Passages of time

Continuing and reinterpreting the long tradition of the illuminated manuscript, American artist Susan Barron has drawn together collage, photography, printing, musical composition, etching and hand-lettering in her opus Labyrinth of Time, currently on show at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. The exhibition is housed in 11 exquisitely bound and different sized red leather volumes which open to spill out their pages, concertina fashion, in long, fibre-optic illuminated cabinets. Representing its own journey through time, the Labyrinth embraces work completed over a 15 year period, which took some nine years to compile and two years to bind. The pages, fully extended, stretch to well over 150 feet.

Inspired by the medieval manuscript The Book of Hours, Barron saw the notion of time as a thread running through her own work. “I had created many of the pieces individually and in a random way over many years, then eventually they began to configure into groups. The books mark the end of a process rather than a starting point.”

The books explore many different aspects of time and come under headings such as Making Time and Song of Songs. Each one explores different aspects of time in terms of passing days and months, changing light, measured time in music, the passage towards death, the effects of time in degrading materials such as paper, and so on.

Paper as an endlessly intriguing medium is clearly a fascination for Barron. The pages of the books are cut from thick sheets of gorgeous creamy coloured Fabriano Rosaspina. Each page features text in hand lettering or letterpress printing or inset images. Barron’s collages are particularly beautiful, they are intricate and multi-layered, often comprising segments carefully excised from ancient books. Each one represents time frozen – it’s impossible to discern whether the images are in the process of being constructed or deconstructed. “Long ago someone gave me a 17th century appointments book, made of beautiful rag paper. It was in a shambles and way beyond saving, so I began to tear and cut it up and take elements from it. The result of this was a series of images representing months of the year. As it happened January, February and March followed naturally on from each other and then the rest of the months began to tumble out of sequence. I tried to piece them together to follow each other chronologically, but they didn’t look right. It occurred to me that this was precisely how the mind works – we don’t remember things in the exact order in which they happened. I ended up with thirteen months concluding with Remember and December.”

In addition to the fascination with paper, it’s also clear that Barron enjoys the beauty of typography – her images include texts in French and English along with Arabic. “I was an only child and books were my best friends when I was young. I didn’t come from an art background and as an adult my first ventures into making images were based on lettering.”

Barron says one of her aims is “to provide respite from the hurry of life. Take your roller blades off and take some time out.” As might be expected from its title, Labyrinth of Time is a visual puzzle, it is complex, intriguing, exquisitely made and presented and, for those who take the time to slow down and look, it is curiously and pleasingly calming.

The Labyrinth of Time by Susan Barron is on show at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum on level 3 of the Henry Cole Wing, until 7 September.

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