Category Archives: Journal

Art is a Waiting Room – thoughts on documenta 14

Last month I attended the professional preview of documenta 14 in Kassel, Germany. The venerated, uber-important exhibition happens only once every five years in an otherwise unremarkable town. This year the artistic director Adam Szymczyk decided to split the exhibition between Kassel and Athens. There have been a lot of reviews published already, and I agree with the consensus that’s emerging: documenta 14 is not so great. I saw documenta 13, and this year’s installment helped me appreciate just how good that one was. Two reviews I recommend are Ben Davis in artnet who says it’s “a strikingly alienating show,” and Jeni Fulton’s exasperated take in Sleek.

documenta 14 is awkward and frustrating, but as Davis points out, some of that might be intentional. The planning period of the show straddled a pretty difficult period of world history. Szymczyk certainly meant to draw energy from the ongoing financial and political turmoil of the European Union, plopping part of the prestigious German exhibition in bail-out weary Greece. But more recent developments like the surge in ethnic nationalism that propelled Brexit and the election of Donald Trump is mostly unaccounted for, except in a very general sense.

I did see one installation that seemed to reflect the precise sense of confusion, disbelief, and anxiety that defines the current moment. Irena Haiduk presented a series of works collectively titled “SER (Seductive Exacting Realism),” which consisted of a room with a fashion runway, large stone tablets engraved with text, a counter where the artist was selling women’s shoes and dresses under the brand name Yugoexport, performances throughout the city where young women walked in a line wearing those shoes and dresses while balancing books on their heads, and a completely dark room where visitors listen to audio of actors reading a transcript of a conversation between Haiduk and an activist named Srdja Popovic. To buy a pair of shoes, guests were required to disclose their income in order to pay on a sliding price scale, and sign a gilded contract ensuring that the shoes would only be worn while “performing work.” The wall text was opaque and cryptic, a portion declaring, “Here, voices sing the pre-history of the blind, non-aligned, oral corporation: Yugoexport. She is incorporated in the United States, where corporations are people…” It goes on, but it doesn’t get any clearer.

In the darkened room dark room the voices speak about using the tools of branding and fashion in service of overthrowing oppressive governments. They talk about protest as a form of public image-making, a kind of radical PR. All the while, by keeping us in the dark Haiduk prevents us from doing our own branding through social media. Attendants actually yell at you if they see you turn on your phone in the pitch black room. It’s the only artwork in the exhibition that can’t be captured on Instagram (although the whole show is not particularly photogenic). We’re forced to just listen, we’re not allowed to document the experience and convert it into our own self-branding, which seems to be the default activity while viewing exhibitions now. As bold and controlling as Haiduk is of our experience, she’s also remarkably candid about her own failures, and the failure of socially engaged art in general. She acknowledges the way her work can be exploited by some of the same power structures it seeks to undermine. Listening to the voices we realize that she’s at once completely convinced of her methods, and willing to question them to their very core. The work managed to blend a self-righteous, brand-oriented confidence with a sense of introspection and self-critique that I didn’t think was possible.

At one point the voices are talking about successful past cases where the power of marketing was leveraged to foment protests against oppressive regimes, and they make a startling point. I’m paraphrasing here, but one voice says, “What’s worse than the dictatorship? The waiting that comes after. Not knowing what will replace it. Art is a waiting room.”

Art is a waiting room. What Haiduk seems to be aware of–which I think is a massive blindspot in nearly all socially engaged art projects and biennial curator-speak–is just how much art can fail even while it’s ostensibly meeting its own goals. It can play all the right notes, so to speak, and still be nothing more than white noise. Maybe art doesn’t have the revolutionary power we hope it does. Maybe art can’t heal us, and instead it’s just the thing we look at in the waiting room before receiving our diagnosis.

When Donald Trump was elected, in the grief and shock of the following day, I had a thought. It has softened and complicated a bit since then, but I still can’t get it out of my mind completely. I thought, “If we can elect a dictator, it must mean that all American socially engaged and activist art has failed completely. What clearer test could there be?”

