Interviewed by Ann Dingli
That Golden Stain of Time artist Dan Hudson
Dan Hudson is a multi-disciplinary, Canadian artist working with ideas that connect human culture and the natural world. While practicing as an artist, Hudson also worked as an outdoor adventure photojournalist specialising in extreme action shots until exclusively turning to art making in 2008. His photographs have been published extensively, appearing on over sixty international publication covers. He has earned a BFA with honours from York University (Toronto, Canada), studied anthropology at UCSD (California, USA), and attended art residencies in Banff, Berlin and Leipzig. He has also received seven international awards for various art projects and thirty peer assessed art grants. Hudson’s upcoming show at Valletta Contemporary (VC) will highlight his interest in bringing together themes concerning human beings and their evolving relationship with the natural world. In this interview, he speaks to Ann Dingli about his process and work, in particular the way his art frequently represents the way in which people experience time, and what bearing that experience has on their existence.
Ann Dingli (AD): Before we discuss the work showing at VC, can you talk about how your experience with photojournalism informs your art-making? Does it influence in terms of the range of different places around the world it's taken you to, or in terms of its technical process – or both?
Dan Hudson (DH): I’d say both. I specialised in adventure photography. While on the job, I often had to adapt to rapidly changing situations, so being technically proficient with a camera was essential. The camera skills I learned as a photojournalist have often served me well as an artist. And having an opportunity to travel to some remote places on the planet really broadened my perspective of the world.
There is also a more subtle aspect of adventure photography that has impacted my art practice. I was often in precarious situations, in severe conditions. During these times, I learned to become acutely attuned to my surroundings. This kind of hyper-awareness also exposed insights to the context of my everyday life that now provides a position from which my art comes.
AD: One of the major themes you explore in your work is the subject of time. In past interviews you’ve described your video work as “photographs that slowly change” – why is it important to you to find ways to demonstrate the movement of time?
DH: Conceptually, we understand time as an infinite continuum but, for our individual lives, time is finite. It begins when we are born and ends when we die. Time defines the parameters of what it means to be alive.
There is a great Italian proverb:
“L’uomo misure il tempo – e il tempo misura l’uomo”
Man measures time - and time measures man.
In this age of information overload, it’s easy to get swept up in humanity’s politics, quibbles and social media distractions. In my art practice, I challenge myself to look beyond that and consider the broader question of our existence. Time is an essential part of that puzzle. My art projects are my way of measuring time; not in minutes and hours but rather in terms of my own life experiences.
Dan Hudson, Atlas, 2015
AD: You often conflate two disparate representations within one experience – for example, showing rural footage against sounds from urban contexts. Can you talk about why you do this?
DH: The example you mentioned is from the work titled River. The visual imagery was shot in the mountains near the source of the river and the audio was recorded in a city downstream. I like the idea that these two different places are connected by the river. From the River’s point of view, everything along its entire course is happening simultaneously. I wanted to bring this element into the work.
River also contains disparate representations of time. In the video, a year goes by in a few minutes and yet, all the movement is in real time. For example, the flowing water and blowing leaves appear perfectly normal. I developed a method to make it seem like time is behaving in completely different ways simultaneously. It is a way to reflect on how we perceive time.
AD: Your installation The Illusion of the Sun Going Down will undoubtedly take on new meaning in the context of Malta – a place that experiences over 300 days a year of intense sunshine. Do you think viewers from different parts of the world have different readings of your work following their own relationship with their natural surroundings?
DH: This brings up the broad question of how we, as viewers, engage with art. The way any viewer will read a work of art is guided by their own history, knowledge, emotional state and cultural background. Within this context, a viewer’s relationship with their natural surroundings will be a major factor in how they read a work like The Illusion of the Sun Going Down. For example, a fisherman might have quite a different take on that work than a person who works in an office. A viewer’s relationship with an art work is very personal. There is no right or wrong interpretation. For me, this is the beautiful thing about art.
AD: The word ‘illusion’ in the title of your work Illusion of the Sun Going Down seems significant – it points out that the sun doesn’t actually go down, and that that process is named as such as a result of human perception. Does the work aim to reflect on human being’s position in the world, how we are governed by processes and forces we have no conceivable control over?
