Overly Articulated Clocks (on Paul Sietsema)

May 2015

Seven Films by Paul Sietsema

MCA Denver/Mousse


I cannot remember whether or not Paul Sietsema wears a wristwatch. To be honest, I’ve never thought to notice in the decade and a half I’ve known him. Perhaps he used to wear a watch, but no longer does. And perhaps it doesn’t really matter: Most of us carry a time keeping device in our pocket or elsewhere in close proximity to our bodies, or at least we have since mobile phones became the stuff of everyday life. The question unexpectedly crosses my mind while watching At the hour of tea (2013), a 16-millimeter film that features images of an ornate pocket watch, a flip clock, a Royal typewriter, and stationery edged in black: things that immediately conjure the word “obsolescence” and the temporal expansion it implies.

Obsolescence, of course, is not the same as “obsolete”—especially not in our Google-Wikipedia-eBay epoch when nearly any artifact of industrial culture can be retrieved visually, if not purchased. Inevitably, the film itself, a spooled 16-millimeter print, projected by virtue of a flapping shutter, similarly evokes a sense of obsolescence—the slow, gradual fade-out of the mechanical age. Then, I discover an interview with Paul that contains the curious phrase “overly articulated clocks”:

If I see physical things from the two long-term projects I have made—Empire (2002), which was around four years of work, and Figure 3 (2008), which was closer to five—I’m taken back to the time in which I made those things. It may have been the lack of my engagement to the time of the present outside the studio that heightened this phenomenon. The projects became a little like overly articulated clocks, meting out the time outside of time, and in some way recording things as they happened in the various steps of the daily work I undertook in the studio. [1]

The phrase in question—“overly articulated clocks”—might be as good a short description of Paul’s films as any. And more generally, it hints at the operations of his larger body of work, which includes exquisitely rendered drawings and paintings of everyday objects found in his studio, or perhaps any studio. I am also struck by his phrase “time outside of time”—seemingly a philosophical conundrum, but one that goes a long way toward explaining how a temporal understanding of Paul’s process of making films can never precisely align with a viewer’s experience of watching one. Or at least I assume that’s true.

“Few artists luxuriate in time as much as Sietsema,” I recently claimed, but surely I was projecting my own experience of watching his films onto his experience of making them. I imagine his process as, almost inevitably, a kind of struggle in slow motion—the “meting out” over four years, or five. [2] Despite this slowness, the end product hardly looks like a struggle. With the word “luxuriate,” I simply meant to suggest that his films demand our full attention, but also that they (or he, I suppose) make(s) no apology for demanding it. The viewer has a job to do, too, in the face of this situation. Paul’s films—eight of them so far, since 1998—demand our attention and propose the possibility of slowness in a culture that by all accounts is increasingly accelerated and distracted, always looking elsewhere.

I initially encountered Paul’s work in 2000, when his first film, Untitled (Beautiful Place) (1998), was included in an exhibition of new Los Angeles sculpture. [3] I only saw it once, and my memory of the experience of watching it is hazy, but my understanding of his work was certainly informed by the context of his time and place. The artist Charles Ray, an influential mentor to some of the most compelling artists in Los Angeles at the turn of the millennium, described the work of his students, including Paul, as “re-enchanting the world.” [4] I met Paul during this period of re-enchantment. He was researching Baroque ornamentation for his next project, and I was working at a Santa Monica bookstore that sold books on art and architecture.

That eventual project was Empire, a 24-minute film, and I remember seeing it at least three times when it was first exhibited in Los Angeles in September 2002. Empire coincided with my return to graduate school, and it became the subject of my first writing in an academic context in some seven years. That text no longer exists, as far as I know, but I remember a few small details of what I wrote. First, it was in sections, perhaps as an attempt to parallel the film’s episodic structure, which includes a grasshopper coming into focus; a scaleless, white, cavelike form traced by a roving camera; two different crystalline structures, rotating; Clement Greenberg’s apartment, circa 1964; and the Hôtel de Soubise—all (re-)constructed by the artist for the camera. Second, it was a slightly cranky account of my experience of watching the film. I remember being jarred by each splice in the film, likely the result of sitting next to the projector. Its steady mechanical unspooling was impossible to ignore, even unnerving. As I recall, there was no looping mechanism; the film was periodically rewound and started again by the gallery attendant. Its materiality was insistent.

