Artist Madeline Irvine Marks COVID Time With the Pandemic Clock

The Austin artist has turned a daily practice into a way to count down the lockdown

From the Pandemic Clock (Retrospect series), by Madeline Irvine (Photo by Madeline Irvine)

Blursday. That's what time has devolved into in the Year of COVID: a blob of sameness, sun-up to sun-up. Working and sleeping in the same place, staring at the same screens, slogging through the same routines. There's no way to distinguish Tuesday from Friday from Sunday, April from August from Novembruary.

Unless you're Madeline Irvine. In the bleary era of the novel coronavirus, this Austin artist has created a novel way of keeping every day distinct – not just in the days of the week but in every week of the past year. She calls it the Pandemic Clock – which is something of a misnomer, she admits, as it has no face, no hands, no gears. Still, she says, "I call it a clock because I hear time ticking away, but visually, I conceive of it as a calendar." What it is, in fact, is simply a few dozen washers that Irvine moves into new positions each day and photographs to document that day's arrangement. The "pandemic" part of it is because it's measuring the time we have spent and continue to spend sheltering from COVID.

Marking the passage of days by photographing washers may sound like an unnecessary, even pointless exercise. The same effect could be achieved by crossing off dates on a print calendar – and take a lot less effort. But as with any daily practice, it's less about what's done than the doing. You come to an activity with intent, and come to it with the same intent day after day after day. Over time, that can build something remarkable – as with the conceptual artist On Karawa, who regularly painted the day's date in white letters on a solid-colored canvas; he began this Today series in 1966, and by his death in 2014, he'd produced close to 3,000 paintings. That repeated application of intent can also be a key to artistic evolution; Irvine says, "It is the daily process of making over time that forms the work. Every day matters, whether you can see it or not." It can also be a grounding force personally: Facing the traumas of the coronavirus, George Floyd's murder, the election, and more, Irvine says "the daily practice of working on the Pandemic Clock has kept me anchored in life as well as the studio."

Facing the traumas of the coronavirus, George Floyd’s murder, the election, and more, Irvine says “the daily practice of working on the Pandemic Clock has kept me anchored in life as well as the studio.” — Maadeline Irvine

Not that Irvine started the Pandemic Clock with that purpose. She didn't even have the concept in mind when she began. The trials of 2020 had kept her from her studio through the spring and summer. It wasn't until September that she finally felt like making art again. "I often begin studio work again after time away with cleaning up," she says. "That's when I stumbled across the washers in a cabinet and took them out and started playing with them. Strangely, I made a spiral pretty quickly, and photographed it. And I decided to do one a day to mark my days in the pandemic. I have no idea why."

That was Sept. 22, 2020, but it took time for Irvine to see this practice as a project. "I didn't know I was doing the Pandemic Clock for about six weeks," she says. "I worked it instinctively until I found the words for it." And even after she named it, it took more time for her to realize its full scope. Rather than marking time for just herself, she came to understand that she was making "a Pandemic Clock for everyone. Regardless of whether one is sheltering in place or on the front lines, we are all in the pandemic together." So in addition to the Spiral series, marking each day going forward, she began the Retrospect series, marking the time backward from her first spiral on Sept. 22 to the day when the pandemic's impact was first felt in Austin, March 16. (That date stands out for Irvine because she had cataract surgery scheduled that day. "I realized I could get one eye done, but in three weeks, I might not be able to get the other one done because there was talk that elective surgery was going to be closed." So she postponed the surgery.)

For six months now, Irvine has been adding to the Pandemic Clock. Every day, she goes to her home studio building at the end of the driveway. On a large drawing table with good lighting, she places the red studio apron she wears when painting, then covers it with a black velvet top she has "for getting gussied up." She sets down the washers, which are different sizes, shapes, and colors – "like us," she notes – and have different wear and sheens, and spools them into a spiral. She uses a template to keep the image centered and a little wooden stick to measure the space between the edges of the spirals and the frame of the camera. When she has the image centered, she climbs a ladder and photographs that day's spiral with her cell phone.

The seven-day progression of the Pandemic Clock (Spiral series), Week 37 (Photo by Madeline Irvine)

"The spirals seem to have a life of their own," Irvine says. "Some days they are quiet and closed, other days exuberant and open. Like me, their tenor changes daily. They don't reflect me, but they reflect the energy contained in any one day. Their confining stricture reflects the pandemic and tethers them to the human experience. I didn't see it at the time I started it, but I think making the Pandemic Clock was an attempt to bring order to a chaotic world, even as I would like to think I can embrace chance and change. We have to choose our change where we can."

Irvine has no idea how long she will keep marking time like this. She intends her project to be "a countdown clock to the end of the pandemic," but when that comes depends on variant strains of the virus, the efficacy of the vaccines, and whether enough people take them. What she does know is that the Pandemic Clock is recording a historic shift. "It is a way of bringing the community together, pre-Zoom and post-Zoom," she says. "It started in one presidential era and is continuing in another. For me, the Clock has become a document of our times."

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