- Savinder Bual
- Didcot Railway Centre
- Arts Council
As part of Arts&Heritage’s Meeting Point programme, artist Savinder Bual created a film installation on show at Didcot Railway Centre. The Train Effect was inspired by how, in 1840, the Great Western Railway introduced ‘Railway Time’, meaning a single, standardised time was used on its line, and subsequently across railway stations in Great Britain.
“The installation is about our relationship with time, using the history of the railways as a framework. The railways were instrumental in shaping our modern perception of time and I want to use them to prompt people to think about time from different perspectives.” – Savinder Bual
The Train Effect showed Didcot Railway Centre’s engine turntable, measuring 18 metres in circumference, being turned by hand by a series of the museum’s volunteers – who could usually be found driving the restored engines. Filmed from above using a drone, viewers could see steam locomotive No.2999, ‘Lady of Legend’, rotating like the hands of a clock.
Lady of Legend is a recreation of the type of locomotive which would have been seen on the Great Western Railway between 1902 and 1953 and was built using a combination of surviving parts from other Great Western Railway locomotives and new components.
“By showing that a small action by just two people can create an immense change – in this case, moving a 130-tonne engine – I want to show that we have the power to renegotiate how we think about time.
Not only do we need to take a longer-term view of how we think about ‘now’ and ‘the future’, so we can look after the planet for future generations, perhaps we should also be focusing more on the natural cycles which were replaced by standardised time.” – Savinder Bual
Clive Hetherington, Chief Executive of Didcot Railway Centre, said:
“Savinder’s installation is hugely relevant to the site, to the people who visit and to our many volunteers who run the museum and restore and drive our locomotives. I hope it will surprise people and stretch their imaginations.”
The Train Effect was on show in Didcot Railway Centre’s original 1930s waiting room, where visitors wait to board trains running on the centre’s two lines. It was on show until 4th September 2022.
A&H commissioned the filmmaker Pascal Vossen to work with Savinder Bual on a ‘making of film’ for The Train Effect, capturing the artist’s process.
Didcot Railway Centre is a former Great Western Railway engine-shed and locomotive stabling point located in Didcot, Oxfordshire, England, which today has been converted into a railway museum and preservation engineering site.
Ingrid Swenson freelance curator, visited Didcot Railway Centre to view The Train Effect, a Meeting Point commission by artist Savinder Bual.
A large circle occupies the centre of the horizontal screen. The projected image is in rich tones of black, grey, with some accents of white. It has the serious look of robust engineering, an effect that vintage photographs of industrial scenes often underlines. Across the diameter of the circle and pivoting at the centre is a large slowly revolving axle, giving the image the appearance of an enormous clock face. We soon recognise this as a static, horizontal bird’s-eye view of a train turntable on which the massive locomotive engine is being rotated. Starting from a standstill, two tiny figures disengage the brakes and then begin to push from opposite ends of the locomotive – very slowly at first, but gradually gaining momentum. After two and a quarter revolutions, the image fades and cuts to a close-up shot of one of the figures pushing with all his strength to propel the 200+ ton bulk of Victorian innovation.
Captured within this single, simple, absorbing event, Savinder Bual touches upon multiple ideas which are at the core of her artistic practice. She is fascinated by what she has described as the:
…engineering advancements and mechanical inventions of the 18th and 19thcenturies, when a yearning for scientific discovery and a curiosity about the world helped fuel and justify colonial expansion. This period was inextricably linked to new ways of seeing… and the 24-hour clock replacing the sun as a marker of time.
Bual’s film, The Train Effect (2022) is just over four minutes long and is silent. A self-described ‘cinema pioneer’, she has often worked with mechanically-driven animation and other lens-based experiments that were the cornerstones of early moving image-making as a way of exploring contemporary applications. She wants to recapture the audiences’ sense of awe and wonder when they first saw the moving image work of the Lumière brothers, Étienne-Jules Marey, Eadweard Muybridge and others. It is particularly relevant that one of the Lumière brothers’ first films was a continuous real-time shot of a train pulling into a station, which apocryphally terrified spectators when it was first screened. For Bual therefore, it was a gift to have the opportunity to orchestrate and film an event such as the manual rotation of a locomotive, and it is hard not to interpret the two small Atlas-like figures as representative of the struggle between man and machine.
