IF YOU have some time in Beijing, take a stroll through Panerai's o'clock art exhibition for an intriguing examination of time itself. Panerai, the luxury watch brand with the distinctive crown guard, invited more than 50 artists and designers around the world to ponder the meaning of time.
The results, now on display at CAFA Art Museum, vary from the artistically sublime to the conceptually clever and borderline gimmicky. But the exhibition does open the viewer to myriad interpretations of that singular concept baffling men through the ages: time. Where does it come from? Where does it go? Can one stall it? Can one travel through it?
Unrelated to time, though, one other question is: Why is Panerai, an Italian brand, staging an art show in Beijing? Officine Panerai CEO Angelo Bonati explains: "The Chinese market is one of the largest and most important to us now. We think Panerai's high-end watches can satisfy the watch collectors of China, and we think the art show can help the Chinese better understand our brand and products."
The Chinese luxury goods market was estimated to be worth over 40 billion euros ($1.65 billion) in 2011 - close to the amount spent in the US luxury market. There are now more than one million millionaires in China, three times the number in 2006. So it's not surprising that the brand decided to take the exhibition to China, after its debut in Milan.
Market potential aside, Panerai's biggest coup must be getting the art world's No 1 hotshot Damien Hirst to contribute two works to the show. In both pieces, Hirst adapted his characteristic "spin paintings" by pasting Panerai's watch dials on the surface on the canvas.
The dramatic whirl of colours which "sort of implies life", Hirst once said, now takes on an added dimension with the watch dials: a not-so- subtle comment on the omnipresent impact of time on our lives.
But as in many art exhibitions, the big stars aren't necessarily the ones producing the most captivating works. Designer Patricia Urquilo, for one, created an installation piece titled The Time Machine - The Bug. She assembled parts of the chairs, lamps and other furniture pieces she designed commercially in the past to build a lifesize bug-like time machine that holds a seat at the centre.
In a way, the work is a "time travelling machine" since it allows Urquilo to jog her memory and recall her own artistic struggles and triumphs. She also, incidentally, planned the layout of the exhibition.
Meanwhile, Susanna Hertrich's Chrono-Shredder is a witty paper calendar-cum-paper shredder. As the day progresses, a single roll of paper displaying the day's date gets shredded in 24 hours. That paper becomes waste on the floor - a clever representation of time gone that can never be regained.
Another crowd favourite is the Scented Time sculpture by Sovrappensiero Design Studio. The work comprises a series of candles, each with a different scent. As one candle starts to die, the flickering flame is transferred to the next candle which emits a different smell from the first. Presumably, one would be able to tell the time by identifying the scent in the room. Though slightly kitschy in concept, the work is stylishly carved from lava stone, topped with angular-shaped candles. Sovrappensiero Design Studio says that work was specifically designed to aid the visually-impaired.
Among the Asian works, one that stands out is Yang Xinguang's Counting Sand. Here, the Chinese artist took a mound of sand and literally counted every grain. When he completed the task, he repeated it. He came up with two numbers: 185,465 and 186,837 grains. It's a difference of 1,372. But considering the intense concentration required for this backbreaking feat, one is inclined to forgive him.
Officine Panerai's o'clock art exhibition is on at CAFA Art Museum in Beijing until April 10.
The museum is located at No 5, Xiaowei Lane, Dongcheng District.