Watch: A Hypnotic Sculpture That Depicts Time’s Passing

How do you depict time without minutes or seconds? You use light.

Clocks make sense, but time is an abstract concept. I often wonder, were we to meet a species that didn’t feel time as we do, how would we explain it? How would we share what time felt like inside our skin, how sometimes minutes felt like hours and hours felt like minutes?


It’s an idea that fascinated United Visual Artists, too. Their project, Always/Never, is a light installation that’s meant to depict the passage of time without AMs or PMs, minutes or hours. Instead, time is simply what you feel when you look at it.

“The length of a second is never the same to us. Sometimes days take ages to pass. Other days are over before you’re even awake,” UVA’s Tiemen Rapati tells Co.Design. “But unlike hours, minutes, or seconds, a day wasn’t defined by us. It’s fascinating how we can set nature to our hand, but still do have to lie still with our eyes shut each day to reset our bodies and minds. A day is the fundamental cycle to our lives.”

So with this framework of a day, UVA had their answer: Time was the passage of the natural lighting conditions humans associate with the Earth moving around the Sun. Using a gnomon as their core shape–that’s the heart of a sundial–they built an entire grid that could shift color, like the day.

“It wasn’t until we made this grid of tripod-like gnomons that we got really excited,” Rapati writes. “A grid that changes shape depending on your perspective is quite our thing, you see.”

Thanks to the grid, the effect becomes a shift of both color and shadow–an intriguing, undefinable texture of glowing abstraction. Even in a humble YouTube clip, it’s entrancing almost to the point of being stomach churning. Looking at Always/Never, I get a certain uneasiness under my skin, like my summer vacation is coming to an end and I have just a few days left before sitting in school for as long as I can imagine.

I wonder if I’d still feel this way did I not know what the piece was about first. My guess is, I’d still sense the uneasiness, but I might not be able to place “temporal” as the context for that subtle nausea emanating from inside my belly.


About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.