(An occasional series in which works of art are pitted against their wall text)
ART VS WALL VS WALL: One Million Years vs Three Hundred Thirty-Five Words
Work: One Million Years, On Kawara
Scene One: The Museum of Modern Art, Scenes for a New Heritage,
Contemporary Art from the Collection
“Nine hundred ninety five thousand one hundred twenty six BC,” says a male voice. “Nine hundred ninety five thousand one hundred twenty five BC,” says a female voice. Then the man: “nine hundred ninety five thousand one hundred twenty four BC.” The woman: “nine hundred ninety five thousand one hundred twenty three BC.”
one two three four five six seven eight nine ten eleven twelve thirteen fourteen fifteen sixteen seventeen eighteen nineteen twenty twenty-one twenty-two twenty-three twenty-four twenty-five twenty-six twenty-seven twenty-eight twenty-nine thirty thirty-one thirty-two
[In an artistic practice that combined paintings, telegrams, and postcards, Kawara aimed to make viewers aware of their place in history and to give the passage of time a kind of materiality.]
A nicely scaled vitrine of shiny plexiglass holds an open book, its pages displaying gridded lists of numbers. Embedded into the vitrine is a round speaker from which the voices emanate. The book is open so its two halves are gracefully equal, curving slightly in the wing-shapes of a bound codex.
thirty-three thirty-four thirty-five thirty-six thirty-seven thirty-eight thirty-nine forty forty-one forty-two forty-three forty-four forty-five forty-six forty-seven forty-eight forty-nine fifty fifty-one fifty-two fifty-three fifty-four fifty-five fifty-six fifty-seven fifty-eight fifty-nine sixty sixty-one sixty-two sixty-three
[His interest in how society uses dates to grasp time’s elusiveness can be seen in the artist’s book project One Million Years, which covers the years 998,031 BC to 1,001,992 AD.]
We see pages 996 and 997, displaying the years 499001 AD to 500000 AD in blocks that are each ten numbers across and ten numbers down, five blocks — five centuries — to a page. The book displays its numbers with complete clarity. The idea, a listing of years — one million in the past, one million in the future — is embodied in the object. If I could hold the book in my hand and turn the pages I would see each of the two million years for myself. Nothing is hidden. Nothing requires explication. The literalness is the force of the piece.
sixty-four sixty-five sixty-six sixty-seven sixty-eight sixty-nine seventy seventy-one seventy-two seventy-three seventy-four seventy-five seventy-six seventy-seven seventy-eight seventy-nine eighty eighty-one eighty-two eighty-three eighty-four eighty-five eighty-six eighty-seven eighty-eight eighty-nine ninety ninety-one ninety-two ninety-three
[At the request of the artist, portions of the project have been read aloud in locations around the world. A recording of these readings is part of the installation here.]
The voices are deliberate, clear, relentless, something like cheerful. I feel as if they will never stop, as if they will go on speaking numbers as the museum closes and the rooms darken, as the guards walk through the empty galleries, checking here and there through the night, as the lights go on again and first the museum staff, then special visitors, then the ordinary members of the public flood the rooms again — on and on, number after number, alternating male and female as days and years pass, decades and then centuries until the building ages and turns to ruin, the city floods, the knowledge of what these voices are and why they are speaking is erased.
Scene Two: The Guggenheim Museum, On Kawara retrospective, Silence.
In the closing days of On Kawara’s retrospective at the Guggenheim, no voices are reading. All that’s left is a raised platform with a table, two chairs, microphones and speakers. Could they, I wondered, have run out of years? Later I learn that the live readings only take place three days a week, so this Saturday must be an off day. Instead of the recitation of numbers, the space is permeated with the blurred ambience of conversation and footsteps. I walk the ramp, eyes skittering from one date painting to the next, past postcards and telegrams, looking for One Million Years. Here it takes the form of a series of binders, some laid open in vitrines, some upright as if on a shelf.
ninety-four ninety-five ninety-six ninety-seven ninety-eight ninety-nine one hundred one one hundred two one hundred three one hundred four one hundred five one hundred six one hundred seven one hundred eight one hundred nine one hundred ten one hundred eleven one hundred twelve one hundred thirteen one hundred fourteen one hundred fifteen one hundred sixteen one hundred seventeen one hundred eighteen one hundred nineteen one hundred twenty one hundred twenty-one one hundred twenty-two one hundred twenty-three
[With the work One Million Years, Kawara juxtaposes human awareness of the day, which conditions most of his other work, to an almost unimaginable measure of past and future time.]
