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This 200-year-old clock marks Doomsday

Arts & Culture

A rare longcase clock crafted exactly 200 years ago by a British convict is today marking the end of time at the Art Gallery of SA, and will help contextualise a six-day durational reading by performance artist Mike Parr.

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Currently on display at the AGAS is a major new acquisition created by James Oatley, Australia’s most important early clock and watchmaker.

Two hundred years after it was hand-crafted in Sydney, this Longcase clock remains in excellent working order, but its display time has been deliberately stopped at 100 seconds to midnight. This hour reflects the current time on the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock and symbolically suggests how once-innocuous timing technologies have now become dangerous.

The Doomsday Clock is a metaphor for the likelihood of a man-made world catastrophe – in January 2020 its time was moved closer to midnight in response to climate change, the increased probability of a nuclear threat and the pervasive war on information. Today, the Doomsday Clock is closer than ever to apocalypse.

Inspired by the reciprocity between his ideas and the set time of the James Oatley Longcase clock, artist Mike Parr has chosen to perform near it to contextualise his six-day durational piece, Reading for the end of time.

In his special performance for the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art exhibition Monster Theatres, Parr will test the limits of his voice, stamina and body, taking himself to the cusp of his own “doomsday”. This intense contemporary “time challenge” will be set within the gallery’s spectacular curated display of “The Marvellous” and associated “unsettling” works of historical art in the Elder Wing of Australian Art.

Parr is a leading artist who has been a vital force in Australian art for more than 50 years. His prolific oeuvre includes performance, drawings, print, sculpture and photographs. He often uses his own body as a medium for exploring political and art world issues, and, like the Doomsday Clock, he’s calling out humanity’s ills and our race against time.

The clockmaker himself, James Oatley, faced his own catastrophe, having been convicted in England and transported for life for the theft of two feather beds and other sundry items. His personal crisis was averted when, on arrival in the penal colony of Sydney in 1815, his highly desirable specialist clockmaking skills were promptly identified by the administration.

Oatley was rapidly appointed as keeper of the Town Clock by Governor Lachlan Macquarie and commissioned to make a dial train turret clock – which can still be seen today – in the pediment of Sydney’s historic Hyde Park Barracks.

The Longcase clock’s splendour and esteemed provenance disguises its present darker associations with the metaphorical Doomsday Clock. The cabinetry shows a typical late-18th-century English design with its neo-classical swan-neck pediment, reeded columns and a Sheraton influence in its restrained use of ornamental inlay.

Although principally fabricated from Australian red cedar, the clock has been characteristically embellished with contrasting lighter-coloured Australian casuarina pine, which is used elegantly as a stringing inlay above and around its long door, on the square base, and within the circular cedar-veneered clock face door.

It is one of only 17 dated and numbered known clocks by Oatley. It was purchased in 1840 by a Sydney saddle maker, John Brush, and remained in the Brush family until recently entering the AGSA’s collection. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to secure the highly coveted offering was made possible through the generosity of Alastair Hunter OAM.

At this moment, this Longcase clock, on display in the Elder Wing, is a reminder of the enduring nature of the personal and universal perils that humanity faces.

 Mike Parr will perform his six-day durational work Reading for the end of time  at the Art Gallery of SA from this Friday, February 28, until Wednesday, March 4.

Tracey Lock is the AGSA’s Curator of Australian Paintings & Sculpture. This article is part of InDaily’s Off the Wall  series highlighting  gallery treasures.

Extended caption for image: James Oatley, Australia, 1770–1839, Longcase clock, 1820, Sydney, Australian cedar and casuarina, 213.0 x 56.0 x 27.0cm. Gift of Alastair Hunter in memory of his grandparents Alexander and Annie (Bowden) Hunter, and Charles and Muriel (Day) Perry through the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation 2019.

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