On Kawara: One Million Years


Courtesy David Zwirner, New York

David Zwirner

January 14 – February 14, 2009

Time is not abstract, per se, it is rather so concrete, so indelible as to be all encompassing. It defies easy representation. As a result we are left with a multitude of metaphors—a line, a river, a train—of varying degrees of usefulness. (Daniel Birnbaum’s book Chronology is a wonderful essay on the phenomenology of time and how contemporary film and video artists have created their own models of time.)

As theme (and medium) time is a basic concern for any artist. Yet few have taken it as their subject matter as unflinchingly as On Kawara. A monumental work in every sense of the word, Kawara’s One Million Years is currently being recorded live in an exhibition at David Zwirner gallery. The project is made up of two parts, One Million Years (Past) and One Million Years (Future), compiled in a 20 volume collection. Together these projects contain the written dates of 2,000,000 years, one million years each going back and forward. Thus the two volumes include the years 998,031 B.C. through 1969 A.D. and 1996 A.D. through 1,001,995 A.D. Each volume is comprised of 2,068 photocopied pages, each page containing rows of ten years.

The scale of One Million Years is almost unmatched by any contemporary artwork. Parallels might be found in Allan McCollum’s Shapes Project (2005-), where he produces unique graphic emblems for every person on the planet, or Douglas Huebler’s Variable series, in which Huebler attempted to photograph everyone on the planet. As the figures involved in each of these projects approaches the millions (and billions), there is an element of the sublime; the successes and failures to enact and complete these projects reveals the actuality of what those numbers represent, essentially moving from abstraction—in which these numbers are “beyond recognition”—to the concrete and comprehendible.

Although in its original form One Million Years is exhibited like archival records, the performed and recorded presentation places it within the conceptual framework of real, lived time. Moving away from the bureaucratic, to consider the bound volumes as scripts is to realize their true form, existing and unfolding in time.

The on-site sound studio records readers working in two-hour shifts, with the even years read by a female and the odd years by a male. My partner and I signed up to read about a week ago, on a Monday when the gallery was closed to the public. Coincidentally, gallery owner David Zwirner and his wife were the readers preceding us. Even without the distractions of a viewing public, performance anxiety was inevitable; I was concerned about growing bored, about making too many mistakes, about mumbling, about struggling through my cold. But once we started, all of that receded. We were dealing with immense, wordy numbers, the kind that get stuck in your teeth and roll on your tongue like cotton balls. Nine hundred forty six thousand six hundred thirty three. I had to focus. We would go long streches in perfect rhythm, and then suddenly make many mistakes in the course of ten years. One of us would accidentally read the other’s year. In counting, the numbers, despite their inescapable logic, begin to seem arbitrary. The scale of the task is so immense, why this number now?

Courtesy David Zwirner, New York

Courtesy David Zwirner, New York

I couldn’t help thinking of the fact that the original volumes of One Million Years, given their creation dates, must have been hand produced on a typewriter. Today a programmer could write a few lines of code in a couple of hours and have a computer generate each of the dates. The same process could similarly enact a digitally generated “reading” of the dates. But human labor is an important component of the project as well, as it brings the geologic, monumental scale of the project to the level of human experience. My partner asked if many of the readers had accents, and the sound engineer replied that while Kawara wanted a sort of “level American accent” for the recording, in fact the readers represented a diverse range, with English readings accented by Italian, German, Japanese, Argentinian, South African readers. The result is inevitably a polyphonic, and populist, experience.

About Time and in time, the reading of One Million Years makes manifest this incomprehensible collection of dates. But in the litany of years, a caesura opens between the actuality of eons and their representation as a list of numbers. Each year takes a couple of seconds to read. At the ambitious rate of 27 CDs recorded per year, it will take 100 years to record the entirety of Kawara’s project; through this process of representation, two million years will be compressed into a single lifetime. Even compressed by a factor of 20,000, this conception of time astounds. Without a leap of the imagination, one stands over the vertiginous chasm opened by this representation. One wonders then why Kawara chose not to include the years 1970 through 1995 in either of the volumes Past or Future. This omission is clearly not incidental, and yet only partially overlaps the years between the creation of each volume. What was the intention—was it personal, autobiographical? A conspicuous absence, such a gap humanizes an otherwise overwhelming system.

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