My thoughts are so disorganized (until I write them down), that I often imagine them as a kind of primordial stew. Every now and then one of them bubbles to the surface, jostled there by changing life experiences and steeped by time. That recurring thought in these past few days concerns the work of Japanese conceptual artist On Kawara. Since it keeps bobbing to the surface of my mental “stew,” I thought I ought to pick it up and investigate it here. What better time to ruminate on old exhibitions than a time when there are no new exhibitions? Also maybe that little resurfacing thought has something pertinent to tell me (hopefully us) about this moment. The only way to know is to write it.
Back in 2008, On Kawara: 10 Tableaux and 16,952 pages was on view at the Dallas Museum of Art. To the casual viewer, On Kawara’s black and white paintings and sleek vitrines filled with thick and dense volumes may have come off a bit clinical. At first glance, there was nothing poetic or grand in Kawara’s work. And yet, to this day, it remains the one exhibition where the guard felt the need to trail me because my awe was so great that I could not stop leaning over to spread my fingers on those pristine glass cases. (My apologies, 2008 DMA museum guard, wherever you are.) In One Million Years, On Kawara had typed all of the years numbering from one to one million- one million years into the future, and one million years into the past- a feat which stretched over two thousand pages per volume. If that’s not grandiose, I don’t know what is.
On Kawara knew that the trouble with numbers is the same thing that makes numbers useful in the first place: they’re abstract. We are physical creatures with only a vague understanding of things beyond the human scale, whether that scale be the length of a lifetime or the reach of our own physical dimensions. “One million” is an easy to say but indecipherable number to most of us. But Kawara’s work didn’t stop there. It also posited how little we understand even of the scale of our own lives. For the twelve-volume series I MET, he simply documented the people with whom he engaged day by day–every day–for twelve years. Repetitions and patterns emerged and faded away. The circumstances which caused names to appear or disappear from this ledger- love, death, employment, happenstance- were absent from its pages. Yet somehow, with this extended act of recording, Kawara seemed to edge closer to a certain kind of realism. While the high drama of interpersonal relationships is often foremost in our imagination of our daily lives, these peak and nadir moments actually represent a mere sliver of our time on earth. Life is lived in the mundane, after all.
So there it is…the reason that Kawara’s work keeps bobbing to the surface of my disorganized “thought stew” right now. My list of daily interactions (like everyone else’s, everywhere) has narrowed precipitously. The “pages” of my life suddenly look very repetitive. Which brings me to the final Kawara’s series I will mention here, his Today paintings, which uncannily approximate life in the era of COVID-19. The way that Kawara made these paintings was to simply paint the day’s date in stark white letters on a black background. According to the artist’s conceptual standards, the paintings had to be completed within the span of that single calendar day. Thus, each painting was entirely unique, although in formal terms they were incredibly similar.
Some of us (healthcare workers and “essential” employees and sick people and families and friends of the afflicted) are living through this event under the full force of its blinding pain and heartache. The dates we are all living through may be some of the worst of their lives, etched with severity into their minds. Others, myself included, are ticking off days of incredible sameness with a mixture of boredom and anxiety. Like the black paintings, our days are different, yet barely distinguishable. Thinking back on this 2008 exhibition, Kowara’ work and its meditation on time strikes me differently now. Instead of the scant resource it once was, time is now crashing down on us with all the overwhelming awe of 16,952 pages. There is suddenly so much time, and yet our private fear is that we’ve already let too much of it slip through our fingers, and that in the end, there may still not be enough.