Reading On Kawara's One Million Years.
Guest blog by Maeve Blackman
Relating directly to the festival’s theme of exploring how artists can stretch, measure and mark the passage of time, On Kawara’s epic artwork is an attempt to materially record dates covering one million years – Past and Future. The installation comprises a podium, with two chairs, two microphones and two volumes containing the dates being read. It is the only thing in the gallery space, and viewers are free to walk around, sit, and listen to the readers. There is one male, and one female reader, each reading consecutive dates.
I participated in this artwork on the second day of its installation by being a reader. There was no way I could have anticipated the emotions that overtook me in the hour and a half that I sat and read the list of dates. These emotions ranged from nervousness, calmness, deep concentration, distraction, terror, fun, and pretty much everything else in between.
Whilst meandering in and out of thought during the reading, I caught myself focusing on the exact year I was reading out loud and thinking how very simple a written date seems compared to the complexity of its real time experience. This is something On Kawara himself seems to be pointing to with one of the aims of the artwork being to make the viewer/participator aware of their place in history.
The actual books (consisting of twenty volumes) that the dates are read from are titled 'Past', which is dedicated 'to all those who have lived and died' (covering the years from 998,031 BC to 1969 AD) and 'Future', which is dedicated to 'the last one' (beginning with the year 1993 AD and ending with the year 1,001,992 AD). The book titles do seem to give a morbid essence to the artwork and after all our lifespan is defined by the dates of our birth and death (usually prominently displayed on gravestones). The issue of morbidity is not a new one for On Kawara. One of his earlier works entitled Bathroom incorporated a series of images of dismembered body parts and the Date Paintings created in his Today Series are presented in a tombstone like box with a newspaper cutting from the date they were created.
Overall, this artwork encapsulates On Kawara's concern with the essence of human existence and how we as individuals respond to, as well as apprehend, the elusiveness of time. It is a huge body of work, and the fact it relies on human participation reflects its aims of making society aware of how we mark the passage of a temporal instant.