David Claerbout: Present

Launch date: November 9, 2000, Artists' Web Projects


For Present, his first computer-based work, David Claerbout offers viewers the choice of three flowers, an amaryllis, gerbera, or red rose, to implant on their computers for approximately one week. With its progression from bloom to decay, and eventual disappearance, the flower manifests the rhythms of a natural lifecycle in a virtual environment where time normally lacks organic reference.

Funding for Dia's series of artists' projects for the web has been provided by the New York State Council on the Arts. Thanks to Philip Boel for photography and project support. Programming by Peter Berry, Steven Fujita, and John Sharp of Tall Software.

Launch project

For Present, his first computer-based work, Belgian artist David Claerbout offers the viewer a choice of three flowers--a pink amaryllis, a yellow gerbera or a red rose--to download and install on a computer. Instead of a table top skull or hourglass, reminders of mortality, the fragility of life, and the vanity of existence popularized during the Renaissance, Claerbout gives us a different kind of memento mori, this time for our virtual desktop. The flower begins in a full, glorious bloom and progresses to full decay. Its specific passing interjects a sense of organic time into a digital environment where aging and death are most closely approximated by obsolescence.

Claerbout has previously worked with photography, video, and digital technology to create works that experiment with notions of temporality, often to a disorienting effect. Kindergarten Antonio Sant'Elia, 1932, a 1998 installation, is a large projected image of a found, historic photograph showing children playing in a schoolyard, interesting in itself for its formal composition and the narratives it implies, and even more compelling when one notices the gentle motion of the leaves on the tree - fluidity in an image that supposedly records a moment fixed in time. In a 1999 work, Untitled (Carl and Julie), a video projection shows a patio with a man and a girl at a table, the man gazing toward the viewer and the girl facing away, drawing in her sketchbook. When a visitor enters the room, the man makes a subtle gesture, perhaps indicating to the girl that someone is present. The girl then turns and looks towards the viewer, and after a few seconds, turns back and resumes her drawing, engaging the viewer in the "moment" of what is obviously a pre-recorded image. And in Four Persons Standing, 1999, a projected image shows people standing outside a building that is clearly a modern building. Upon closer inspection, one notices that the women and men are dressed in styles of dress from different eras, contradicting the notion of photography's capturing a single moment in time.

With Present, the artist again questions perception of time in relation to a medium. Once it is implanted onto the user's hard drive, the flower manifests the rhythms of a natural lifecycle in an environment where time normally lacks organic reference. The video footage used for the project was shot over a period of time equal to each flower's lifespan; whenever the icon is clicked, the flower shows itself in a light appropriate to the local time. Not only is the flower's duration unknown in advance, but since one cannot speed forward nor go backward, one is forced to view the flower in the real-time progression of its natural cycle.

Claerbout's interest lies also in addressing the lack of presence, or body, on the internet by making something just as literal as it is virtual. No one will mistake the desktop flower for a real flower, but in an age of rampant simulation, why not a digital flower? The amaryllis, with its delicate pink petals and translucence; the bright yellow gerbera in its optimistic stance; and the rose in its elegant romanticism--each offers a unique, enjoyable beauty. As time ravages the bloom, even the process of decay takes on an abstract splendor. Eventually, when one attempts to view the flower, it will have disappeared, having removed itself from the hard drive.

Extending the natural metaphor, after the flower is gone, a "seed" remains, which can be used to send a flower as a gift to someone else, complete with a message from the sender. In his well-known book, The Gift, Lewis Hyde argued that a work of art is essentially a gift, not a commodity. The fact that Claerbout's flowers were made for distribution via the web is especially appropriate since most network-based art is created and shared without expectation of profit. Hyde also argued that a gift must remain in circulation, writing, "a gift that cannot be given away ceases to be a gift. The spirit of a gift is kept alive by its constant donation." In this sense, Present is truly a gift, with repeated donation included by design.


David Claerbout