The time of cities and the time of nature. Regarding art dealing with the disconnection between urban life and the natural world

Bachelor Thesis, 2014

37 Pages, Grade: 83%


Table of Contents


Chapter 1 The Human Ego and the Separation from Nature
Literature Review

Chapter 2 Cities that Deny the Passage of Time
Materials, Forms and the Perception of Time
The Need to Annul the Passage of Time

Chapter 3 Cities that Mold the Experience of Time

Chapter 4 Art that Reconnects with the Rhythms of Nature

Chapter 5 Conclusion


List of Figures


This thesis aims to understand the underlying motivations and contexts of artists who question the disconnection between urban life and nature especially with respect to aspects of time.

The methodology used is largely about the analysis of artwork. The strategies adopted by the artists discussed here vary from critiquing the ambitions of city builders in their pursuit of controlling time to shunning urban time altogether and reaching for the rhythms of nature. In order to ground this understanding of artwork in the contemporary context the thesis explores how contemporary urban life changes our experience of time and how this separates us from the natural world. Theories regarding the relationship of the human, the natural world and the passage of time are covered in order to contextualize this analysis. These include the study of entropy by Robert Smithson, Martin Heidegger’s theory of the “earth and the world” and Georges Bataille’s ideas about the human impulse to annul the passage of time. The eastern philosophy of Zen and the aesthetics of Wabi Sabi that in many ways corroborate the ideas proposed by western thinkers have also been considered.

It was concluded that the connection with the natural world is governed by the experience of time and its relationship to the human ego. The time of the cities is so controlled by the demands of the human ego that it is increasingly difficult for urban dwellers to connect with the time of nature that is beyond our control. It is only by immersing ourselves in the time of nature that we can distance ourselves from aspects of our ego (like desires, concerns, ambitions) and return to a state of connection.

Chapter 1 The Human Ego and the Separation from Nature


illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 1: Chris Burden, Exposing the Foundation of the Museum, 1986. Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

Urban dwellers, to varying degrees, are aware of a sense of disconnection from the natural world. Artists are particularly sensitive to this. Robert Smithson observed, “the city gives the illusion that the earth does not exist” (Smithson 1966, 83). Chris Burden’s work Exposing the Foundation of the Museum deals with similar sentiments. In this work he dug up the floor of the Temporary Contemporary building of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art to reveal the mud and dirt that lay below.

One of the factors that contribute to this sense of disconnection from the natural world is the ways in which we perceive and experience the passage of time in today’s cities. Art reveals how being able to experience the temporalities of the natural world or even question the temporalities of the urban world can enable us to regain our connection with the natural world.

This thesis aims to show how the above is true as well as establish the relevance of this subject in today’s context. Some of the questions that will be answered are

1) How is the time of the cities different from the time of nature? Why is this separation greater today than it has ever been before?
2) Why does art question the time of the cities?
3) Why does art that is attempting to find a feeling of oneness with nature deal with elements of the passage of time?
4) And lastly, what does it mean to be at one with nature?

To understand better why these issues are of relevance to artists, we must first explore some theoretical frameworks that will form the necessary backdrop for the discussion in the rest of this thesis.

Literature Review

Western scientific thought describes the individual as becoming egocentric when he learns to distinguish himself from the rest of the world he experiences around him. This is the Freudian concept of the ego. But according to Zen masters this separateness is pure illusion. Rather we are all that we perceive. The Eastern philosophies of Zen contest the worldview that we are separate from nature and from our environment. Zen thinking explains this feeling of separateness from the world around us as something we were taught as babies until the time we inculcated it (Juniper 2003, 22-23).

Giuseppe Penone is an artist who works closely with the natural world. His sentiments in large part reflect this ancient Zen wisdom. According to Penone too there is no “material difference” between the human and nature and he bases this conclusion on the basic facts of life and existence (e.g. mortality). He attributes the reason for the distancing between human and nature to the human need to distinguish oneself from the reality of the surrounding world. He reasons that these ideas are “identity problems” attributable to cultural beliefs that stem in religious and philosophical ideas about the superiority of humans to other life forms. He further hypothesizes that this may be a kind of survival instinct (Gooding and Furlong 2002, 30).

This “ego” or “survival instinct” always existed, even before we learnt to live in cities. But the disconnection with nature today is more than it has ever been before. What is happening today can in large part be traced back to the developments of the seventeenth century.

In the seventeenth century Frances Bacon, Descartes and Newton made important discoveries. Their contribution brought us scientific method and was responsible for a new vision of secular progress through technological achievement. In this vision of progress Bacon proposed the purpose of knowledge as utilitarian - the domination of nature. This was a far cry from his predecessors who had seen the goal of knowledge to be primarily spiritual enlightenment. The work of Descartes and Newton further sealed this way of thinking. Descartes, with his Discourse on Methods, tore apart an entire cosmos by showing mathematical laws to govern what had once been the domain of God. Humans in their newly found power over nature felt it their prerogative to use nature for their benefit (Solnit 2001, 20). Thus nature became a resource to be harnessed and the human goal to achieve greater benefits from this resource.[1]

Peter Halley (2012) explains how in today’s world humans are increasingly simulating (in Baudrillard’s terminology) the crucial powers that were nature’s dominion. He cites the examples of the ability of the computer to simulate the power of thought; chemistry and mechanics allow us the ability to create life; space too can be created within the binary circuit of computer animation devices. He argues that contemporary society is completing the process by which it has established its own mode of thought, its own consciousness as referent rather than the natural world (101-102).