Kawara’s work is so ultra-flat that it can seem humorless and earnest, especially when accompanied by tendentious or sentimentalizing label prose. But couldn’t that same flatness be funny? Here is a completely unnecessary bureaucratic set of records, telling us what we already know. There’s an absurdity to it, a darkness, every number a stripping of all the life and feeling of a year into a serial code. If it’s a script for voices, it’s Samuel Beckett degree zero. In that absurdity there’s also a curious lightness, a levity, as narrative and context are released and the numbers float free.
one hundred twenty-four one hundred twenty-five one hundred twenty-six one hundred twenty-seven one hundred twenty-eight one hundred twenty-nine one hundred thirty one hundred thirty-one one hundred thirty-two one hundred thirty-three one hundred thirty-four one hundred thirty-five one hundred thirty-six one hundred thirty-seven one hundred thirty-eight one hundred thirty-nine one hundred forty one hundred forty-one one hundred forty-two one hundred forty-three one hundred forty-four one hundred forty-five one hundred forty-six one hundred forty-seven one hundred forty-eight one hundred forty-nine one hundred fifty one hundred fifty-one one hundred fifty-two one hundred fifty-three one hundred fifty-four one hundred fifty-five one hundred fifty-six one hundred fifty-seven one hundred fifty-eight one hundred fifty-nine one hundred sixty one hundred sixty-one one hundred sixty-two one hundred sixty-three one hundred sixty-four one hundred sixty-five one hundred sixty-six one hundred sixty-seven
[One Million Years comprises twenty-four works, each made up of ten binders. Inside each binder are two hundred pages of text, each of which lists five hundred numbers. These numbers are in fact years, one hundred thousand per volume, one million per set.]
The literalness of Kawara makes me attentive to literalness. The numbers I see on the pages are strings of numerical characters followed by a space and then either the characters AD or BC. Despite the sense of displacement offered by their appearance in gridded lists, these numbers are immediately understand as dates because of the title of the piece. Nevertheless, the are not “in fact” dates, they are “in fact” strings of numbers and letters.
one hundred sixty-eight one hundred sixty-nine one hundred seventy one hundred seventy-one one hundred seventy-two one hundred seventy-three one hundred seventy-four one hundred seventy-five one hundred seventy-six one hundred seventy-seven one hundred seventy-eight one hundred seventy-nine one hundred eighty one hundred eighty-one one hundred eighty-two one hundred eighty-three one hundred eighty-four one hundred eighty-five one hundred eighty-six one hundred eighty-seven one hundred eighty-eight one hundred eighty-nine one hundred ninety one hundred ninety-one one hundred ninety-two one hundred ninety-three one hundred ninety-four one hundred ninety-five one hundred ninety-six one hundred ninety-seven one hundred ninety-eight one hundred ninety-nine two hundred one two hundred two two hundred three two hundred four two hundred five two hundred six two hundred seven two hundred eight two hundred nine two hundred ten two hundred eleven two hundred twelve two hundred thirteen two hundred fourteen two hundred fifteen two hundred sixteen two hundred seventeen two hundred eighteen two hundred nineteen two hundred twenty two hundred twenty-one two hundred twenty-two two hundred twenty-three two hundred twenty-four two hundred twenty-five two hundred twenty-six two hundred twenty-seven two hundred twenty-eight two hundred twenty-nine two hundred thirty two hundred thirty-one two hundred thirty-two two hundred thirty-three two hundred thirty-four two hundred thirty-five two hundred thirty-six two hundred thirty-seven
[The works are divided into two groups, One Million Years: Past, and One Million Years: Future, each respectively subtitled “For all those who have lived and died” and “For the last one.” The Past works were created in 1970 and 1971, and their lists end with the year prior to which they were assembled; the Future works, produced between 1980 and 1998, begin with the year after they were made.]