The timing of this documenta was very tricky. If Brexit and the election of Donald Trump had happened at the beginning of the five year planning period, rather than at the end, I suspect the exhibition would be quite different. Even when it seems to capture the current anxiety of the political moment, it’s not clear if it’s reacting quickly, or striking a bit of luck. Haiduk’s project was ahead of the curve.

These exhibitions (documenta and other global biennials and triennials) have for decades sought to reflect and process a world in crisis. Globalism, the de-centering of the West, the backlash against colonialism, critiques of neoliberalism, declarations of the imminent demise of late-late-capitalism, and on and on. It’s a little hard to continue taking seriously the Chicken Little curators and theorists when they’ve been warning of an imminent implosion of the world order for decades. After a while this type of dark prognosticating begins to seem like a special curatorial language and little more, like a mating call used exclusively by this rare and sophisticated species. It sounds like a way of signaling the correct mix of positions, paranoias, and utopian visions. The dense and foreboding descriptions of crisis don’t seem to relate much to reality, where quality of life, by many measures, has been on a slow upward climb.

But suddenly things seem different. Undoubtedly this is because of my perspective as an American. As of last November, a path toward fascism by the nation with history’s most powerful military suddenly seems very possible. So perhaps the biennials’ predictions of imminent collapse were not so far off. With this frame of mind, it would seem that documenta 14 is poised to be most relevant and poignant of all the global exhibitions that have shared this gloomy rhetorical strategy. But it’s not. Rather than benefitting from a scenario where its catastrophic language became more relevant while the exhibition was forming, documenta 14’s rhetoric feels like a hollow continuation of performative curator-speak. The recent shift in the potential direction of the world, away from post-war Western unity and toward autocratic dictators ruling by fear and conspiracy, reveals the rigidity of art exhibitions that seek to reflect and process a volatile world. Now that the world really has changed for the worse, the art remains mostly the same. So we wait.

Some Thoughts on ArtPrize in a New Political Reality

Dewitt Godfrey

(image: Dewitt Godfrey)

This is a blog post about ArtPrize, money, and politics. In the past I haven’t addressed these things with this level of clarity, but now is not a time for silence. We put out a statement on the ArtPrize blog about recent political developments (read it here), but I thought I’d add more of my personal take below.

I’ve been part of ArtPrize from the very beginning. I remember hearing Rick DeVos give the original pitch to me and a dozen other people who worked for a previous company he’d founded. I was stunned by the elegance and the power of the idea. I knew it would be incredibly hard to pull off, and I wanted to help. I got that opportunity and took it upon myself to ensure that ArtPrize didn’t suck. That’s actually what I told myself in my mind, “Don’t let this suck.” I poured myself into developing and refining the artist-facing portion of the event. I argued passionately with haters in comment threads. I convinced skeptical artists to enter and cautious curators and critics to visit as jurors.

I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished so far, but over these eight years I’ve also come to terms with how naive I was at the beginning. It wasn’t my sole responsibility to make sure it didn’t suck, that was ultimately out of my control. The successes and failures of a thing like ArtPrize ride on the efforts of thousands of people, and even then certain elements are left to the whims of chance. ArtPrize has worked, but there’s nothing I control that guarantees that.

Last year, as we were in the hustle of ArtPrize Eight while following the news of a contentious and insane election, I started to sense a deep change in circumstance, like the ground shifting. Eras of American culture can be pretty effectively mapped to presidential administrations, without necessarily claiming a cause and effect relationship. Administrations and our reaction to them have a way of coloring the national mood. When I say “the Reagan years,” that has a cultural meaning as well as a political one. During the event this past fall it occurred to me that the entirety of ArtPrize up to that point had taken place during the Obama years. The meeting I mentioned earlier, when Rick laid out his simple vision for an art event that would take over the city, took place in January 2009, the same month Obama was inaugurated.

