Posts Tagged ‘On Kawara’

On Kawara Postscript: Qfwfq Reads the News

February 16, 2009


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.

On Kawara: One Million Years

February 10, 2009

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.