Lost Time
Antony Densham >


History, truth, and "things"

By Daniel Wilson

In this brief essay I will describe a number of ideas from Martin Heidegger’s 1936 essay “The Origin of the Work of Art” which is an influential philosophical investigation into the essence and nature of artworks. I have picked this particular essay because the themes of the solidity of things, the concealing and eroding effects of time, and the identification of truths about other (possibly historical) worlds are common both to Heidegger and Antony Densham’s sculptures. I will end this account by making explicit some of the links between Heidegger’s essay and Densham’s sculptures.

Heidegger notes that we interact with many artworks as things, as physical objects:  “Architectural and sculptural works can be seen installed in public places, in churches, and in dwellings… the works are as naturally present as are things.”[1] Things have, since the time of the ancient Greeks, been considered firstly in terms of a substance (or essence of a thing) that itself holds accidental properties. This view is reflected in how we talk about things (as a combination of subject and predicate) and is what Heidegger calls “the Western interpretation of the Being of beings.”[2] But this kind of thing-concept does violence to the thingly element of that which is under consideration and by misrepresenting what there is “the current thing-concept always fits each thing. Nevertheless it does not lay hold of the thing as it is in its own being, but makes an assault upon it.”[3] Equally distorting is a second approach that considers the thing as only the combination of that which is directly perceived by the senses.

A third way of conceiving of a thing is the view of art as formed matter. This approach is preferable to the earlier two because it provides a perspective that retains the constancy and self-containment of the thing. The understanding of a thing as matter which is given constancy by form provides a thing-concept which can be applied to both natural objects (such as canyons) and artifactual objects (like temples).

Heidegger recognizes that artworks are different from those kinds of things that have taken shape by themselves (e.g. natural objects) and by virtue of being shaped by human intentions are more akin to equipment (which Heidegger identifies with the characteristics of both usefulness and reliability). But he also notes that an artwork is also similar to mere objects (i.e. those lacking usefulness) that have taken shape by themselves by virtue of its “self-sufficient presence.”[4] So it seems that even on the formed matter approach to things we are still unable to correctly describe the artwork using this particular thing-concept because it restricts and distorts how we think about the things that artworks are. Heidegger suggests that the solution is “to keep at a distance all the preconceptions and assaults of the above modes of thought, to leave the thing to rest in its own self, for instance, in its thing-being.”[5]

Through an analysis of a painting of a pair of shoes by Van Gough Heidegger claims that “in the vicinity of the work of we were suddenly somewhere else than we usually tend to be.”[6] What Heidegger means is that artworks can disclose objects to us (such as peasant shoes in this instance) as they truly are instead of how we typically would conceive of them in our day-to-day activities. Due to the ability of art to let us see beings in a true way by reproducing the general essence of a thing Heidegger claims that the nature of an artwork is “the truth of beings setting itself to work.”[7] As a result artworks as things are more than can be described simply in terms of their physical objects.

In “The Origin of the Work of Art” Heidegger examines temples from an ancient culture – the Greeks. Heidegger’s analysis does not treat Greek temples as inspiring artists but instead assesses them as works of art themselves. When visiting these temples at their location he notes that the world of the work has long since perished.

World-withdrawal and world-decay can never be undone. The works are no longer the same as they once were. It is they themselves, to be sure, that we encounter there, but they themselves are gone by. As bygone works they stand over against us in the realm of tradition and conservation. Henceforth they remain merely such objects. Their standing before us is still indeed a consequence of, but no longer the same as, their former self-subsistence. This self-subsistence has fled from them. The whole art industry, even if carried to the extreme and exercised in every way for the sake of works themselves, extends only to the object-being of the works. But this does not constitute their work-being.[8]

Given that the work-being of the artwork does not exist in the object itself the question that needs to be asked is what relations the work must stand in for it to exist as an artwork. Heidegger marks a distinction between two interrelated concepts: the background physical natural material from which the temple is made, which he calls the earth, and the foregrounded world of meaningful beings which human beings interact and exist within. In the creation of a work like a temple we become aware of the earth as the material into which the work sets itself back. Heidegger describes earth as “the spontaneous forthcoming of that which is continually self-secluding and to that extent sheltering and concealing.”[9] The creation of an artwork also sets up a world, which Heidegger describes as “the self-disclosing openness of the broad paths of the simple and essential decisions in the destiny of an historical people.”[10] This means that artworks themselves are historical in the sense that they are created in and reveal truth about an historical world.

Bringing artworks into being constitutes an essential striving between earth and world in which both can assert their natures. The conflict between the clearing done by the world and the concealing enacted by the earth in an artwork is an interaction that enables the “unconcealedness of beings” which on Heidegger’s view is truth. The defining feature of artworks for Heidegger is the happening of truth as the work of an artwork. The essential work character of an artwork therefore cannot be defined in terms of its character as a thing. Further, Heidegger claims the kind of composition that reveals the kind of truth we are interested in occurs paradigmatically in poetry and so on his account all art is in this sense essentially poetry (in a broad sense).

So how can these ideas relate to Densham’s sculptures? Even though the sculptural works in this exhibition may be the result of a series of layering processes that could have resulted in vastly differing shapes given a different decision at any one of the layering stages Heidegger identifies that we have a tendency whenever possible (accompanied by a long philosophical tradition) to identify these art objects each as a kind of thing that may be viewed as a combination of matter and form. This static and distorting view of objects in our world is an aspect of our concept formation that is foregrounded by Densham’s sculptures which morphologically mimic natural structures that, while seeming to be relatively stable in form, have been and continue to be in a process of change.

Densham states that his sculptures are inspired by Cambodian temples. He also mentions that analysis of the temple complex shows us something about the Khmer culture’s interests in mirroring the configuration of constellations. This is one of many ways in which works can reveal truths of another earlier world to us as shown by a reading of Heidegger’s analysis of Greek temples. The course of time can conceal the truth of these temples from us but through art we can enter a clearing where we can once again reveal truths about the place of these objects in their world. This aspect highlights the importance of art to a culture’s historical existence.

Finally, on Heidegger’s theory artworks can also convey to us truths about our own culture. Densham describes his sculptures as “abstracted architectural models” and so qua representations of architectural models can provide truths about the place of these objects in our own world. Through the ability of art to reveal beings as they are we are similarly invited to question and examine what other things are represented in these works and identify truths about these beings in relation to our world.

1. Martin Heidegger “The Origin of the Work of Art”, in Poetry, Language, Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), pp. 18-19.

2. Ibid. p. 23

3. Ibid. p. 25

4. Ibid. p. 28

5. Ibid. pp. 30-1

6. Ibid. p. 35

7. Ibid. p. 35

8. Ibid. p. 40

9. Ibid. p. 47

10. Ibid. p. 47



Daniel Wilson is currently studying for an MA in philosophy at the University of Auckland. His primary interests are in philosophy of the arts and aesthetics. He enjoys making new connections between artworks and philosophical ideas and using works to illuminate philosophical ideas. He also likes to find new ways to present both philosophical ideas and methods.