As we worked on the event, no one thought “Gee, this will be a perfect for the Obama era!” But looking back now, it’s clear that it reflected the sensibilities of the time. Those years were defined by hope in technology, participation, and democracy that seem a little too innocent now. Social networks! Apps! The “long tail”! TED Talks! With a little gumption and some cool tech, we can change the world! That sheen has been fading for a while now, but the events of the last few months signal an abrupt end to the techie optimism of the Obama era. We thought giving everyone technological “platforms” with which to amplify their voices would lead to a flourishing of expression, art, and entrepreneurship. A lot of that happened, but platforms like Twitter, for example, also emboldened misogynists, white supremacists, and Russian bot armies. Many news websites enabled comments, only to the turn them off years later. The elegance and simplicity of the big ideas that captured our imagination turned out to be more complicated than the original pitch. Things get messy.

ArtPrize has avoided the invasion of hateful trolls that plague platforms like Twitter and Reddit, but our early infatuation with elegance and simplicity has slowly given way to the unglamorous daily tasks of building a sustainable and consistent nonprofit art organization. We began as a wild idea dreamt up by someone with the means and the connections to get it off the ground, but we’ve become a broadly supported institution that gives artists, curators, and educators over $700,000 a year in grants and prizes. Initially, ArtPrize was an experiment in applying free market forces to the task of assembling an exhibition. ArtPrize was founded on the notion that if the carrot on the end of the stick was big enough, everything else would self-organize in an interesting way and figure out how to eat it. When the idea was announced, there were people who were confident that this approach would fail, and it was enormously satisfying to prove them wrong. But skepticism of our laissez faire model did have some merit. It turned out this was a brilliant way to start something, but it was not a great way to run something. As ArtPrize ages, we find ourselves confronted with the same challenges of any organization that supports the arts. How does the work get made? How are people supported? Who’s invited to be part of the audience? How do we keep it fresh? The giant carrot on the stick, as tantalizing as it still is, can only do so much. For everything else, we have to show up and do the work.

Now it’s 2017 and suddenly doing the work involves confronting the question of what ArtPrize will be in a new era. What is a post-Obama ArtPrize? What is ArtPrize in the Trump era, whatever that turns out to be? We’re just starting to figure this out—and honestly—we’re off to a very challenging start. This week Betsy DeVos was confirmed as Trump’s Secretary of Education. Betsy has been a financial supporter of ArtPrize, through her foundation, since her son Rick founded it. She served on the board until recently. I’ve never agreed with the politics of the DeVos family. Since before ArtPrize began I knew that working on Rick’s projects meant finding common goals with people despite disagreeing on a vast array of other issues, and defending this strategy against criticisms leveled by my own “side.” This has not been easy, and I have moments of doubt, but I reject the notion of insisting on perfect ideological alignment before agreeing to work toward a common goal. It’s puritanical, petty, and it breeds tribalism. I deeply disagree with the DeVos’ politics. And I’m deeply committed to what ArtPrize is doing with their help. Is that complicated? You bet it is. Most things are.

I’m not alone. The majority of the ArtPrize staff is with me in navigating a path through their own progressive politics and the perceptions that funding can carry. We’re not alone in the art world, either. The DeVos family funds every major art institution in Grand Rapids, with as much or even far more money than they give us. The tension between conservative money and progressive art organizations isn’t unique to Grand Rapids, either. If you think there isn’t a questionable aspect to the funders of a particular art organization, you probably haven’t looked hard enough.

I’ve become pretty comfortable plotting my way through this, but Betsy’s appointment came as a genuine shock. As late as the GOP convention, Betsy sounded cautious and unconvinced when asked by reporters about Trump, even though her preferred candidates, Rubio and Cruz, were clearly not going to get the nomination. I thought, even if I’ll never agree with Betsy on policy, there’s a much more basic question of integrity at play here. Surely, she could never support a candidate who talks like an aspiring dictator, spurns philanthropy, exhibits no working knowledge of the constitution, and prefers lawsuits and crony capitalism over free markets. Trump, it seems obvious, is not a conservative in any coherent sense of the term. Even though I’ve always disagreed with the DeVos’ social conservatism and free market fundamentalism, I thought I understood it. Now I’m forced to confront the fact that I was wrong. I have no idea what’s happening. I can’t imagine why Betsy would take this job.

