New Ideas in Art: Time as an Element

We often explore traditional elements and principles in our classes, however, there are many new postmodern and contemporary themes that are overlooked. Over the next several weeks, this series will delve into these contemporary art principles and provide ideas for students to examine these new ideas.

This Week’s Theme: Time as an Element

When we consider time in traditional art, we are more likely to think of the concept of timelessness rather than incorporating time into the work. Most works of traditional art capture a moment of time and hold it frozen for as long as the piece survives.

There are some modern artists that pushed past the notion of time as static and explored the effect time had on their work. Monet’s paintings, such as the series of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Rouen, captured the light at different times of the day. Another example might be Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 where Duchamp depicts motion with successive superimposed images.

Today’s postmodern and contemporary artists take the concept further by incorporating time into their work as if it were an element of art. Without the element of time, their work would be meaningless at best, nonexistent at worst. Here are some examples.

Melting Men: Néle Azevedo

1,000 Ice Figures For Global Warming

Brazilian artist Néle Azevedo carved thousands of figures out of ice. She placed them on city steps and left them in the sun to melt. Although the work was originally created for a different purpose, Azevedo embraced the fact that people also saw it as a comment on the issue of global warming and the melting of the polar ice caps over the coming years. Without the use of time, and a little help from the sun, the piece would not have been so powerful.


Inflatable Street Art: Joshua Allen Harris


Joshua Allen Harris creates creatures out of plastic bags and tapes them to the grates where subway air is vented. When a subway car passes underneath, the rush of air raises the creatures to life. The length of the subway car determines how much air the artwork receives and, subsequently, determines the amount of time the art will be inflated. In this manner, time plays a key element in his work.

The Dialogue: Mineko Grimmer

The Dialogue

Mineko Grimmer uses time, gravity and sound in her installation piece, The Dialogue. Suspended over a framework of bamboo poles and guitar strings hangs a pyramid block of ice. Frozen in the ice are hundreds of pebbles. As the ice melts, the pebbles are released. As they fall through the bamboo and guitar strings, they produce sounds of a musical quality. Through the use of time, Grimmer has developed an instrument with the ability to play itself.


Working With Students

When working with students, it is important to emphasize that their projects should incorporate time. This concept can be difficult to grasp and the students’ first ideas may be representational. For example, drawing a clock or drawing a young person and then an old person. It will be helpful to first have students explore what happens over time. Have them create a list of things that happen over time. i.e. things grow, thing deteriorate, things move from point A to point B.

Student example: Time Heals All Things

time 1

time 2

For her final project, this student create a box filled with sand. At one end of the box, water constantly dripped onto the sand. Next to the box was placed a set of water colors and a paint brush. Other students were encouraged to interact with the art by using the water colors to write or draw in the sand. At first, the water color left a mark in the sand. However, the mark was slowly erased by the running water. Whatever was written soon vanished.

The student who designed this project explained her thinking. “Time can erase memories in a negative sense, but the passage of time is also very healing. As time goes on, our anger, pain, and loss are soothed, glossed over, and forgotten.”

So tell us, do you think time can be used as an element of art?

Have you ever challenged your students to use time as an element? How did it go?


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Ian Sands


This article was written by former AOE writer and choice-based art education expert, Ian Sands.


  • gabriela

    I think Time as an element seems completely natural, this is a great way to think about art and the art process.

  • Erin Mikels

    This makes sense, artists have used the “element of time” for years. I instantly think of Monet and his haystacks and Cathedrals; he documented time through the change of light throughout the day.

    • iansands

      Erin, absolutely. When working with students, Monet is one of the first artists i use as inspiration.


    I love this article because I’ve had this conversation with all grades I’ve worked with depending on what we are doing – it can also completely support the argument that artwork continues to grow and change and expand, even after you finish a piece because with time, it is every developing. By the way, very impressive work from your student which is a constant truth within your classroom, but I love this piece! Something that I would love to see in public to gage society’s interaction with it!

    • iansands

      Thanks so much! You bring up another interesting point, that of completed art over time. i.e. compare and contrast Renaissance art which has lasted 100’s of years to Street Art which may only last a few days..

  • I would love to see a list of other “New Elements” we could come up with along the same lines as time….These could really serve as over-arching themes or Essential Questions for a pretty solid art curriculum.

    • I LOVE the idea of generating “New Elements” as guiding essential questions for building a curriculum. So cool!

  • Becca Kallem

    I can’t wait for future posts in this series! I’m excited to see what other contemporary themes you feature, so important for visual/artistic literacy in the here and now (in addition to learning about and enjoying art of the past)

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  • MaricelaPena

    This was definitely my favorite theme during my undergraduate years. I especially liked when students did not take it literal (like timing their project) and went above and beyond. I also would like to begin a “new elements” list to improve student engagement. I’m loving the connection to Monet that someone posted on here too! One project I want to introduce to students consists of each student getting a time in which they need to capture the color of the sky. The idea is that in the end. we should have a collaborative abstract and gradually-changing piece that illustrates color change throughout the day. Thanks for sharing!

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