One recent afternoon in May, the artist Bettina Pousttchi arrived to a café in Tribeca at 1:55 P.M. This would be otherwise unnotable, except that 1:55 was the exact same time she’s spent photographing on clocks all across the world for the last eight years, an intercontinental project she started in 2008 and only completed last year.
"World Time Clock" covers all 24 full-hour time zones, and took Pousttchi everywhere from Portugal to Brazil to even Siberia. Starting this week, though, the work finds a home at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. – the city which, as Pousttchi is quick to point out, hosted the International Meridian Conference where a universal time system was first decided upon in 1884. Coincidence or not, Pousttchi has a flair for timing: The show is opening the same day as another of her solo exhibitions, “Double Monuments,” an unrelated, sculptured-focused show also in D.C., at the Phillips Collection.
Pousttchi has made a name for herself taking over art institutions, with architectural interventions like “Echo," a project that covered the exterior of Temporäre Kunsthalle with 970 paper posters for the better half of a year. Altogether, they formed a trompe l'oeil alternate façade – that of the former Palace of the Republic, which resided in that very location until it was torn down after the fall of East Germany.
“It really became a symbol of the reunified Germany, but of course in the eyes of many politicians it was a symbol of the enemy, so it had to disappear and was torn down, to the protests of many, many people,” Pousttchi explained. It was at that “ghost moment” of its demolition that Pousttchi constructed its after-image, which would hold a certain significance to the residents of the city she’s been based in for the last 10 years.
Though Pousttchi is also part Persian, she considers herself a German artist, and was born not far from Frankfurt in 1971. She studied in Paris and Düsseldorf before enrolling at the Whitney Independent Studio Program in New York, and later heading to London for a residency, where she quickly found herself at home with a group of time-minded individuals. Along with a dozen others, including Marina Abramovic, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Jefferson Hack, Pousttchi started the Brutally Early Club, an artist salon that meets at 6:30 A.M. “We noticed it’s very hard for friends to get together these days," Pousttchi explained. “The only time is very early or very late, and we went for very early. Everybody’s free at 6:30.”
Though Brutally Early's membership rotates, Pousttchi’s stuck around since 2006, having met the previous Sunday in Berlin. She even started a Siberian edition when she traveled to Vladivostok for “World Time Clock,” a highlight of an otherwise Kafkaesque experience when she discovered upon arriving that the local train station actually ran on a different schedule than the rest of the city. (As the final stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway, which stretches all the way to Japan, the station runs on Moscow time, which is five hours ahead.) Luckily, she captured a clock outside at a post office just in time.
It turned out, though, not to be that easy: “With Russia it was complicated because, as you know, [Vladimir] Putin has decided to reorganize the world, and he changed the time zones twice during my project,” Pousttchi recalled. “Vladivostok was its own time zone, but after the second change it was the same as Sydney, which I already had.” At one point she had 27 clocks, but in the end she actually ended up short: Santiago de Chile changed its time zone the day after she’d emailed all her friends saying she’d finally completed the project. (She had to purchase a second “round the world” ticket.)
Despite all the frequent-flier miles she racked up, Pousttchi said she barely did any sightseeing: “There's always two phases when I'm in a new city – I call it clock-hunting and clock-shooting,” she said.
Altogether, the photos at the Hirshhorn form a seamless loop, effectively turning visitors into a clock arm of sorts as they make their way around the museum’s circular gallery. It’s not the time in particular that’s symbolic for Pouttschi – she chose 1:55 p.m. simply because it “looked good formally” – but the fact that it’s shown in synchrony. “Hopefully they make the viewer think about a new world order, where there is no longer just one place which is the center of the world,” she said.
That idealism is mirrored across the city at the Phillips Collection, where Pousttchi’s sculptures pay homage to Dan Flavin and Vladimir Tatlin in a recreation of the latter artist’s “The Monument to the Third International,” his early 20th-century plans for a rotating tower that would project messages at heights much higher than the then-dominant Eiffel Tower. It was never built, but Pousttchi has made five of her own miniature versions – rendered in neon for Flavin, who at one point also paid homage to Tatlin – for “Intersections,” the museum’s series that puts contemporary artists in conversation with their permanent collection. In this case, her sculptures are right at home with photos of cities in the early 1900s.
“I always need at least two mediums at the same time, and very often my sculpture has something temporal about it as well,” Pousttchi said. She’s still unclear whether her temporary façades qualify as sculptures or photographs. Maybe time will tell.