“Time will tell”: a boat’s journey from material representation to future projection

Written by Ambra D'Antone |

On 11 and 12 May the Warburg Institute will host the in-person workshop Abiding Present: Challenging Time in Art History, which invites fresh perspectives on art history’s complex dealings with time. The event has been organised by Ambra D’Antone (Bilderfahrzeuge Research Group), Felix Jäger (Ludwig Maximilian University Munich) and Johannes von Müller (Kiel University) and is supported by the Association For Art History. Across two days, this workshop brings together early career researchers and established scholars interested in discussing new approaches to the interpretation of time in art history. A partner event organised by Chloe Julius (University of Nottingham/Paul Mellon Centre), The Intellectual Histories of Art and the Archive will take place on Wednesday 10 May at the Paul Mellon Centre.

In this blog post, Ambra D’Antone illustrates some of the questions that inspired the workshop through a reading of the artwork Dark Water, Burning World (2016/2019/2023/?) by the Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj (b.1963) as a disruptive agent of fixed temporalities.

Fig. 1   Issam Kourbaj, Dark Water Burning World, bicycle mudgard, matchsticks, resin. Photograph by the artist. 

On 30 December 2020, ten years from its first airing time, BBC Radio 4 released a new episode of the popular podcast A History of the World in 100 Objects - a collaboration with the British Museum and voiced by its then-director Neil MacGregor. The new episode, produced amid the first chaotic months of the Covid-19 pandemic, announced the selection of Object 101: picked from the most recent acquisitions of the British Museum, the object would capture the previous decade and represent a burning issue of the present. MacGregor and Hartwig Fischer, the current director of the British Museum, selected for this task a fleet of small and unassuming boats, fashioned out of upcycled bicycle mudguards and burnt matches held upright by clear resin, by the Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj (b.1963), known collectively as Dark Water, Burning World (fig. 1, fig. 2).

Fig. 2   Dark Water Burning World next to the Apollo in the British Museum's Enlightenment Gallery. Photograph by the author.

The choice of Kourbaj’s object aligned with the mission that had initially inspired the podcast, which began airing in 2010 and was soon turned into a book: to single out one hundred objects from the collection of the British Museum for their ability to function as “representatives” of their historical period and, through these objects, to trace the chronology of human history anew. Amid rising calls for more inclusive accounts of history and of art history, within and outside of academia, MacGregor’s project promised a more “equitable” narrative, driven by the objects in their meanderings across large periods of time and shifting the focus from single events to multiple stories in multiple geographies.[1] Yet, if the podcast’s initial iteration concluded with objects produced in 2009, outlining a chronological narrative with a clear beginning and end, the decision to pick a new object after a decade drew attention to the challenges of harnessing time, of translating these expanded and often conflicting temporalities into a universalised narrative, and of accounting for the life of objects after the time of their creation.[2] Implicit to the choice of a new object was the question of what role the art historian fulfils as a critic of their time, as well as their licence over the inclusion of some objects and the exclusion of others from historical accounts.

Fig. 3   Ship Relief. Find Spot: Torlosa, Syria. 400-301 B.C. Classical Period, lead, height 0.04 mm, length 0.121 mm. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.  

Kourbaj began making his boats in 2016; they form a complex artistic response to the ongoing Syrian Civil War, marking its history since the Syrian Uprising of 2011 as an aide-mémoire. In the British Museum, the boats now also stand for the global migrant crisis, as well as for increasing concerns over climate change. Yet, Kourbaj’s boats pose a significant challenge to MacGregor’s single, synchronous narrative. From its material to its interpretation, everything about the object refuses museological domestication, toying with norms of time and existing precariously within it. Reaching beyond the present, Kourbaj notes that his work engages with “the future of his past”, a nod to the artist’s recollection of Syrian boat-making craft that he observed in his youth on Arwad Island, as well as to his contemplation of three lead model boats from ancient Tartus (400-300 BCE)[RY1]  on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (fig. 3), where the artist has lived since the 1990s.[3] This temporal syncopation finds incarnation in Kourbaj’s repurposing of discarded material, which carries the scuffs and marks of previous lives and usage. United under a collective title, the object resists the atomistic identity of the single artwork: Kourbaj’s boats exist singularly, as forlorn unities, and as a flotilla with increased affective power. And much like their ancient precursors, Kourbaj’s boats also defy a precise dating, existing without a discernible beginning or end. Their meaning, despite institutional attempts to harness it, remains uncertain: when questioned about them, the artist avoids finite answers, definitive readings, or precise explanations: “time will tell”, he proffers, entertaining with these words the futurity of the objects and of their interpretation. In their simultaneously precarious and multiple existence, the boats evade a synchronous existence in art history, inviting alternative approaches.