Betsy has taken a lot of heat in the confirmation process, and unlike most people spilling ink about her, I’ve actually met her, so I feel the need to make a few things clear. First of all, she is not stupid. She’s an incredibly intelligent and insightful person, even if her confirmation hearing didn’t seem to reflect that. Second, she’s not evil. I believe that she truly wants to improve education outcomes for children, even if I think that her policy proposals will not accomplish that. More importantly, working for an administration that shows the early warning signs of fascism is not a situation that can be redeemed by good intentions.

I can’t justify or defend the actions of the funders of ArtPrize, and I don’t need to, that’s not my job. People can defend their own actions. What I will defend is my choice to work with people, despite difference and disagreement, to support artists and bring contemporary art to hundreds of thousands of people.

Some thoughts on death, loss, and 2016

I think it’s safe to say that 2016 was a year of loss and death. The news of Carrie Fischer’s passing really drove the point home for me. When I heard the news, I thought back to April, when Prince died. To be honest I’ve never been a very big fan of Prince. I learned about that news of his death in an airport during a layover on my way to Coachella. I suspected that a lot of the performers I was about to see would modify theirs sets to pay homage to Prince and cover his songs. That turned out to be true, but the most profound tribute I saw was a simple video. Between sets, on the enormous screens on either side of the stage, they played the video of Prince covering “Creep” by Radiohead during Coachella 2008.

Looking back on it now, this was the most remarkable thing I saw at the festival, even better than the live acts, as strange as that sounds. I think this performance is one of the best cover songs ever recorded. When I watch the video now on YouTube, it occurs to me that it’s a fundamentally different experience than seeing it on the huge screen. In April, standing in the dessert, being hit by a wall of sound and purple light, we were in the very spot where the performance happened 8 years before. It felt like holy ground.

You could argue that it would have been better to be there in 2008, to have seen the real thing. But there was something about the absence conveyed by the video that I’ll never forget. Projected video, and cinema in general, always acts like a bridge between our world and the world of dreams, spirits, and the afterlife. People are turned into light. Prince was not there, and it was sinking in that he would never be there again. Between the two obscenely large screens sat an empty stage.

I think it also matters that Creep was not his song. I know Prince wrote some great songs, but a cover song is the perfect way to get past the distraction of originality. His way of performing the song was not about making something, it was about displaying a way of being. He was showing how he could read and repeat back something we all knew, and do it in a way that revealed things we’d never heard before.

Right now 2016 feels like a year where we lost a lot ways of being. A lot of possibilities died.

Top Ten Exhibitions and Artworks I Saw in 2015

I traveled a fair amount this year, and I saw a lot of art. I thought it would be good to record the things that are still sticking with me. This is far from a definitive “best of ” list of major exhibitions, because even though I saw quite a bit, there is so, so much I missed (maybe I’ll see the new Whitney next year…)

These are listed in the order I saw them.

1.  On Kawara, Silence at Guggenheim Museum

One Million Years

I wrote a blog post about my experience as a volunteer reader for a performance of Kawara’s One Million Years that was part of this exhibition. It was certainly a top art experience of my life, not just the year. The whole show was excellent as well.

2. Tom Sachs: Boombox Retrospective 1999–2015 at The Contemporary Austin

Tom Sachs

This was an exhibition of functional boomboxes and speakers, constructed or heavily modified by Tom Sachs. When I visited there was a DJ set happening. Sachs uses common materials and tools to make obsessive, funny objects. It reminds me of the way my brother and I would modify action figures with saws and hot glue guns when we were kids, but Sachs is on another level. He draws heavily from design and the maker movement, which is surprisingly rare in contemporary sculpture.

3. Hito Steyerl, Factory of the Sun at the German Pavilion in the Venice Biennale

Hito Steyerl

I saw a lot of great work at the Venice Biennale, but this stands out. It’s pretty hard to describe, but I’ll give it a shot. The entire room is covered in a glowing grid that mimics a motion-capture studio. A video is playing about characters in gold lamé suits who are trapped in a video game, and all of their movements are used to generate sunlight. This is blended with an apparently real story of a girl whose Russian family emigrated to Canada, who’s brother makes dancing videos that went viral on YouTube. A sci-fi narrative emerges of a near-future where Deutsche Bank kills protesters with drones, and is working to accelerate the speed of light. Shooting a protester with drone is handled primarily as a PR problem. It’s funny, smart, and deeply weird. While the national pavilions are separate exhibitions from the main show–All The World’s Futures curated by Okwui Enwezor–Steyerl and Enwezor are both considering how capital and forced labor might operate in the 21st century. It’s a bit of an apples to oranges (artist to curator) comparison, but I think Steyerl did a much better job.

