Participating in One Million Years inspired me to read Jeff Wall’s essay, “Monochrome and Photojournalism in On Kawara’s Today Paintings.” In the interest of extending Wall’s assessment of Kawara’s work, I’ll consider how this analogy might accommodate One Million Years.
Wall deftly connects photojournalism and the monochrome via Modernism’s reductive relation to history painting. The Today paintings consist of a field of color, leaving the date they were painted written inscribed in the negative space left unpainted. Each painting also comes in a box, which usually contains newspaper pages from that date. For Wall, Kawara’s paintings mark the confrontation between the conceptual “knots” of the monochrome and photojournalism, and in the framework of history painting their only “point of agreement” is in the dates. Both the photojournalistic function of the newspapers and the monochromatic reductions of the canvas share their sense of the manifestation of an event.
If the monochrome and photojournalism represent the historical antagonisms at work in the Today paintings, then perhaps we can consider the relevance of epic literature and the modern news media in relation to One Million Years as a literary form. Thus a parallel can develop with Wall’s exegesis. The difficulty in this assessment is that the Today paintings function on a level of duration relevant to a single human life, and part of the wonder of One Million Years is in contemplating how much larger it is than any individual. Yet the structure of One Million Years is also clearly connected to the epic poetry of Homer (or the histories of Thucydides and Herodotus) as well as the event-per-minute functions of services like Twitter or the 24-hour cable news cycle (with Joyce’s Ulysses as a literary precursor).
Because One Million Years functions as anti-news in relation to the human individual, we require an Archimedean point to understand this duration. Quite simply we do not have the distance for the duration invoked by Kawara to gain any perspective on the totality of time it creates. Hannah Arendt, writing in The Human Condition, says that with Galileo’s invention of the telescope,
The secrets of the universe were delivered to human cognition ‘with the certainty of sense-perception…’ Man realized his newly won freedom from the shackles of earth-bound experience; instead of observing natural phenomena as they were given to him, he placed nature under the conditions of his own mind, that is, under conditions won from a … cosmic standpoint outside nature itself… Without actually standing where Archimedes wished to stand, still bound to the earth through the human condition, we have found a way to act on the earth and within terrestrial nature as though we dispose of it from outside, from the Archimedean point. (260-262)
Projecting our selves beyond the earthbound in this way, Arendt says, that a process of “world alienation” takes place. Likewise, One Million Years performs a degree of world alienation, functioning as it does on the scale of cosmic time. Rather than Galileo’s telescope, such an Archimedean point might be possible in the form of an ideal narrator, one that could sufficiently appreciate the scope of extreme duration. Italo Calvino dreamed up just such a character with Qfwfq, the narrator of many of the stories collected in Cosmicomics.
An omnipresent being, Qfwfq takes many forms across eons. He narrates the Big Bang; recalls the xenophobia of the era immediately following the extinction of dinosaurs; bemoans the unconsummated desires of beings falling in parallel through infinite space; describes how, as a mollusk, the cogs of sexual selection compell him to “evolve” eyes and sight. During the condensing of matter into the Earth, Qfwfq’s sister takes fright as the Sun lights on fire and she recedes into the forming Earth. Qfwfq doesn’t see her again, “until I met her, much later, at Canberra in 1912, married to a certain Sullivan, a retired railroad man, so changed I hardly recognized her.” (27) The mastery of Calvino’s writing lies in these astounding jumps in historical scale, resolving the human and cosmic in the same narrative register.
Qfwfq is able to represent both the epic and the quotidian, giving form to abstract theories and ideas, even equations. Had Archimedes found his lever and his place to stand, he surely would have found Qfwfq, standing right there next to him. Considering the totality of Kawara’s project in its ideal, spoken form, we might imagine One Million Years as Qfwfq reading the news.