Time Replenished: The Fountain of Youth

A text commissioned by Spike Art Quarterly as part of their platform for the Berlin Biennale Young Curators Workshop.

Matthäikirchplatz, Berlin, summer 2016. Horse-led carts emerge from craggy-rocked forests, bearing old and infirm women, their heads wrapped in linen, hands clasped in supplication or pain. They undress at the edge of a fountain, revealing wrinkled flesh and sickled spines, skin hanging loosely from withered arms. As they lower themselves gingerly into the pool and bathe in the placid grey water, transformation occurs. On the other side of the baths, luminous-skinned girls frolic and play, taut-chested, lithe and dainty, pale and perfect. They squeeze excess water from waist-length curls before climbing confidently from the spring, where a young man waits to greet them. Once they are dressed, a magnificent meal awaits them, a bounty matched by the vitality of the landscape, whose fertile fields roll into the distance. Musicians play drums and pipes, as the young women are led to eating, to dancing, to sex, in a red tent through split curtains.

Rendered in minute detail and meticulous brushwork, Lucas Cranach the Elder’s painting hangs in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie and dates to 1546, though its vision of immortality reads differently in light of today’s fetishisation of youth and the female body.

We might think, of course, of the fountain of youth as disrupting horizontal chronology, reversing the effects of ageing, folding time back upon itself, like wrinkles smoothed from skin. Yet instead of turning time backwards, Cranach’s painting asserts the authority of youth before age, enacting youth as a fresh kind of future, an extension of time. The painting is not an attack on linear temporality as the entirety of its motion is determinedly forwards, a looping cycle that mirrors nature's replenishment.

Suhail Malik and Armen Avanessian write in “The Time Complex. Postcontemporary”: “if the present has been the primary category of human experience thanks to biological sentience, this basis for the understanding of time now loses its priority in favour of what we would call a time-complex.” In today’s world, they argue, the future acts now to transform the present before the present has even happened: Amazon knows what you will want before you do, its algorithms generate your desire; the pre-emptive strike produces conflict before any threat exists in the present.

Cranach's painting embodies this by throwing biological sentience out the window. He describes a scenario in which death is evaded, if not impossible, and in which the present loses priority by virtue of the possibility of permanent future. Just as in Avanessian and Malik’s time-complex, in Cranach's world knowledge of future rejuvenation, the possibility of rebirth in a fabled fountain, must implicitly act upon the present in which the corporeal body operates and weakens.

Perhaps what Avanessian and Malik identify is thus a logical (dystopic) extension of a trope that has existed for hundreds of years. Yet what drives the sixteenth-century time-complex is not a neo-liberal economic system that generates empty desire. On the contrary, it is Venus and Cupid who perch atop the fountain, the source of immortality. Perhaps Cranach tells us, in the end, love is the future.

- Rachel Dedman

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