By Loren Fetterman
Kairos is an artistic representation of an intuition that many of us feel, but few have purposefully explored. We often sense that time moves in cycles more subtle than those we follow by the calender and clock. Unlikely events unfold as if by fate to teach us the same lessons again and again, and profound experiences separated by vast periods of time seem mysteriously connected, as if we’d returned to the same nexus of meaning further along the temporal spiral. Much of our great art, music and literature are epic illustrations of these invisible webs of meaning. Many religious cosmologies are also framed by this cyclical conception of time, including the Hindu model of the four yugas, the Mayan baktuns, Buddhist concepts of karma and re-incarnation, and the enigmatic system of the IChing often linked with Taoism. The popularity of astrology in our modern age is testament to how strongly this intuition is felt among many people, persisting even when vehemently opposed by the common scientific worldview. The same can be said of systems of divination, such as the casting of runes, throwing the IChing, or the reading of Tarot cards. All are linked by the idea that the past and future are somehow present now, and can be read like a text if only we learn the forgotten language of symbols.
These cycles of time are often experienced not only as recurring themes woven throughout the narrative of our lives, but also as stages of development that we move through as we grow and mature. Whether observing the growth of a young child, a romantic relationship, or the first centuries of a civilization, we commonly accept that there are certain stages that make up a healthy process of development. Likewise, many systems of spiritual practice provide detailed maps of states and stages that the seeker will progress through on their path towards enlightenment or awakening. The Kabbalistic Tree of Life, Buddhist maps of meditation progress, and alchemical allegories of the journey of the soul all illustrate paths of development reflective of the particular teachings of each. While few of us ever begin such rigorous mental training, to the extent that we strive for anything we can be said to be on a path, and our victories and defeats often feel like familiar plot twists in anticipation of our final goal.
The word Kairos refers to a concept developed in ancient Greece, when these ideas were more widely accepted as principles. While it was most commonly used by rhetoricians to refer to the opportune moment during which to deliver a particular argument, usually in the courtroom, it has it roots in the arts of weaving and archery, where it signified the creation of an opening and the right time to strike. The word also came to mean ‘weather’ and ‘times’. It is used approximately 81 times in the New Testament, such as when Jesus says to a crowd, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens…You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time (the kairos)?”
One might answer that it is because we lack a suitable language. It seems counter intuitive to attempt to develop a terminology capable of referring to the infinite range of occurrences that might make up particular ‘kinds of time’. And yet we have one word for the vast array of objects that we refer to as ‘chairs’. This is possible because we group chairs by the function that they serve, we sit in them. So too, traditions throughout history have attempted to group the events that make up different ‘kinds of time’ by their fundamental effects or function, claiming that there exists not only ‘a time to reap and a time to sow’, but also a time to marry, a time to learn, to teach, to make war or peace, and so on.
The performance of Kairos is a presentation of one such language. More precisely, it presents an alphabet, discovered and developed over a number of years by paying close attention to apparent cyclical patterns in time. Each letter of this alphabet, and the words spelled from these letters, was experienced as a meditative trial, a paradox of opposing perspectives that had to be unified before the next letter could be learned. While these trials can be extremely challenging, the completion of each frees us from fundamental illusions that sap our energy and cloud our perceptions.
This alphabet will painted onto a ten foot timepiece made of four large wheels which will spin at different speeds during the performance, signifying the cycles that we experience as we pass under the influence of each letter. A woman will be mounted to the front wheel, spinning upside down again and again over a number hours, exhibiting the endurance required to learn the lessons of each cycle and thereby acquire this new language. A mandala will be painted across her and the wheel, representing the language’s logical structure and its relationship to the body. A poem constructed from fragments of submitted pieces of writing on the theme of transformations, cycles and time will then be written over the mandala, unifying the experiences of Kairos in the lives of individuals into a single voice. Finally, she will step down from the timepiece, adorned and transformed.
Loren Fetterman and Stefanie Elrick’s previous performance, Written in Skin, presented a form of immediate language, expressed through the natural responses of the naked body as poetry was etched into skin using a tattoo machine. Kairos draws our focus from the immediacy of language to its potential in describing transformational processes rather than single things or events, and connections of meaning rather than of causality.
Kairos will be performed at 12pm at the Cornerhouse, Manchester on January 31st, 2015, as part of the Cornerhouse’s ongoing Playtime exhibition. The timepiece will be on display after the performance and during the following day.