DH: Yes exactly. This work originated during a holiday in Venice. I was filming the sunset one evening when the lyrics from the song Do you Realize by The Flaming Lips came to my mind;
You realize that life goes fast
It’s hard to make the good things last
You realize the sun doesn't go down
It's just an illusion caused by the world spinning round
Those song lyrics triggered a sudden shift in my perception of the situation. One moment I am watching the sun going down, the next moment I feel the spin of the earth moving me away from the sun; like being on a Ferris wheel. It profoundly changed my emotional response to the scene in front of me.
Later that evening I was flipping through social media and saw a video created by NASA that was making the rounds. The video showed a beautiful close up view of the sun in all its glory. It felt like a serendipitous corroboration of my sunset experience.
When I was back in my studio after the trip to Venice, I researched the NASA database and discovered an entire archive of high-resolution images of the sun taken by the Solar Dynamics Observatory. They are time coded, so I was able to locate the images that corresponded to the time of the sunset I filmed in Venice. I then used those images to create a video animation of the sun. The Illusion of the Sun Going Down brings together two different views of the sun from the exact same moment in time. It puts the buildings, water, boats, people, birds and the entire Venice sunset scene into cosmological context.
 Song Lyrics, Wayne Coyne
Dan Hudson, Winter Crows, 2017
AD: News, Weather & Sports took two years for you to make. Is it difficult to remain loyal to your initial intended outcome when you are working across such a long period of time? What did you set out to do at the start of making this piece?
DH: Inevitably when I work on projects that take such a long time to complete, there are moments when I question the initial parameters of a project, but remaining loyal to the intended outcome is often the essence of the project.
The initial intent of News, Weather & Sports was to conceive of a way to experience the Earth’s movements through space while standing on the surface of the planet. To achieve this, I visited the same location once a week for a year and filmed the exact same section of the landscape. It was a kind of ritual based on the Earth’s orbit around the sun. The finished work is a record of that ritual.
AD: Fragments of a Year - Berlin is another important work featured in the VC show. When referring to it, you’ve said that you were “inspired by the way that quantum physics describes subatomic particles as existing in a state of probability”. Can you unpack that idea – does it translate to another method by which to communicate the passing of time, and the nature in which human beings grapple with it?
DH: Fragments of a Year - Berlin is a layered work that intertwines urban street life and geopolitical history with ideas from three different frontiers being explored in science: the nature of time, the cosmos and the sub-atomic realm.
“Spooky” and “bizarre” are words used by Einstein and other physicists to describe the behaviour of sub-atomic particles. They are referring to things like quantum entanglement, where correlated particles affect each other, even if they are millions of kilometres apart. Or superposition, which proposes that particles exist in multiple states that only collapse into one possibility upon observation (Schrödinger's cat). Or the uncertainty principle, where both a particle’s motion and position together can only exist in a state of probability.
Even though these kinds of phenomena exist beyond our perception, they transform how we understand the fabric of reality. As an artist, I strive to create works that look beyond the veneer of the visible world and the limitations of linear time.
For Fragments of a Year – Berlin, I developed a process that imagines how the visible world might look if it behaved similar to the way quantum mechanics describes the subatomic realm. To achieve this, I shot Berlin cityscape scenes in segments. At each film location I stood in the same spot for hours and shot one small section of the scene at a time. Then in post-production, I assembled the sections from each scene into cohesive yet unstable images. The individual segments that make up a scene are in constant flux. Like the uncertainty principle, each segment exists in a state of probability. And like superposition, multiple time lines are collapsed into one possibility where all the parts are visually linked but are disconnected in time.
The overall structure of the work is based on the four seasons which references the Earth’s planetary motion around the sun. In this way, Fragments of a Year – Berlin connects the urban landscapes of everyday life to both the cosmos and the sub-atomic foundation of reality.
AD: Ultimately, what does your art intend to say about human beings’ relationship with the natural world? Is there an overriding message that you strive to communicate, and has this changed over time?
DH: For the most part, my work has always reflected on ways that human culture and nature interact. Of course, my vision of what that means has evolved over the years to keep pace with the changing world, my life experiences, and the ideas in philosophy and science I discovered along the way. Currently I am interested in notions of the Anthropocene – the idea that humanity has altered the planet enough to form a new geological epoch.
Ecological philosopher Timothy Morton put forward the idea that the natural world does not exist separate from human culture. Human beings are not over here and nature over there. There is no “us and them” when it comes to the ecology of the planet. Humanity is part of an intricate web that connects all life on Earth.
We exist in a closed eco system on a small planet spinning through the vastness of the universe. This is truly a remarkable thing. If there is an overriding message to be found in my art, it is related to this realisation.