BRUSSELS — Entering Patrick Bernatchez’s exhibition Les Temps Inacheves (French for “unfinished time”) at the Argos Centre for Art and Media, you are first confronted by “Lost in Time 33-66” (2014), an amplified metronome and a record player. The endless tick-tock is an ominous, inescapable heartbeat. In this exhibition, clocks and their sound never allow the viewer to forget the brutal and unyielding presence of time, as well as its toll on our mortal bodies. Bernatchez’s sleek, post-apocalyptic aesthetic, coupled with this sense of foreboding, leaves the viewer in a powerfully unnerved state.
Entering the dimly lit hall, you come upon a darkened glass vitrine containing a mysterious contraption made of sleek plastic. “Sans titre (casque intégral pour cheval)” (2010–11) frustrates identification until you turn around and see “À la recherche du jour d’après” (2012), a large triptych of backlit prints of a man riding a horse through a blizzard. The horse wears the object inside the darkened vitrine: a customized black helmet.
Lost in the blizzard, the man and the horse — characters that recur throughout the exhibition — are adorned with futuristic armor in a hopeless battle against nature and time. We see them again in the video “Lost in Time” (2014), which is split between two scenes: a melting block of ice in a sterile laboratory and the horse and the man in another punishing mountainous landscape. As the man meets his frozen fate, the horse emerges from the ice block in the lab — a powerful commentary on the futility of humanity’s will to control our environment. At the end of it all, Bernatchez suggests, our follies will leave the animals, or some Frankenstein’s-monster versions of them, as the last ones standing.
In the back room are three videos from another series, inspired by the gentrification of the artist’s Montreal studio building. The most moving are “I Feel Cold Today” (2007), which features long tracking shots of an office being blanketed in snow, and “Chrysalide” (2008), which shows a man calmly smoking inside his car in front of the artist’s studio as he slowly drowns to death. Once again, Bernatchez gives time an undeniable presence, juxtaposing it with our futile attempts to control it and go about our everyday lives.
The circular tracking shot of the man drowning in “Chrysalide” brings me back to “BW” (2009–11), a hypermodern wristwatch that the horseback rider in “Lost in Time” finds buried in the snow; a version of it is displayed in another darkened vitrine. The watch appears to be broken but is actually calibrated so that every full rotation of the hands equals one millennium. As the metronome beats on and images of our demise are projected, “BW” suggests the kind of time frame of action we would need to avoid our current fate. Given catastrophic climate change, severe droughts, and irreversible pollution — all looming on the news while we happily go about our days — this time frame feels irreparably distant.
Taken together, Bernatchez’s two distinct series become a biting critique of humanity’s capitalistic logic. We are doomed by an insatiable desire for new, shiny, and expensive objects. Will time invariably return us to nature, which we never truly left? Having dinner with friends later that night, talking about the unseasonably warm winter, I couldn’t help but recall these dark works and the ticking of time, as we humans slowly seal our own fate.
Patrick Bernatchez – Les Temps Inacheves continues at the Argos Centre for Art and Media (Werfstraat 13 rue du Chantier, Brussels) through June 28.