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John C. Taylor: Corpus Clock

ArtWay Visual Meditation 9 June 2024
John C. Taylor: Corpus Clock
‘The Years the Locust has Eaten’
by Otto Bam
Public timepieces most often occupy elevated places like steeples and towers. This allows city dwellers to lift their gaze over multitudes of people and surrounding buildings, and, with a brief glance, situate themselves in time and space. But the Corpus Clock in Cambridge, England, pays no heed to this tradition. Instead, it confronts pedestrians on street level, regularly causing the flow of foot traffic to stall. Indeed, in a sort of ongoing, spontaneous vigil to the passing of time, one can find a crowd watching the clock at almost any time on any given day.
The clock has a dazzling, even hypnotic appearance, and one’s first impression is of an enormous piece of jewellery. However, once it has gained your attention, the encounter turns into a profoundly uneasy, even disturbing confrontation, for, perched atop the enormous clock is a creature of frightening appearance, with the body of a locust and fangs for teeth. Its talons grip the sharp, ribbed edges of the escape wheel. Its vicious jaws open at thirty seconds past each minute, before snapping shut again, signalling the top of the minute. Its eyelids blink at irregular intervals and, fascinatingly, the clock at times slows down and even stops completely – only to catch up again, remaining entirely accurate every fifth minute.
The Corpus Clock brings art and science into conversation in fascinating ways. Its designer, John C. Taylor, donated the clock to Corpus Christi College in Cambridge where he was a student, and it is now held in the library of the college. The clock designed as an homage to the renowned clockmaker, John Harrison, who invented the grasshopper escapement in 1722, which the Corpus Clock incorporates. But Taylor’s design turns Harrison’s mechanism inside out. Traditionally, a clock’s escapement mechanism is hidden from view. In Taylor’s design it is the main feature – an inversion echoed in the exoskeleton of the insect. This is time turned inside-out. And what do we find on the “inside” of time? A monstrous thing. An abyss from which life cannot be recovered. The name itself, Corpus Clock (body clock) prompts us to reflect on our own decaying bodies, our own time irretrievably ticking away.
Introducing the concept on video, Taylor explains that the LED lights, depicting hours, minutes and seconds in three concentric circles from the centre outwards, represent time beginning with the Big Bang and rippling outward like a wave. Significantly, it was unveiled in 2013 by the author of A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking. The Chronophage (time-eater in Greek), which is the name that Taylor gave the monstrous insect, represents a fatalistic view of time. As Taylor explained to the Daily Mail, he “wanted to depict that time is a destroyer - once a minute is gone you can’t get it back.” The Corpus Clock evokes association with a long tradition of associating the image of a clock with the idea of the world as merely a system of causes and effects – blind and brutal in the eyes of the sentimental species known as homo sapiens.
But an interpretation of the Corpus Clock becomes more complex still. Under it, inscribed in stone, is a Latin phrase, “mundus transit et concupiscentia eius” (“The world and its desires pass away”). This is taken from the Latin Vulgate 1 John 2:17. For those who are familiar with this passage, the omission of the other half of the verse is deafening: “…but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” It is an omission that underscores the image of time as devourer.
The symbol of the Chronophage itself contains strong biblical resonances. In fact, the locust as time-eater is an image evoked by the prophet Joel. In the book of Joel, a locust plague is employed to warn about the coming “Day of the Lord.” There is nothing sentimental about Joel’s appraisal of the situation of his people. He declares that there will be, indeed, that there has been, suffering and destruction. And while the prophecy is dark and devastating, it also strikes a note of profound hope despite the destruction: “I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten” (Joel 2:25). How can this be?
There is yet another connection to be made when pondering Taylor’s invention, which deepens the mystery of this question. As we have already discovered, the clock is housed in the Cambridge college named Corpus Christi (body of Christ). “The world and its desires pass away,” but it is the Christ who did the will of God and lives forever. He shared our humanity, entered into the domain of the gnawing Chronophage, giving his body as food – food that nourishes to everlasting life, restoring the years the Chronophage has eaten.
John C. Taylor (b. 25 November 1936) is a British inventor, entrepreneur, horologist and philanthropist best known for his extensive research into electric kettles. (From Wikipedia)
Corpus Clock, is a large sculptural clock at street level on the outside of the Taylor Library at Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge, in the United Kingdom, at the junction of Bene't Street and Trumpington Street, looking out over King's Parade. It was conceived and funded by John C. Taylor, an former member of the college. It was officially unveiled to the public on 19 September 2008 by Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking.  The clock was named one of Time's Best Inventions of 2008. (From Wikipedia)
Otto Bam is a South African writer and musician. He is the co-editor of ArtWay and the arts manager for the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology in Cambridge. He has a master’s degree in English Studies from Stellenbosch University, South Africa, as well as master’s degree in religion and literature from the University of Edinburgh.
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