Catapult: A Living Time Capsule Shows That to Be Human is to Be Wild
When I was a kid I had a thing for time capsules. This was the late ’90s, and the oncoming millennium had created a fever pitch for burying the present. My own time capsule endeavors were usually jam jars or plastic lunch boxes taken secretly from the kitchen, into which I’d ritually—but unsystematically—gather objects. They contained no newspaper clippings or letters from presidents, but plastic hair clips, drawings of animals, and bits of junk picked up on my walk to school. Every newly found object was as precious as the last, and with each time capsule I was curating a tiny, subterranean museum.
The number of time capsules buried in our tiny garden eventually grew so abundant that my dad had to remove them, picking out jars from an overcrowded flowerbed. ‘Infinite time’, he would complain, ‘doesn’t necessarily mean infinite space’. I wasn’t really sure what he meant by this, although I suspected he hadn’t understood the importance of the project.
A time capsule is as much an impulse, an urge, as it is a collection of objects. It anticipates nostalgia and projects a largely one-sided conversation into the future. As with the Ark, it’s the time capsule enthusiast, and not the one who opens it, that chooses what should be remembered or forgotten. It’s a thrilling act of power.
The largest time capsule in the world was put together by Keith Harold Davisson, a man from Seward, Nebraska. Within this forty-five-ton-vault, created for the 1975 Bicentennial, is Davisson’s own version of history. This buried collection is filled with the banal and the arbitrary, made spectacular only through its scale: thousands of items, including bikini panties, aquamarine leisure suits with stitched yellow flowers, piles of telephone books, and a brand-new Chevy. It shouts; it swaggers—insecure in the knowledge that the most exceptional things in this world are forgotten.
I stopped burying my own time capsules eventually, not long after seeing one excavated. I remember the town officials in respirator masks and green gloves chipping away at the rust-sealed sarcophagus, and the sci-fi sense of unreality this caused. As the lid was peeled away, our breaths were collectively held in anticipation; all eyes peered into the breach. Inside the capsule was nothing but a thick brown sludge. During its internment, water had leaked inside, turning every precious newspaper and handwritten note into pulp. It emanated a sour, rotten stench, like we’d exhumed a corpse.
It wasn’t until years later that I found Agnes Denes’ Tree Mountain—A Living Time Capsule. I’d been trying to find new ways of looking at ecological problems, and I’d become interested in land art’s approach to working with the earth. As an artist, Denes began as a painter but felt confined by the edges of the canvas. Her work is excessive and boundless, and its spilling out into the world was inevitable.
Tree Mountain—Living Time Capsule is a large, man-made mountain in Ylöjärvi in Finland. Spiraling upwards towards its peak are 11,000 silver fir trees, planted according to an intricate and mathematically calculated pattern. Viewed from ground level, it appears to be a young virgin forest like many others, but seen from above its precise curves and turns are almost hallucinatory. Like all time capsules, Tree Mountain was as much ritual as object: Each tree was planted by a different volunteer, who will then act as that tree’s custodian. When that custodian dies, they will pass their responsibility onto someone else, who will then pass it on after their own death. This process of intergenerational protection, it is hoped, will endure for many centuries.
Read the rest over at Catapult