“Elizabeth Chiles: Over Time” at Pump Project

The photographer focuses on the intersection of time and the environment, capturing the subtle changes in nature

HC Arnold

Austin Chronicle

April 1, 2016

The thing about clouds is, they never stand still. Like time, they’re always changing. In Elizabeth Chiles’ exhibition “Over Time,” she reminds us of this. Installed on a continuous shelf, 27 photographs of clouds line the main gallery at Pump Project. Titled With Time, the piece combines images of clouds bathed in orange and gold sunsets alongside gray thunderstorms. In some, a blue sky peeks out around a large nebulous mass. In others, a tree reaches into the foreground. Unframed and set apart at uneven intervals, these photographs tease us into thinking they may be one long panorama. But they aren’t. At places, their order is jumbled and irregular. While some of the photographs could slide together and make a continuous image, others are of the same clouds. Working as a photographer, Chiles is interested in the intersection of time and the environment. Her portfolio explores this through capturing subtle changes in nature.

Another work showing this is Over Time. While at a residency in Georgia, Chiles photographed a rhododendron tree. In With Time, we looked across time. With this work, we look through it. This effect is created by layering the different transparent images atop each other to show where and how they line up. Not only are we comparing the two photographs side by side, but also the different levels of foliage within a single image. Leaves, branches, and flowers evaporate into each other. A tree trunk is doubled against its ghostly self. There is a careful overgrowth of vegetation and time as one moment fades into the next and back again, while we got lost in the infinite underbrush. Fading moments are also a subject in The Infinite Now. This single-channel video with sound combines the slow crossfading of fireworks with an ominous soundtrack. Man-made puffs of light and smoke explode before slowly blending into the next; meanwhile, a bell tolls, marking each passing flash. It’s hypnotic to watch; you can even start to lose track of time doing so.

The marking of time is a complex and personal thing. We don’t actually see time change. We only see what changes in time. And how we see these changes is always up for debate. As Chiles reminds us, this can be disorienting. Our place in those clouds is unsure. Seeing the branch reaching in, we know we are on the ground. But without any point of reference, are we flying through the sky? Being cell phone pictures, they speak to the mundane and ease of quickly snapping a picture while reminding us of the complexity of that act. Just like the overlapped leaves and exploding fireworks, those repeating clouds still have differences notable from one photograph to the next. Nothing is ever the same. Time takes that away, and it gives us a jumbled mosaic that reminds us of our uncertain place within it. With “Over Time,” we can meditate on that, if only for a moment.