By Michelle Railey
“The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” William Faulkner
This is not a clock. This is not a grandfather clock, covered with a dust cloth. This is a sculpture, made of wood, towering over 7 feet tall. This is Wendell Castle’s scupture, Ghost Clock. In person, it is breathtaking. It is literally stunning. It has mass. It arrests. When you walk into the room of the Renwick Gallery where it is housed, you think it’s a mistake or a renovation or you think it’s experimental and postmodern: you think it’s a clock, covered with a sheet.
And it just really isn’t that.
It’s magnificent and stately and it is a wooden sculpture that’s so real, so cognitively confusing, you cannot walk away from it. Because it’s a masterpiece. How does wood look like fabric, textural, soft, draped fabric? How can you know there is no clock underneath but not know there is a clock beneath?
And then, while you’re pondering the mystery of hands who pull cotton from mahogany, the actual from the implied, you gasp with the way that time dogs your steps and operates outside of itself, sometimes slow and sometimes stopped and for all its predictable ticking past, it is never all that predictable. Time, like this sculpture, is never what it seems. And even when you think you’ve got a grip on it, there it is, challenging your perceptions and evoking questions you’re not sure you’re fully equipped to ask or answer. Time is a mystery, a ghost. Blink and it’s gone, only to reappear in a place you hadn’t left it, possibly covered with a dust cloth.
And double that for time’s cousins, its cohorts, its accompanying twin terrors: memory and regret. They’re there too, underneath the cloth-which-is-not-cloth, inseparable from the passage of time, inseparable from self. Memories haunt, the past is never past. And there is no way that you, as a human being, subject to all three apparitions of Time, Memory, and Regret, can walk into the Renwick Gallery, look at Ghost Clock, and not say “well, I’ll be damned” and then proceed straight from tickled (it’s all wood!) to existential interrogation and, well, cognitive confusion.
It’s really a brilliant piece and photography just doesn’t do it any favors. I’m cold enough to admit that for almost any given artwork, I am generally more moved by the history of it than the art. But in the case of Wendell Castle’s most provocative and evocative sculpture, it’s exactly the opposite. This piece moves me. If you’re ever in D.C., you should go and check it out. I’m willing to place a fairly hefty bet that it will move you, too.
Image Credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Renwick Gallery. Wendell Castle, Ghost Clock, bleached Honduras mahogany, 1985. (If you’re a big art history geek, click on the link to the “Joan of Art” entry for this piece. In the comments section, some commenter noted the similarity of Ghost Clock’s faux muslin drapings to a Greek kore sculpture. Which is a freaking brilliant comment. Because, oh my god, it totally looks like that.)