The Delayed Self

By Itaru Hirano


This collaborative installation work by Danish artists Christian Heide and Nikolaj Recke could be briefly described thus: An echo device set up in a completely empty room so that words return as a distorted echo shortly after they are spoken.

However, this work should not simply be characterized as "sound art." Its objective is not just the production or effect of sound itself but the broadening of our existential horizons. According to the artists, its aim is "to help those who experience it to get to know themselves." The meaning of this project thus depends on people's interaction with it. By coming into contact with "another self" in the form of an echo, they are stimulated to rediscover and then reconsider their own existence.

The primary effect of the delayed sound of our voice in the form of an echo is to make us aware of time - not material or objective time, but our own internal time. Needless to say, this question of time is an important theme that philosophers have wrestled with when considering the nature of human existence: consciousness of one's existence and awareness of time are two sides of the same coin.

Due to the echo mechanism in this work, however, the usual relationship between existence and time becomes slightly distorted. The appearance of the self is delayed by the echo out of sync with actual time and the sense of real existence - the certainty of "being here now" - should be momentarily blunted. We may call this "the delayed self." This delay is the most interesting question posed by this work.

One of those who have discussed the "delayed self" from the existential perspective is the 20th century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. In questioning the ethical relationship between one's own existence and that of others, Levinas argued that, since there is always a delay, a time gap, between the self and "the other," one cannot share the same temporal existence with others. Levinas accordingly stressed the significance of this delay in the self and the importance of becoming aware of it. This became a means of reaching mutual ethical recognition of this gap without falling into a relationship of subordination between the self and the other, as well as a method of avoiding the assimilation of individuals into a uniform time or dimension.

This concept of Levinas's has a strange resonance in contemporary society, which has been formed partly through our eagerness for all kinds of things to exist simultaneously without delay. But Levinas understood that if all people existed simultaneously there was a danger that everything would be assimilated into a single totalitarian system. Becoming aware of the delay in the self and recognizing the temporal gap in relation to "the other" is therefore an effective concept in resisting easy assimilation into the monolithic system of contemporary society. If we consider it from this perspective, we can grasp the meaning of the "delayed self" that momentarily warps our sense of reality in this work by Heide and Recke. This self avoids assimilation into the system of reality through its delay from the other and views the world from a position one step behind. The fascination of this work lies in its effect of drawing us into this kind of existential discourse concerning the delayed self.

Another important figure in the 20th century who alluded to this delay was Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp asserted that his work "Large Glass" was not a tableau made of glass but a "delay in glass". In this enigmatic phrase we can discern a kind of resistance to paintings that simply reproduce visual (retinal) images. By means of this rhetoric aimed at effecting a distortion between the work and reality through this delay, Duchamp aimed to prevent "Large Glass" from being interpreted in terms of an ordinary painting, reflecting the artist's pursuit of a different meaning arising from the state of delay. This concept is diametrically opposed to the prevailing twentieth-century trend of desiring simultaneity or even precedence. But the delay is not merely negative; it can be a kind of resistance, or even a technique for redefining one's own position. Marcel Duchamp seems to have been one of those artists who intuitively understood this.

Duchamp's intuitive allusion and Levinas's concept both adopt the perspective of delay and can be said to pursue the same line of discourse as this installation by Heide and Recke. Through the philosophy of delay, we can question the nature of our own existence and rediscover ourselves. Perhaps this is the central aim of this echo work.

(Translated from the Japanese by Richard Sams)

© 2000 Itaru Hirano (Curator at The Museum of Modern Art, Saitama)