My essay attempted to account for this insistence. Much of it was description—albeit a description of a sequence of complex images that mostly resisted the circumscription of language. (Paul’s films still resist exact verbal apprehension, some even more than Empire). Frustrated as I was, I nevertheless stuck around to see the film several more times before endeavoring to write about it. Looking back, I suspect I was unsettled by it because it didn’t conform to my understanding of what a film is, or could be. I kept expecting it to be a “structural” film, by which I mean the type of film defined by P. Adams Sitney. [5] And while Empire certainly has a structure, that structure is not its dominant characteristic. Rather, I’d say it presents a variety of complex visual phenomena that practically force viewers to perceive themselves perceiving the images and the remarkable differences from one viewing experience to the next. An important lesson emerged from this experience of Paul’s film, coinciding with my shift from amateur art viewer to professional(izing) critic: I began to analyze things as they actually are rather than as they “should” be. I am a better viewer for it.

Inevitably, my experience of the film today is not the same as that initial encounter a dozen years ago. Each encounter is necessarily different, but also determined in large part by earlier encounters, creating a kind of aggregated perception in the imagination, a form of understanding over time. The film itself is not the work, the artist will point out: “The experience of the film, memory of the film, embeddedness of the experience of the film in the memory in all of its spatial, aesthetic, anachronistic complexity is the work,” he tells me. [6] A clock is not the same thing as time.

“At the heart of Sietsema’s investigation,” Chrissie Iles writes in her thorough analysis of Empire, “is the construction of visual perception, as experienced through a space which, as Sietsema observes, could be described in Kantian terms as ‘a pure form of sensibility, which exists in the mind a priori, as the frame within which all experience occurs.’” [7] I think this remains true. Paul’s films reveal an acute awareness of the frame—historically governed by industrial standards—and embrace that container as a given. [8] The frame articulates a fragment from the world around it and turns that fragment into a metonym for the world, whether or not the image in the frame is immediately legible.

I am struck by how often the images in Paul’s frames only become legible over time or hover at the threshold of legibility, suspended in a process of becoming. Figure 3, the film that follows Empire, presents a series of artifacts or fragments of objects against a black ground. We can name some of them: coins, rope, netting, pottery shards. But just as many deflect or evade language, or evoke an entropic vocabulary of ruin: dust, detritus, debris, and so on. Likewise the splatters and smears in Anticultural Positions (2009), a film that gradually reveals these marks as the residue of the artist’s production—the work outside of the work, one might say—accrued on a table in the studio. We are never shown the studio, only localized sections of this palimpsest, a kind of incidental mess revealed in clusters of close-up black-and-white shots alternating with a text written in the first person but largely borrowed from the artist Jean Dubuffet.

Whether or not we are meant to read this text—the film—as an autobiographical confession is beside the point. The worktable is understood as a historical device, and perhaps also an allegorical one—a device that inevitably embeds the artist into a matrix of labor. I’m reminded of art historian Leo Steinberg’s term “flatbed picture plane,” a notion he located in the sand-clotted surfaces of Dubuffet’s paintings and especially in the dense accumulations of Robert Rauschenberg’s combines: “It seemed at times that Rauschenberg’s work surface stood for the mind itself—dump, reservoir, switching center, abundant with concrete references freely associated as in an internal monologue—the outward symbol of the mind as a running transformer of the external world, constantly ingesting incoming unprocessed data to be mapped in an overcharged field.” [9] For Steinberg, the flatbed picture plane was culture itself, in a state of flux.