While writing this, back in my studio, I look at my screen and I notice that what’s playing over the speakers is Hundred Million Light Years by the techno artist, Kaito (Hiroshi Watanabe). The music pulses cheerfully, carrying me along, the sound a bit reminiscent of Steve Reich, as if he had passed through hands-in-the-air House and Progressive Trance of the late nineties then lingered on the beach at Ibiza with the pop ambientists of the German techno label Kompakt. It’s a reminder that repetition also has its basic pleasures.
two hundred thirty-eight two hundred thirty-nine two hundred forty two hundred forty-one two hundred forty-two two hundred forty-three two hundred forty-four two hundred forty-five two hundred forty-six two hundred forty-seven two hundred forty-eight two hundred forty-nine two hundred fifty two hundred fifty-one two hundred fifty-two two hundred fifty-three two hundred fifty-four two hundred fifty-five two hundred fifty-six two hundred fifty-seven two hundred fifty-eight two hundred fifty-nine two hundred sixty two hundred sixty-one two hundred sixty-two two hundred sixty-three two hundred sixty-four two hundred sixty-five two hundred sixty-six two hundred sixty-seven two hundred sixty-eight two hundred sixty-nine two hundred seventy two hundred seventy-one two hundred seventy-two two hundred seventy-three two hundred seventy-four two hundred seventy-five two hundred seventy-six two hundred seventy-seven two hundred seventy-eight two hundred seventy-nine two hundred eighty two hundred eighty-one two hundred eighty-two two hundred eighty-three two hundred eighty-four two hundred eighty-five two hundred eighty-six two hundred eighty-seven two hundred eighty-eight two hundred eighty-nine two hundred ninety two hundred ninety-one two hundred ninety-two two hundred ninety-three two hundred ninety-three two hundred ninety-four two hundred ninety-five two hundred ninety-six two hundred ninety-seven two hundred ninety-eight two hundred ninety-nine three hundred one three hundred two three hundred three three hundred four three hundred five three hundred six three hundred seven three hundred eight three hundred nine
[One Million Years was foreshadowed by 10,000 years, a nineteen sheet work on paper in which each of the ten thousand numbers was individually typed by the artist. Subsequently, for One Million Years, Kawara devised a cut-and-paste method in which columns of single digits could be glued to grids of numbers that had already been typed. Final sheets were photocopied, allowing him to produce the work with somewhat less labor.]
For the series, Pure Consciousness, Kawara arranged for groups of his date paintings to be hung in kindergarten classrooms around the world. Kawara required that the teacher not explain the works or answer questions about them and that no one should ask the children about the paintings afterwards. The installations were for the children themselves, whether they noticed the works or ignored them, remembered or forgot.
three hundred ten three hundred eleven three hundred twelve three hundred thirteen three hundred fourteen three hundred fifteen three hundred sixteen three hundred seventeen three hundred eighteen three hundred nineteen three hundred twenty three hundred twenty-one three hundred twenty-two three hundred twenty-three three hundred twenty-four three hundred twenty-five three hundred twenty-six three hundred twenty-seven three hundred twenty-eight three hundred twenty-nine three hundred thirty three hundred thirty-one three hundred thirty-two three hundred thirty-three three hundred thirty-four three hundred thirty-five
[In 1993 Kawara expanded One Million Years to encompass live and recorded readings, which allows the project to be both preserved and perpetuated through public recitation.]
The 335 words of wall text offered by both museums (93 from MoMA, 242 from the Guggenheim) are relatively minimal – the curators seem to be trying to honor Kawara’s own slience. But they are 335 words too many. The facts, context, and anecdotes on the wall offer little niches for the mind to cling to and be comforted by; they buffer the stark obviousness of Kawara’s work. If kindergarten students can bathe their young consciousnesses in the absoluteness of Kawara’s date paintings, surely the adult audiences of MoMA and the Guggenheim should be able to withstand Kawara’s lack of ambiguity. Let the reciting voices count, unencumbered by extra words: “nine hundred ninety five thousand one hundred twenty two BC, nine hundred ninety five thousand one hundred twenty one BC, nine hundred ninety five thousand one hundred twenty BC…
Sal Randolph is an artist who lives in Brooklyn and frequently works with language. Her work has been seen recently at Raygun Projects in Toowoomba, Australia, at the Moore College Galleries in Philadelphia, Proteus Gowanus in Brooklyn, and in the pages of The American Reader and Cabinet.