, depending on the effect the artist desires. The movement can be very mechanical, robotic, or seamless and flowing.


Rebecca Horn

Rebecca Horn    Painting Machine 1988 

metal, electric motor, wood and metal rods  43 x 17 in. / 109.2 x 43.2 cm.

image source:

Rebecca Horn has experimented with many concepts and types of movement in her sculptures throughout her career, including "body extensions', kinetic sculptures, installations, and working with light and reflections. This is one of her kinetic sculptures, a painting machine, which creates an endless variety of paintings as it moves and drops paint onto moving paper surfaces. This calls attention to the idea of originality in art and the historical traditions of painting.




Viewer driven movement in art.

Contemporary artists have been exploring the concept of how a viewer experiences an artwork, and either forcing the viewer to become aware of their process of experiencing the artwork, or inviting them to become part of the artwork itself.


Marcia Lyons


Marcia Lyons  RED Force Fields
Installation at David Richard Contemporary Art, Santa Fe, June 01 - 26, 2011

"David Richard Contemporary is pleased to present RED (Force Fields), an immersive experience in the color RED. The exhibition will feature a two part installation by Marcia Lyons–a projected live feed of the earth's seismic data bubbling up as large red dots, activated by viewers in one space and translated into a massive digital painting on the walls of an adjacent gallery space. The artwork is data and viewer driven, the viewer moves and the piece moves, as both become one with the pulse of the earth. RED (Force Fields) is based upon the observation that the most important aspect of energy is not the source, but the space around it and the influence of one on the other through some 'force' like gravity or electro-magnetism – RED signals a color's peculiarities. What is color doing to the viewer? With both wave and particle like characteristics this group of artist's works 'communicate' across a 'field', each has a unique 'frequency' and language to 'speak' to the world as a resonating 'sound'... in light. "  Gallery statement




Olafur Eliasson:The illusion of stopped movement and time--within an artwork that incorporates actual movement and time

Olafur Eliasson, Your Strange Certainty Still Kept, 1996

Water, light (stroboskop), plexiglas, plastic, recirculating pump and wood

© Courtesy The Dakis Joannou Collection, Athens     source:

In a darkened room, there is a pool of water on the floor and water dripping from the ceiling into the pool. This is what you know when you step into the room. But it is lit only with strobe light, so all you have are flashes of information as to what you are seeing. The strobe light freezes the movement of the water drops, in an endless variation. It is like seeing time stopped. The effect is mesmerizing and magical. Along with the slight coolness of the room and the scent of cool fresh water, it becomes a transcendent moment.



Implied Movement or Motion

Movement can be suggested visually in a variety of ways: through the use of diagonal, gestural, and directional lines; repetition; position and size of objects; the position or  implied eyeline of a figure, a symbolic representation of movement.





Kandinsky: Movement Through Line and Placement

Wassily Kandinsky  Yellow -- Red -- Blue    1925
o/c Musee Nationale d'Art Moderne (Centre Pompidou), Paris

Kandinsky used abstraction to represent the intangible. He used formal elements to portray what can't be seen with the eyes and has no physical form. In this painting, there is a strong and vibrant sense of movement. If you study it you will find diagonal, gestural, and directional lines; repetition; and placement of objects to give it an illusion of motion.




Audubon: Position of the Figure (Subject Matter) to Imply Movement


John James Audobon Virginian Partridge (Northern Bobwhite) under attack by a young red-shouldered hawk.1829

 Plate 76 from Birds of America by John James Audubon (Havell Edition). Restored 2008 by


Creating an illusion of movement was critical for Audubon's work. He studied his subject matter--birds--extensively in the wild to learn not only about their appearance but their manner of movement as well.  His work is dinstinctive for nature illustrators of his time in that he portrayed his subjects in action rather than stiffly posed. 




