Unpacking the Concept of Time (Katie Oberkircher)

When you picture a clock, what do you see? Most likely a flat, circular object marking the time, mounted on the wall—or maybe you see a wristwatch, pocket watch or even a sundial. Either way, when we hear the word “clock,” we have an image that we reference. This reference connects to our pre-established meaning environment. As Dr. Irvine explains, much of what exists around thought and meaning is culturally implied. We reference our “encyclopedia” of “conceptual/symbolic cultural shared” knowledge (Irvine, 32). Through this action, we imagine a clock as we’ve been taught to recognize it.

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Source: https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/1168-2

Salvador Dalí’s “The Persistence of Memory” challenges how we conceive time and reality. He does this by presenting the concept of time in a way that is unfamiliar to us. This type of work falls into the surrealist genre—and it should be noted that this conceptual label is an interpretant. By assigning this label, we can begin to understand how the components of the painting impact the syntactical and conceptual interfaces.

In keeping with the surrealist genre, Dalí uses the melting and distorted clocks to symbolize how time passes while we’re dreaming (MoMA). In this way, the clocks act to subvert our understanding of time. To come to this conclusion, though, we have to first identify that the objects in the picture are clocks, then we have to analyze how they are being represented differently than a normal clock, so that we can understand that Dalí is actively portraying the construct of time as arbitrary and useless.

Therefore, while we do recognize the objects as clocks, we have to do so by acknowledging they are less clock-like. We can label them as “icons” because they “resemble or imitate” an object, but there are characteristics that do not match up with our mental image, creating a tension between what we see and our previously established reference to a clock (Irvine, 31). We see the object is circular, has two hands to denote the hours and minutes, and has numbers spaced out evenly. However, its melted state suggests it’s more of a “hypoicon,” specifically a metaphor, which “represents the representative character of a sign by representing a parallelism in something else” (Wikipedia, 7). In this case, the shape informs us that the clocks are symbolizing something other than time as we understand it—they do not represent it as structured and powerful.

As the viewer, we grapple with interpreting the distorted objects. What does their physical nature tells us about time?

Through the lens of the surrealist genre, art questions our understanding of meaning because it presents images, concepts and arguments differently than how we normally perceive them. “The Persistence of Memory” contains objects that don’t quite fulfill the sign/symbol function that we expect them to, so our expectations have to shift to recognize how the work creates meaning. We can do this by considering all of the elements of the painting, including how we label it, how we perceive its components, and what we think the work means as a whole. In other words, we are parallel processing.

His technique also brings up questions about interpretation: is there a right and a wrong way to interpret this painting? How can we unpack his intentions in relation to the way he constructs symbols?


Martin Irvine, Selections from: Semiotics, Symbolic Cognition, and Technology: A Reader of Key Texts

(“MoMA | Salvador Dalí. The Persistence of Memory. 1931” 2016) https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/1168-2

Ray Jackendoff, Foundations of Language, selections on the “Parallel Architecture” model of language as a combinatorial system. Chap. 5.5, pp. 123-128; Chap. 7, pp. 196-200.

Semiotic Elements and Classes of Signs (Wikipedia)