Watching someone doing something risky can make us feel nervous. If we can be assured that they will be safe by some sort of visual cue, maybe that stress alleviates. Mathias Kessler’s Timeline, however, taps in to a sense of insecurity and powerlessness as we watch a very focused spotlight on a woman climbing an icefall. We empathize with the climber as she takes on a task that, for most of us, crosses our limits of capability, mentally and physically. We internalize the threat. Not only is she climbing an icefall but she is climbing at night. Her own safety is dependent on a single spotlight that follows her as she climbs towards the top. At times, the light moves away from her, plunging her into darkness and, as we can imagine, an inability to know where she is in such a precarious position. Throughout the video, we continue to hear the picking of the ice and the breath of the climber, assuring us of her temporary safety.
This work hovers over us—making us immediately aware of what we are and aren’t capable of. The internalized “I could never do that” is heightened by the knowledge that we are all observing this act and that, if something goes wrong, we are somehow all accountable for being witness to it. By focusing the spotlight on the body of the climber and the immediate area around her, Kessler intentionally creates a dangerous area of spaceless-ness. There is no way to know the scale of the climb or the imminent dangers. Without any of these familiar boundaries, it become difficult to know how to assess the situation. Do we abandon our sense of threat or continue to follow and question what happens to this woman? Like observing documentation of a Tehching Hsieh one-year performance, we must assess the limits of what we are physically capable of as well as our capacity for empathy and concern.
Kessler faces us with our imagination of the immensity of nature and how it can dwindle us in to insignificance. The fear of being consumed by the borderless vastness of our environment only magnifies the efforts of the climber, which is to size the distance of the ice ravine she climbs. She is trying to measure this environment at the risk of being destroyed by it.