In all of Paul’s films since Empire, the tabletop emerges as an important framing device, an implied if not explicit ground where vision can land. (This is also true of his paintings and drawings, where the surface of the canvas or paper is understood as a stand-in for a flat, horizontal plane, even when hung vertically.) In Encre Chine (2012), objects in the studio are slathered with a viscous coat of the black Chinese ink that gives the film its name. Many of these objects are nameable—the lid of a paint can, a hammer, a T-square, a camera, picture frames, and so on—but the tarry coating begins to level difference and render the familiar strange. The accumulated objects, apparently “black” yet highly reflective from our mediated vantage point, begin to read as an undifferentiated totality in which frame and surface are one, insinuating a more expansive flood of data beyond the edges of what’s made visible by the camera. I imagine a joke about watching paint dry that plays out over the 15 minutes of Encre Chine—a duration that might seem interminable to some viewers. [10]

Slowness, of course, is relative. In watching (and re-watching) these films, I’ve noticed how I begin to embrace their peculiar speed, or lack thereof, just at the moment they come to an end. Which is to say the end often comes as a surprise: Paul’s films never offer the climax or dénouement expected of conventional narratives, yet it is also true that the ending is never arbitrary.

I began with the question about a wristwatch because I have come to understand Paul’s primary project as a consideration of time and how we apprehend it. “Perception,” he once observed, “exists only in the present.” [11] Likewise the perception of watching a film, with the present defined through a constant negotiation between the regular, mechanical rate of the projection—the instant of a single frame within a continuous flow—and the relative temporality of the viewer’s body: Its time becomes my time, and overtakes me. And as the film endures in my memory, yet another new sense of time emerges. It’s not necessary to claim that Paul’s films reward our “undivided” attention, which is clearly true for this viewer. This kind of perception is obsolescent, if not already an artifact in the present. In this sense, these films embrace impossibility.



1. Adam Szymczyk and Quinn Latimer, “Impossibly Clean Models: Paul Sietsema in Conversation” in Paul Sietsema: Interviews on Films and Works, Quinn Latimer, ed. (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012): 94.

2. Michael Ned Holte, “Best of 2013,” Artforum International (December 2013): 242–43.

3. The exhibition was Mise-en-Scène—New L.A. Sculpture, curated by Bruce Hainley and Carole Ann Klonarides, Santa Monica Museum of Art, June 20–August 19, 2000.

4. Dennis Cooper, “Too Cool for School,” Spin (July 1997): 86–94, reprinted in Dennis Cooper, Smothered in Hugs: Essays, Interviews, Feedback and Obituaries (Harper Perennial, 2010).

5. Sitney defined Structural film, as exemplified by the work of Hollis Frampton, Michael Snow, Ernie Gehr, and others, as “a cinema of structure in which the shape of the whole film is predetermined and simplified, and it is that shape which is the primal impression of the film. The structural film insists on its shape, and what content it has is minimal and subsidiary to the outline.” See P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943–2000 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001): 348. The film begs comparison to Andy Warhol’s film of the same name, which seemingly meets the criteria for Sitney’s notion of structural film.

6. Email to the author, May 21, 2014.

7. Chrissie Iles, “Empire: A Catalogue Raisonné of an Explorer of Space” in Paul Sietsema: Empire (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art): 1.

8. In this sense, Sietsema’s approach to film’s industrial standards does parallel the concerns of Structural film as Sitney defined it. Sietsema was a student of Morgan Fisher while at UCLA, and Fisher’s remarkable 16-millimeter film Standard Gauge (1986) offers a close analysis of film gauges used by the motion picture industry, highlighting a variety of still frames. As a curious corollary, it’s also worth noting that Sietsema’s recent paintings of common studio tools begin with an existing frame as a given by repurposing the backsides of found oil paintings.

9. Leo Steinberg, “Other Criteria” in Other Criteria (London: Oxford University Press, 1972): 55–91.

10. I think of my younger students and their palpable discomfort when I screen Yvonne Rainer’s Hand Movie (1966), with its sequence of tightly framed hand movements choreographed by the hospitalized dancer. One person’s sense that nothing is happening is another person’s sensory overload. Does Yvonne ever repeat a gesture? I’m mesmerized by that hand.

11. Gintaras Didziapetris and Paul Sietsema, “Interview,” The Federal (October 2011): 21–28; reprinted in Paul Sietsema: Interviews on Films and Works, 7–24.