The theorisation of new methods to record the passing of time in the history of art, and to accurately account for objects that resist traditional theories, has been an abiding concern for art historians. Time is a constitutive component of art history, as a discipline that seeks to organise the knowledge of works of art. Yet, the temporalities that underscore art historical analyses often reach beyond time itself. Keith Moxey has described this as the tension in art history between an aesthetic and a semiotic approach to the image, which is determined by geographical specificity and, I add, its geopolitical contingencies. As he puts it, the semiotic approach is the tendency to deeply imbricate an artwork’s message in the socio-cultural and political conditions at the time of its production - a response typical of Anglo-American approaches to art history.[4] Contrarily, the aesthetic approach considers artworks to be active agents in establishing their own temporality and their own reception - determined, in part, by the aesthetic response in the relationship between object and viewer. Warburg’s account of the afterlife of antiquity is a model example in the German/European tradition. The fact that these modalities are geographically determined is significant: what becomes apparent in this partition of the art historical discipline is that it replicates the imperialist model of division of the world into centre and periphery, rulers and subalterns, and that it is endemically unequal.

The semiotic analysis of objects, as inherently tied to the time of creation, has often been criticised as an instance of historicism; a framework which privileges a linear and rationally legible passing of time, giving rise to established periodisations of art history that follow a linear progression.[5] This issue was at the core of MacGregor’s book, which seeks a middle way between these two approaches. The text promised to “interrogate” the objects it selected, sensitive both to the period in which they were created and the later periods which reshaped them, sometimes with “meanings far beyond the intentions of their original makers”.[6] Yet, it does so by casting a horizontal look across the globe at precise points in history, seeking synchronicities among them in order to establish a single, universal chronology to accommodate all these histories — if one that is exponentially wider than previously allowed for.

With the onset of a “new time” in the late 19th century, the modern mindset increasingly distanced what was felt to be a receding past from the progressing present. Thanks to the intensification of postcolonial frameworks, which criticise chronological and teleological accounts, it is now apparent that temporal linearity is primarily informed by Euro-American sensibilities and perpetuates colonial structures of thought.[7] What are the theoretical and political consequences of a “modern” structure of history? And further, how may we diversify historical consciousness and update established models of periodisation? Rather than synchronicity and commensurability, accounts by scholars like John Clark and Partha Mitter have called for heterochronicity and difference as operative terms, in order to account more equitably for other models of time - drawing attention to the fact that the invention of chronology is itself a historical reality, rather than a given fact.[8]

Central to all these inquiries, it seems, is a charged notion of the present, which reached a dramatic apex in the historiography of the late 1980s, when the art historian Hans Belting and the philosopher Arthur C. Danto both declared that art had come to an end.[9] As Danto explains it, the ‘end of art’ gestured to the feeling that contemporary art could no longer be represented by the “master narratives” of traditional and modern art. Rather, it existed “beyond the pale of history” in a post-historical, post-industrial boundless “moment”.[10] This loaded present, a state understood as either “the end of time or the beginning of a featureless eternity”, has been defined by Francois Hartog as presentism, “characterised at once by the tyranny of the instant and by the treadmill of the unending now”.[11] Somewhat levelling out historical consciousness, this presentism responds more directly to the needs of our times, placing the critical potentials of the past at risk. The “contemporary”, in its many nuances, has become a globally accommodating term. Yet, the concerns of today can encroach on different times, mischaracterising historical records, substituting for textual archives that no longer exist, or imposing models of periodisation derived from colonial or ideological discourses. What is the art historian’s licence in framing historical objects through contemporary and, perhaps, anachronistic methodologies?

The hazards and the advantages of presentism for current art historical analyses and museological classifications have been the subject of most accounts of Kourbaj’s boats as objects with asynchronous status within museum collections. For Anastasia Christophilopoulou, Curator for the Department of Antiquities of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Kourbaj’s objects are “hybrid displays between the ancient world and contemporary art”.[12]

They create within the museum, a bridge between ancient and contemporary art, inviting an interpretation of the past through an “experimental and sensory process”, rather than solely through archaeological data.[13] In doing so, today’s viewers can approach the past through the medium of contemporary art. Presentism, here, is a positive means of engagement for audiences in the museum with objects that would otherwise feel too remote.

Yet, when the present supplants the absence of sufficient historical or sociological data by filling in the gaps, objects shift from material witnesses of the past to entities that can be evaluated, even morally, with the eyes and intellectual apparatus of the present. Stefan Weber, Director of the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin, describes this anachronism as the impossibility of dealing with “the present in the past”, which gestures towards contemporary art as a boundless alienation from what came before, rather than as a result of it. In this framework, as Weber explains, Kourbaj’s boats expose the inherent contradictions of museum classifications, finding an uncomfortable fit in established temporal categories.[14] The introduction of “future labels” at the Museum of Islamic Art seems a creative manner to query these issues: they bring contemporary interventions, clearly marked as such, to objects of the past, in order to guide the transfer of knowledge between today and yesterday. For Sarah Johnson, Kourbaj’s artworks manage to repair the trauma of the Syrian War as its own “continuous present” which has all but eroded a clear demarcation of time in the public imaginary, becoming idiosyncratic and poignant temporal units.[15]