Boccioni: The Human Figure in Motion as Symbolic Metaphor


Umberto Boccioni    Unique Forms of Continuity in Space    1913 (cast 1931) 

bronze  43 7/8 x 34 7/8 x 15 3/4" (111.2 x 88.5 x 40 cm)

Museum of Modern Art    New York  Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest

Boccioni was an Italian Futurist. The Futurist movement of the early 20th century embraced the idea of the hope of a technological future and glorified themes such as speed, industry, the car, airplanes, and modern cities.  This figure symboloizesa sense of forward progress, speed, and determination in moving toward something. There are many elements in this sculpture that imply movement: the use of diagonals, the exagerrated length of the figure's stride, a sense of strong wind blowing what can be read as the figure's clothing, and the forward focus of the head. Although the eyes of the figure cannot be discerned, there is an implied eye line that suggests the figure looking ahead, implying movement of the figure toward whatever is "seen" in the distance. An ironic emphasis is added by the use of what appear to be heavy immovable blocks from which the figure is springing.




Muybridge: Repetition as a Record of Movement


Eadweard Muybridge  The Horse in Motion   1878

"Sallie Gardner," owned by Leland Stanford; running at a 1:40 gait over the Palo Alto track, June 19, 1878

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division;


Muybridge was a pioneer not only of early photography but the science and study of movment as well. He fabricated a special camera that would capture every sequence of his subjects' movements, frame by frame. He photographed animals and people in motion. Through his work a new understanding of movement was gained. In this series of frames, it can be clearly seen that all four of the horse's hooves are off the ground at certain points during the horse's sequence of motion.




The concept of time

Time and movement in art are closely linked. Time, however, is an abstract concept, with cultural and historical implications. It does not have the physicality that movement does. Time-based artwork is more ephemeral.

Linear vs. circular, or cyclical time

In the concept of linear time there is a beginning (the past), and an end (the future). Between the two is the present, which is always moving forward.

Digital clocks and time lines illustrate the idea of linear time very effecively.

Time line of art in the ancient world   Parthenon graphics 


In contrast, circular, or cyclical time is a repeating process, like cycles and seasons, that creates continuous and infinite outcomes.  Analog clocks and labryinths are good examples of circular time.

Labyrinth Public  Domain Image)by W.H. Matthews




Linear Time: Charles Schultz

Charles M. Schulz  6/11/2011  Daily comic on


Circular Time: Chartres Cathedral

Labryinth,Chartres Cathedral, France


Religious pilrimmages were common during the Middle Ages. Most Christians could not make the actual pilgrimmage to Jerusalem, so they made a symbolic one by walking the labryinth in cathedrals such as Chartres.


Circular Time: Medicine Wheel

Traditional Native American Medicine Wheel

image source: AAA Native American Auctions @ Buffalo Trails 

The Medicine Wheel symbolizes the Sacred Hoop of Life, the four directions, and humanity as one people of many hues, The colors represent: red for East, awareness, and beginnings; yellow for South, healing, youth,and growth; black for West, inner vision, soul searching, and endings; white for North, wisdom of ancestors, higher power, and guidance.

Time in art

Time in art can be actual time or implied time.  Actual time includes time-based work and media, artwork that changes through time, and the effect of time on artwork and how that affects its meaning. Implied time can be represented in the captured moment, an illusion of time passing, or the evidence of time already past.

Actual Time

Time-Based Media

Time-based media in visual art is art that must be experienced over a period of time, whether that time is predetermined or spontaneous. Time-based media incorporates the use of time in the same manner as performing arts such as music, dance, and theater do. Some artists merge visual art with performing arts in their own work in fascinating ways.

There is a long history of visual artists' collaborations with artists from other disciplines such as musicians, choreographers, writers, and performers. In addition there are long-established relationships between visual art and other arts. These include theatrical set design, the use of storyboarding as preparation for performing arts, fashion illustration, book design and illustration, costume design, CD and album covers, interior design, and publicity pieces.

Visual, literary, and performing arts also function as sources of inspiration for each other.

Time-based media in visual art includes film, video, performance art, new media art, interactive internet art, video games. and installation art that incorporates video, digital, sound or other time based elements.