When Bual submitted her proposal to create a new artwork for Didcot Railway Centre, Covid restrictions still governed our lives in many ways. Their open-ended brief encouraged the artist to consider a range of approaches, which would ‘communicate the history of the Great Western Railway through themes and connections like innovation, travel, climate change, class and social history.’. Bual chose to focus on an aspect of railway history that speaks to the very heart of innovation and one which made a huge contribution to revolutionising industrial efficiency and creating complex networks between goods and people. But rather than looking at the engineering and mechanical accomplishments of early railway history, Bual was most drawn to making an artwork that considered the global impact of a conceptual and abstract directive – the standardisation of time. Appropriately enough, Bual chose to show her work at Didcot in a 1930s waiting room – a space designated to bide one’s time while waiting for the arrival of a train.
In the early 1840s the railway timetables used ‘London Time’ (now known as Greenwich Mean Time) as the yardstick against which to measure all locations travelling east or west. The passage of the sun meant that the time at destinations outside the capital were between four and 20 minutes earlier or later. The complexity and vagaries of this system soon saw the implementation of ‘Railway Time’, which was adopted as an efficiency measure by the railways in 1847. In 1880 this contributed to the law that determined public clocks should be set to GMT and henceforth the opening and closing of shops, schools, offices, and factories all chimed in unison across Great Britain.
As decades passed, the economic principles of the Industrial Revolution and its capitalist aspirations had long begun to run out of steam. By 1936, and still suffering the effects of the Great Depression which began in 1929, many left-leaning writers, philosophers, and economists began to examine its legacy and question some of the long-held assumptions about technological innovation and ‘progress’. In that year, Aldous Huxley wrote his essay, Time and the Machine, in which he states:
“Time is our tyrant. We are chronically aware of the moving minute hand, even of the moving second hand. We have to be. There are trains to be caught, clocks to be punched, tasks to be done in specific periods… machines that set the pace and have to be kept up with…In inventing the locomotive, Watt and Stephenson were part inventors of time.”
Two films, both also from 1936, add their own perspectives to the relationship between and impact of time and the machine. In the comedy Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin’s iconic Little Tramp character is depicted as a casualty of the Great Depression and touches on the dehumanising conditions of factory work, poverty, homelessness, mental health, criminality, workers’ strike action and communism. Chaplin’s subtitle is revealing, ‘A story of industry, of individual enterprise – humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness’. His persona of the Tramp is that of the fated universal everyman, where the relationship between time and the machine will forever be in conflict and with potentially dire consequences.
The General Post Office (GPO) Film Unit made a number of highly acclaimed documentaries in the 1930s, including Night Mail in 1936. It tells the story of the nightly postal train from London to Scotland, in which the directors Harry Watt and Basil Wright portray the working man, not as the oppressed but as a hero of modern times. The film balances subtle propaganda (the GPO was later to become part of the Ministry of Information) with poetic romanticisation. It concludes with a specially commissioned poem by WH Auden. In it we are told how the night train and its workers operate with clockwork efficiency and precision though the night while the nation slumbers peacefully. Time and machine are in perfect equilibrium.
Time is having a moment once again. For many people one of the few positive impacts of the global pandemic was not only that it gave us permission to slow down, but we were instructed to do so on doctors’ orders. During this time many people commented how their relationship to the natural world shifted – how they observed and heard things that they’d never noticed before. The glorious weather of spring 2020 made us aware of previously unheard birdsong, and unseen buds and blossoms. Cancelled meetings, closed shops, restaurants, and places of entertainment provided us with silence, space, and most significantly, time. These were welcome substitutes for multitasking or fear-of-missing-out.
For Bual, the commission from the Didcot Railway Centre, combined with the global pandemic provided the artist with space to meditate on time. Alongside the film, and in contrast to its restrained yet forceful elegance, Bual has produced a lyrical and free-associative text reflecting on a wide range of subjects that relate to time as linear, cyclical, cosmic, geological, political, and abstract.
In both her film and text, Bual’s long standing preoccupations with 19th-and early 20th-century moving-image making, scientific progress and technical advancements are explored. In different and engrossing ways, she has provided a lens into the past and the present through which we are invited to take a moment to reflect on time in a post-pandemic world.
– by Ingrid Swenson, 2022
Savinder Bual is an artist whose practice explores the interplay between the moving and the still. She creates works that sit between the pre-cinematic and the digital. Bual studied painting at Winchester School of Art and photography at the Royal College of Art, London. Since then her work has screened and exhibited widely, including Turner Contemporary, Wimbledon Space, Peer Gallery, Standpoint, Caraboo Projects and Whitstable Biennale and CCA Glasgow. She received the Arts Foundation Futures Award 2022 in Animation and is a recent recipient of a Jerwood Bursary.
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