In fact, Danto and Belting were not the first to critically engage with presentism as a form of historical time. In his analysis of Marx’s critique of classical economy in Das Kapital, the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser also criticised presentism as a capitalist conception of time. Althusser traced presentism to Hegel’s theorisations of historical time: a time divided into periodisations that developed dialectically one from the other, and determined by “the contemporaneity of time”.[16] Althusser understood this as a quality of homogeneity of all parts of time in relation to the whole and it is the closest to Hartog’s presentism. The present, in this account, constitutes the “absolute horizon of all knowing” and prevents any anticipation, or even conception, of the future:[17]

As far as it may go, philosophy will never go beyond the limits of the boundless horizon (of the present): even when it takes flight at dusk, it still belongs to the daytime, to today; it is nothing but the present that reflects on itself. Tomorrow is, by essence, forbidden to it.[18]

Fig. 4   Issam Kourbaj, Precarious Passage (2016/2023), book, bicycle mudguard, matchsticks, resin. The British Museum. Photograph by the artist.

In the attempt to resist being stranded between the material representation of the past and the conveyance of a boundless contemporary, Kourbaj recently ensured the futurity of his boats through a new intervention, an artwork he calls Precarious Passage (2016/2023) (fig.4). Kourbaj drilled a hole into MacGregor’s text, wedging one of his boats inside the blackened cavity, where it carves an alternative route.

What unites the questions at play in Kourbaj’s boats can be synthesised through the working notion of the abiding present, a concept which brings together the permanence of the past, the eroding presence of the present, and the spectral essence of the future. It is not a temporal marker per se, but a way to encapsulate different, even conflicting traditions of thought and approaches to objects. It calls into question the paradigms of temporality that have underscored art history so far, while gesturing to their uncomfortable reconciliation in a single notion. In the context of the workshop in May, we hope that the contributions, in their variety of approaches, will foster a greater awareness to these issues and will allow for a conscious, informed drifting into the future possibilities of art history, as diverse and discordant as they may be. Much like Kourbaj’s boats, which, released onto the water, tread uncertainly towards a perilous, but attainable, tomorrow.

> Book now for Abiding Present: Challenging Time in Art History


Dr Ambra D’Antone is a historian of modern art and art historiography of Turkey and the Middle East. After completing her PhD at The Courtauld and Tate on Surrealist art and thought in Turkey and Syria, Ambra is currently working as a Research Associate of the Bilderfahrzeuge group at The Warburg Institute, preparing a book on Turkish art historiography of the Early Republican period. Her new article “An Inside Look at Yüksel Arslan’s Outsider Practice, 1955-1964” is forthcoming in 2023 in Art History.


[1] Neil MacGregor, A History of the World in 100 Objects, London: Penguin Books, 2010.

[2] Keith Moxey, Visual Time: The Image in History, Durham and London: Durham University Press, 2013, 8.

[3] Issam Kourbaj, “White Sea, Blue Mud”, in Dark Water, Burning World, Llandysul: Gomer Press, 2023.

[4] Moxey, Visual Time, 6.

[5] Dan Karlholm and Keith Moxey, “Introduction: Telling Art’s Time”, in Time in the History of Art: Temporality, Chronology and Anachrony, Edited by Dan Karlholm and Keith Moxey, New York and London: Routledge, 2018, 2-4.

[6] MacGregor, A History of the World in 100 Objects, 2.

[7] John Clark, Modern Asian Art, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1998.

[8] Partha Mitter, “Colonial Modern: A Clash of Colonial and Indigenous Chronologies, the Case of India”, in Time in the History of Art, 62-64.

[9] Hans Belting, The End of the History of Art?, translated by Christopher S. Wood, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1987. Arthur C. Danto, After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.

[10] Danto, After the End of Art, XIII.

[11] Francois Hartog, Régimes d’historicité: Présentisme et expériences du temps, Paris: Seuil, 2003. Cited in Karlholm and Moxey, 4.

[12] Anastasia Christophilopoulou, “On Dark Water, Burning World: A Collaboration with artist Issam Kourbaj”, in Dark Water, Burning World, Llandysul: Gomer Press, 2023.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Stefan Weber, “Dark Water in Berlin”, in Dark Water, Burning World, Llandysul: Gomer Press, 2023.

[15] Sarah Johnson, “A Continuous Present”, in Dark Water, Burning World, Llandysul: Gomer Press, 2023.

[16] Louis Althusser, Étienne Balibar et al, Reading Capital, translated by Ben Brewster, Paris: François Maspero, 1970, 94.

[17] Althusser, Reading Capital, 95-96.

[18] Ibid.