Performance Art: Chris Burden

Pioneering performance artist Chris Burden, Trans-fixed 1974

performance art piece featuring him being nailed to a Volkswagen in Venice, CA.

photo source  copyright  the artist, Chris Burden.

Contemporary performance art was born in the 1960's as an experiemntal medium involving the use of the actions of the artist--instead of a physical art object--as an art medium. Performance art was developed by both women and men, and provided a more equal opportunity for women artists at the time. Early performance art pieces tended to be radical and provokative, a memorable experience for the viewer.


Video Art: Nam June Paik

Nam June Paik TV Buddha 1974 Closed Circuit video installation with bronze sculpture

image source:

In this piece, Paik--known as the grandfgather of video art--created a Zen-like moment as a closed circuit camera recorded a stationary statue of Buddha "watching" himself on TV. Video art was born out of the development of the Sony Porta-pak, a video camera that was compact enough to be mobile and accesible to anyone. The Porta-pak was originally used as an alternative means of news reporting but was quickly adopted as an art medium.


New time-based media.  Out of video art, and the advent of the personal computer, digital and internet based art media emerged. Rapid technological developments have spawned many new forms of artistic possiblities such as video game art and virtual art. A whole new genre of art has been created, known as new media art.


Film art. Film began as an exciting new way to tell a story, beyond the stage. With filmaking a new set of formal elements had to be considered such as time, motion, sound, camera angle, and editing. New techniques and possibilities of filmaking continue to emerge with the development of digital processes.

The traditional art of animation--crafted, detailed, painstaking, and requiring many artists for one project-- has been revolutionized by the advent of digital animation processes like Pixar.  Some artists, however, stubbornly refuse to abandon the traditional art and process of animation.


Animation: Hayao Miyazaki

Spirited Away, 2003; directed by Hayao Miyazaki; produced by Yasuyoshi Tokuma and Toshio SUZUKI; original story and script by Hayao Miyazaki; original music by Joe Hisaishi

Miyazaki has earned international acclaim through the breathtaking animation, character development and complex layering of plots in his films. His films have won numerous awards. Spirited Away won an Osar for Best Animated feature, as well as 35 other awards and 19 nominations



Collaboration between film, visual art, and music: Frida, directed by Julie Taymor, 2002

Promotional image for Frida, directed by Julie Taymor,

 Produced by Sarah Green, Salma Hayek and Jay Polstein, Screenplay by Clancy Sigal, Diane Lake, Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas, Based on Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera, Starring Salma Hayek, Alfred Molina and  Antonio Banderas, Music by Elliot Goldenthal, Cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, Editing by Françoise Bonnot, Distributed by Miramax Films,  2002

image source:

The 2002 biographical film Frida, directed by Julie Taymor, starring Salma Hayeck as the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, and Alfred Molina as her husband, Diego Rivera combines visual art, film, literature,and music--with Frida Kahlo's fascinating life story-- in an innovative way. The film was adapted from the book Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera. Throughout the film, still shots of Kahlo's  paintings come to life as the actors appear to emerge from the paintings and the paintings dissolve into a live action scene. In some scenes involving Diego Rivera, filming was done in front of his actual murals. The musical score, composed by Elliot Goldenthal, won an Oscar. Many of the score's songs in the film were performed by Salma Hayeck.



Tony Oursler: Installation art that incorporates the use of video

Tony Oursler Eyes  2010

detail from installation at Faurschou Gallery, Beijing, China, 2010

In his work, Tony Oursler accomplishes the challenging integration of constructed space, objects, and video, and he does it in a seamless way that makes it appear effortless, as if they were a natural combination. Eyes consists of a darkened room with globe like objects, either suspended or positioned on the floor. Each "globe" has a live action video projection of an eye, in extreme close-up. Each one is different. In addition, each eye has a different soundtrack of a voice telling a story.  Moving through the room, taking in each giant-sized eye and listening to its story can be a disconcerting experience.  The room is buzzing with soft voices and the eyes just stare, occasionally blinking.