Advertising’s appropriation of the vocabularies of nature further marks the triumph of the market over nature. Significantly, products like beer, detergent and make-up are now called ‘natural’. Cigarettes have been given such transcendental labels as ‘True’, ‘Light’ and ‘Now’ (Halley 2012, 101-102).

We realize that the paths of progress have in many ways severed our connection with the natural world. Nature becomes mainly a resource provider in the overall scheme of today’s urban dweller. The vocabularies of nature lose their spiritual connotations to become commercial terms.

As mentioned earlier artists and writers have been particularly concerned about this disconnection. Some of them (Smithson in particular, but also others) have been interested in entropy as a way to combat this separation. To understand why this is the case we must first attempt to understand what entropy means to these artists and writers. Roger Callois describes entropy as hot and cold water mixing together to achieve a uniform tepid temperature. Smithson asks us to visualize entropy by imagining a boy running in a clockwise direction through a sandbox filled on one side with white sand and on the other with black sand and then running in a counterclockwise direction through the sand box. Entropy refers to the fact that by reversing the direction of his running the boy cannot undo the way his feet mixed up the sand when he ran in a clockwise direction (Bois and Krauss 1997, 73). Callois and Smithson’s way of explaining entropy involves the dissolution of boundaries, the removal of that which separates. Both Smithson and Callois proposed that this dissolution of boundaries leads to the figure dissolving into the background (75). As per Callois this is a kind of insectoid psychosis, where the animal is unable to keep a distinction between himself and his surroundings (75). Thus entropy for Callois and Smithson is a way of reuniting something that is separated from its environment.

Smithson’s development of “entropology” and Martin Heidegger’s explanation of it reveal more about this. Smithson coined the term “entropology”-the study of the breakdown of highly developed structures[2] (Smithson 1966, 81). Martin Heidegger’s theories about the relationship of the “earth” and the “world” are particularly useful in explaining “entropology”. Heidegger conceived of the “world” as the structure of meanings that humans create in order to “dominate and comprehend the earth”. The earth is described as essentially entropic. This entropic earth is always in a struggle with the world that attempts to contain it (Shapiro 1995, 130-134).

Thus we see that the Zen ideas of unification with the rest of the world via dissolution of the ego bare some similarities to ideas regarding the entropic universe and its challenging the human need to create highly developed structures that can dominate nature as explained in the writings of artists and writers in the west.

To summarize, it is a human need to create, to give structure and meaning to life, to fulfill grand ambitions. Yet the paths of progress seem to isolate humans from a consciousness of their connection to the natural world.

One of the aspects of this progress is the need to control time. As per Georges Bataille the human project or the human ideal is to make “all that is possible” eternal (Bois and Krauss 1997, 187). Why do humans attempt to make all that is possible eternal? To create something that lasts forever, or to try to forget that it will not last forever is perhaps a way of aspiring to eternal life. Even creating something that is guaranteed a place in the collective memory is better than dying anonymous.

The earth, being entropic, defies these ambitions. It constantly reminds us of the passage of time and consequently of our own mortality. Yve-Alain Bois, for example, built upon Smithson and Callois’ explanations of entropy by emphasizing its inevitable and irreversible aspects (Bois and Krauss 1997, 37).

Zen philosophy too explains the human unification with the natural world by the fact that everything in the universe is ever changing coming from nothing and going back to nothing (Juniper 2003, 27).


The methodology adopted consists of an integration of three components

1. Art has a way of revealing that which is otherwise hidden from our experience. This thesis, therefore, will analyse artwork dealing with the aspects of time and the relationship between human and nature.
2. Observations regarding how contemporary urban life has changed our experience of the passage of time in relationship to the passage of time in the natural world will be incorporated to ground the analysis of artwork within the contemporary context.
3. The literary frameworks and theories that were covered in the literature review will be brought in to further contextualize and understand the motivations of these artists.

This thesis has been divided into five chapters. This first chapter has explained how the paths of progress, by feeding our ego, make us feel separate from the rest of the world. It explained the need to control the passage of time and how the earth, being entropic, defies these ambitions. It also covered philosophies around the world that hold onto the idea of humans being one with the natural world.

The second chapter will be about the annulment of time and will be divided into 2 parts. In the first part we see how the aesthetics of materials and form contribute to our sense of the passage of time. The second part will deal with why the annulment of time is desirable in the scheme of human ambition and why and how different artists contest this in their work.

The third chapter goes further than the annulment of time to show how urban lifestyle, by allowing us to control our experience of time, contradicts the way time is experienced in nature. We will look at one artwork that uses the contemporary visual language of digital simulation to reach for a connection with nature by manipulating our experience of time itself.

The fourth chapter breaks away from aspects of city life altogether to look at art that attempts to create an immersion in the natural world via invoking the temporalities of nature.

In the final chapter we will conclude by revisiting the thesis statement and also reflect upon the motivation for art today to resist the time of the cities and attempt to seek out the natural temporalities.


[1] Romanticism, amongst other things, was a backlash against this scientific and rational approach to the natural world.

[2] It was Georges Bataille who elaborated the human need to create highly developed structures. Architecture and language are examples of such structures

Excerpt out of 37 pages


The time of cities and the time of nature. Regarding art dealing with the disconnection between urban life and the natural world
BA (Hons) Fine Arts
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nature, contemporary art, urban life, cities, art, urban living, spirituality, ephemerality, ambition, time, temporality, experience of time, passage of time
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Nandita Mukand (Author), 2014, The time of cities and the time of nature. Regarding art dealing with the disconnection between urban life and the natural world, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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