Wolfgang Staehle

“Fragments in Time and Space,” a new exhibition at the Hirshhorn, can be experienced as a kind of summer sorbet, a refreshing immersion in cool art. Or it can take you deeper, into some of the thorniest problems of representation, most of them raised by the advent of photography and its frustrating power to capture a moment from the flow of existence — and isolate it and drain it of something essential.

The background to this show, organized by Hirshhorn chief curator Kerry Brougher, is laid out in the first pages of a book published more than two centuries ago: “The Critique of Pure Reason” by Immanuel Kant. Time and space, argued the philosopher, were the basic first and internal intuitions of all thought and consciousness, a gridlike overlay on the world which has often seemed more like a prison than a blank canvas upon which life and meaning are sketched. As Western culture made increasing contact with the intellectual substance of other, especially Asian cultures, this rigid, scientific, Enlightenment idea of time has seemed particularly frustrating, empty and ill-suited to explain how existence is actually felt.

Perhaps that helps one understand the painting that greets the visitor upon entering the show: Ed Ruscha’s 1989 “Five Past Eleven,” a surreal image that shows a thin piece of bamboo hovering magically over the face of an old clock or pocket watch. Bamboo can mean many things, and its hardiness and ubiquity make it a common symbol for longevity. But Ruscha hasn’t painted green bamboo, rather a leafless switch of the dried stalk. It looks like a cane, like something which lashes or whips us. In a sense, like time.

Nearby is a small black-and-white painting, about the size of a standard photograph, in which simple, almost digital numbers and letters tell us the date: “Oct. 24, 1971.” It is part of On Kawara’s conceptual “Today Series” paintings, which punctuate the show in three places and offer wry counterpoint to the video, film and installation pieces. They are points on Kant’s grid, posted without commentary precise reminders of a moment that has passed. Because they are painted and hanging in an art museum, they might seem to reference something important, some epic moment in time. But they are merely dates, time lost, meaningless time.

The size and visual sumptuousness of several works is seductive, and they seem intended to dissolve the viewer into the flow of something larger, to annihilate, for a moment, the nagging and desultory sense of ordinary existence that so often defines life on the time-space grid. Douglas Gordon’s “Play Dead; Real Time,” from 2003, uses two giant screens, placed in the center of the gallery, to show us different aspects of an elephant lying on the ground, struggling to get up, slowly moving through a room that looks suspiciously like an art museum. There are many things one might think and feel about the multiple perspectives offered here. But one of the most tangible is simply pity, or empathy, for another creature, imprisoned, captured, objectified and represented as art.

Empathy, truly felt and acted upon, is an escape from the self. Richard Long’s “Norfolk Flint Circle,” an installation of fragments of flint arranged in a circle, takes the encounter with something emotional and larger than daily reality a step further. Long’s flint looks like bleached bone, like the joints of an animal a bit smaller than an elephant but no less sentient and significant. The perfect circle of Long’s arrangement suggests a primitive form of remembrance, a cry against the annihilation of death.

And finally, as you leave the exhibition, there is Wolfgang Staehle’s “Niagara,” from 2005, which runs for 60 minutes but shows the same scene throughout: the torrents of water surging into the void at Niagara Falls. If you want to dissolve consciousness, here is an ideal opportunity, an overscale representation of what Kant would have called the Sublime, something both terrifying and invigorating.

But of course rivers have much more to say than just: Forget. That was Lethe, but there is also the river of Heraclitus, the one referenced in the crude translation of the Greek sage’s most famous insight: that you can never step into the same river twice. As the last piece in the exhibition — an exhibition that flows in a circle around the second floor of the Hirshhorn’s circular space — Staehle’s video reminds us of different notions of time and prepares the visitor to begin again, to see the whole thing one more time but differently.

Much of the material in the exhibition is familiar. Photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto that play with ideas of time, exposure and the murky lines of existence have become as elemental to how we think about time and space visually as the hypnotic slow flow of minimalist music plays with our sense of time aurally. Thirteen of his classic seascapes are mounted in a dark room with precise spotlights (as they were in a 2006 retrospective), making them seem to float off the walls. Along with a luminous back-lit image by Jeff Wall, they remind us how much the sense of ethereal otherness is a matter of theatricality and illusion.

This is the nub of the show: Do images offer real transcendence, or are these tricks, illusions, amusement rides for the brain? Are we in the museum for elevation or escape? The seductiveness of much of what is on display is perilously close to mindless entertainment. Does it cross the line?

The question becomes particularly fraught in the center of the show, with one of its most substantial works: David Claerbout’s “Sections of a Happy Moment.” The writer Mary McCarthy once said, “You cannot hang an event on a wall, only a picture.” But Claerbout is fighting hard against that, against all of the limitations of the photograph. His video installation shows what seems to be a single moment, a small family watching as a young girl throws a ball into the air. Claerbout gives us the mundane scene from a seemingly infinite number of perspectives, isolating it, anatomizing it, returning endlessly to the “happy moment” of a ball hanging magically in the air until that moment is anything but happy. The ball is no longer in motion, the people no longer seem to have any relation to one another, the architecture behind them becomes yet another prisonlike space. The moment is lost before it ever happened, another supposedly happy memory tossed in the ossuary of oblivion.

It’s ghastly, and haunting. So why does Claerbout accompany his video with such vulgar and meaningless music, a new-age soundtrack of nugatory value? Does he have bad taste? Is he emphasizing the sentimentality of a family at play? Or is he subverting the power of his own work, like replacing Bach with a kazoo soundtrack in a Tarkovsky film?

You can’t be sure. And there’s the crux. Do we really want to escape from the old prison house of time and space? Or are we just looking for a little gentle stimulation, a little taste of Eastern immateriality and timelessness? Is this exhibition meant to tickle or provoke?

Perhaps both. As a summer show, in a cool, dark, museum space, “Fragments in Time and Space” is an escapist exhibition about escapism. It uses the Hirshhorn’s space uncommonly well, especially the room of Sugimoto seascapes which turns to advantage the museum’s curving walls. But in the end, the exhibition remains firmly indoors, a museum piece, dealing with the internal dynamics of art, a caesura in the flow of life, rather than comment on it. And when you’re pressed for time, and the old Kantian box of space has been put on the summer boil, that’s okay.

Fragments in Time and Space

On view at the Hirshhorn Museum through Aug. 28. Admission is free. For more information, visit hirshhorni.si.edu.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.