Art that changes through time

Some artists deliberatley create work that will change during the course of time. To fully experience it you must return at a later time to see what's happening. It is extremely unpredictable. The end result is a completely different form and sometimes different material, functioning as a testament to the history of its existence and the changes that have taken place. This type of artwork is ephemeral and sometimes, in the end, nothing is left  but a memory.

This type of work can incorporate the physical qualities of a material like ice and water, or it can take place somewhere in the environment where the artist has arranged various elements and allowed the work to run its natural course. 



Yukinori Yanagi: time, politics, and movement--of ants

Yukinori Yanagi  World Flag Ant Farm  (detail).
Ants, coloured sand, plastic boxes, tubing  Tokyo,1990

image source WeWasteTime



Yukinori Yanagi  World Flag Ant Farm  (detail--Japanese flag).
Ants, coloured sand, plastic boxes, tubing  Tokyo,1990

image source Digital Art Resource for Education (DARE)


World Flag Ant Farm consists of a series of interconnecting plastic boxes filled with colored sand  representing world flags. Ants were released into each flag in the system.  Over the course of time the ants carried food and sand between the flags, eventually resulting in the disintegration of each flag, and the intermixing of colors within each flag.  Yanagi made a profound statement using the natural movements of ants. Yanagi said "If the travels of the ant show us anything, it is that he wanders to resume the task he has been programmed to perform, not to aquire freedom." (as quoted in Digital Art Resource for Education DARE).



Janine Antoni: Evidence of time in an artwork

Janine Antoni  Lick and Lather  detail    1993
7 soap and 7 chocolate self-portrait busts, 24 x 16 x 13 inches each
Collection of Jeffrey Deitch, New York  Photo by John Bessler  Courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine



Janine Antoni  Lick and Lather

image source vvork 10569 

Lick and Lather reveals the evidence of time passing--the action of the artist--a history contained within each portrait bust. Antoni cast 14 portrait busts of herself out of chocolate and soap. She then began to consume the chocolate busts and bathe the soap busts, in progressive degrees. Antoni had this to say: "I wanted to work with the tradition of self-portraiture but also with the classical bust. I had the idea that I would make a replica of myself in chocolate and in soap, and I would feed myself with my self, and wash myself with my self. Both the licking and the bathing are quite gentle and loving acts, but what’s interesting is that I’m slowly erasing myself through the process. So for me it’s about that conflict, that love/hate relationship we have with our physical appearance, and the problem I have with looking in the mirror and thinking, ‘Is that who I am?’" (as quoted on PBS' Art 21 website)




Effect of time on an artwork: Angkor Wat

Stone Heads of Bodhisattva Avilokiteshvara, Bayon temple, Angkor, Cambodia

Temple of Ta Prohm, Angkor, Cambodia

image source

Angkor Wat --the largest religious complex in the world--was built for Khmer King Suryavarman II in the 12th century as a state temple and capital city. It was first a Hindu, then a  Buddhist site. The structures at  Angkor Wat have undergone a great deal of deterioration over time. Most notably has been the dominating expansion of banyan trees and their roots, which have completely taken over some structures.

There has been a debate about whether or not the site should be restored. The trees have been allowed to grow naturally in accordance with Buddhist principles and beliefs of the area.

The effect of time on this site can be quite clearly--and dramatically-seen. The original purpose and intent of the site has become transformed into a complex layering of meanings.



Implied Time

Time can be implied in static work in a number of ways, including using sequential series of images, capturing a moment in time, and using symbolic representations of time.


The illusion of time passing

A sequential series of images that relate to each other suggests the passage of time (essentially that is what film does).



Michelangelo, The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City 1508-1512 fresco

Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It took four years and he had to design a special scaffolding, which meant that he had to lay on his back to do the frescos, a difficult painting medium to begin with. There is over 5,000 square feet of frescoes, and they represent 300 Biblical scenes. Michelangelo devised ways to link the scenes together using decorative elements and portraits of characters from the stories.They follow the sequential order of their appearance in the Bible.



     The Bayeux Tapestry   1.6 by 224.3 ft long embroidered cloth commissioned circa 1070

preserved and displayed in Bayeux, in Normandy, France

The Bayeaux Tapestry depicts events leading up to the Norman conquest of England and the invasion itself. It is not known for sure, but it was probably commissioned in the 1070s by Bishop Odo of Bayeux, half-brother of William the Conqueror. The first written record of the tapestry is from 1476.

It was stitched by numerous artists over many years. The length of the tapestry is immense--224 feet long-- and the number of scenes is astonishing.



The Graphic Novel

Will Eisner   A Contract with God   1978     Trade paperback 

A graphic novel is a narrative work that tells its story through a sequential series of images. This can be in a typical comic book style or in an experimental manner. Unlike a comic book however, a graphic novel is bound in the same way as a printed book.


The captured moment

Cadzi Cody, Shoshone      Scenes of Plains Indian Life  c. 1880
mineral-based pigments on elkhide,    68 x 79 in. (172.7 x 200.7 cm)
Minneapolis Institute of Arts  Gift of Bruce B. Dayton

Hide paintings tell the stories and history of Plains Indians. These paintings were used on tipis, buffalo or elk robes, and on garments.  During the early days of the reservations, after Native people were forced to relocate, Shoshone artists continued their hide painting traditions. Instead of stories or history,however, they painted scenes of everyday Indian life to create works that could be sold commercially.

This painting records a moment in time: the Sun Dance, the most sacred of ceremonies for Plains IndiIans. Every detail of the ceremony is represented.

Compare the depiction of space in this painting with the use of space in linear, isometric, or atmospheric perspective systems. Although the space appears flat, it presents all the details of every participant--people and animals--in the ceremony. In addition, colors and details of the tipis, horses,  and attributes of the participants (the objects they are carrying, wearing, or holding) are also recorded in minute detail. This gives the viewer information such as what band the particiapnts are from, who the individual tipis belong to, the status of each person--and animal--and every action that took place.




Jacques-Louis David  The Death of Socrates, 1787
Oil on canvas    
51 x 77 1/4 in. (129.5 x 196.2 cm)

Metropolitan Museum of Art,  Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1931

Source: Jacques-Louis David: The Death of Socrates (31.45) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This painting appears to record a distinct historical moment : the death of Socrates. In reality it is more of a reflection of Neoclassicist ideals--particularly in France--of the 18th Century. Neoclassicism began as a reation to the frivolous, lavishly decorated, and sensous Rococo style which had dominated European art.

Austerity and  linear composition dominate the style visually. The style and the subject matter reflect the essence of Neoclassicism:  high ideals, the value of order and discipline, and emphasis on classical Greek and Roman themes. At the time there was a renewed interest in classical antiquity because of recent excavations of Roman cities such as Pompeii, and this was eagerly adopted as subject matter that effectively illustrated Neoclassicist ideals.

David includes references to many other sources, including Diderot's treatise on dramatic poetry of 1758, the work of the poet André Chenier, and a novel by the English writer Richardson.



Symbolic representation of time

Carlos Schwabe  The Death of the Grave Digger  1895   lithograph

Image source: Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Sfan00_IMG using ComonsHelper

Symbolism is found in art throughout history. In fact, there is a movement and style of painting called symbolism. The use of symbols provides a kind of lens that the work is seen through. Because--at least within cultures--symbols are recognized and immediatly understood, they provide a context for the work. In this way the subject matter--no matter what it is, acquires deeper meaning.

Schwabe was a symbolist and employed the use of symbols liberally. In this painting, they include angels, the figure of death, and prisitne white snow. The fact that it is the death of a grave-digger adds more meaning and a bit of irony.

Here, time is represented as the grand culmination of a humble man's life. Being portrayed at the moment of his death references the passage of time during his entire life. Especially because this is a humble, ordinary man, Schwabe imparts the hope of transfiguration and meaning of life beyond what can be seen in the physical world around us.