4. Mika Rottenberg, NoNoseKnows, at the Venice Biennale

Mika Rottenberg

Although the Steyerl was a standout, there were some wonderful moments in All The World’s Futures. My favorite was another work that used video and humor to explore politics of labor. Mika Rottenberg’s NoNoseKnows was an installation of shelves and tables filled with pearls. In the next room, a video plays that cuts together laborers extracting pearls from clams, while in the room above them a woman in a business suit sniffs bouquets of flowers. Her nose becomes irritated and long, like Pinocchio, and she sneezes out whole plates of food, which stack up around her. Among the pearl hunters in the room below, one young woman cranks a wheel that connects by a long belt to drive a fan that blows the scent and pollen from the flowers into the face of the long-nosed woman. There’s even more to it than that. Again, very weird, laugh out loud funny, but able to get me to consider notions of power, exploitation, and labor far better than the more dour works in the show.

5. Abu Bakarr Mansaray at Venice Biennale

Abu Bakarr Mansaray

(Apologies for the lousy photo) Mansaray is an artist from Sierra Leone who makes insanely detailed, dark, complicated, and sometimes hilarious drawings. There were dozens of them on display, depicting spaceships, weapons, and other war machines spewing scribbled blood. They reminded me of the drawings my brother and I did when we were kids, but taken to an extreme.

6.  International Pop at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

International Pop

I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with this show, but what I saw was a dynamic and funky exploration of how pop art manifested in all corners of the globe. I think it’s traveling, so hopefully I’ll catch it again.

7. Jenny Holzer, For the Garden at Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park

Jenny Holzer

Holzer created 13 boulders engraved with passages of poetry for the new Japanese Gardens that opened at Meijer Gardens this year. They’re really hard to photograph, but stumbling upon these enigmatic phrases while wandering the garden is really delightful.

8. Burning Man, Black Rock City, Nevada

Burning Man

I went to Burning Man for the first time this year. There’s a lot more art there than I expected, it’s probably one of the biggest exhibitions of temporary sculpture anywhere. Some of it is wonderful, some not so much. The best artwork of all, however, is the event itself. I wrote a short piece for The Rapidian about how the event reveals a lot about how ideologies create and animate cities.

9. William Pope.L, The Beautiful, Art Basel Miami Public Sector

William Pope.L

Each year as a part of Art Basel Miami Beach, the fair installs a series of artworks in Collins Park, not far from the convention center. The work this year was pretty strong, I especially liked William Pope.L’s performance, The Beautiful. A band of men in Superman costumes with black face paint drag one another on skateboards through the park to a stage. There they sing America the Beautiful in careful harmony, undercut by glaring, dissonant electric guitars. The song repeats a number of times, then reaches a crescendo when the performers toss handfulls of crumpled up fake money, causing some in the crowd to jump to the ground to gather it. The performers walk off one by one, leaving only one singer repeating a line from the second verse, “Confirm thy soul in self-control,” over and over again. I had never really noticed that line before. Standing there, among the blitz of excessive consumption that is Art Basel Miami Beach, in the party-induced cloud of distraction that almost let me forget about things like Donald Trump campaign and the San Bernardino shooting happening in the rest of the county, it occurred to me that “Confirm thy soul in self-control” is about the worst way to describe 21st century America. The gap between what we aspire to be and what we are hit me like a punch in the gut.

10. Artist-Designed Acid Tabs at Rob Tufnell’s Booth at NADA Miami

Rob Tufnell

In addition to Art Basel Miami Beach, there are a number of satellite art fairs that run at the same time, showcasing emerging and alternative galleries and artists. NADA is always one of the best satellite fairs, and this year I was struck by a small booth belonging to a British gallery called Rob Tufnell. It featured a series of small framed works on paper, which on closer inspection I realized were artist-designed acid tabs, including big names like Laura Owens, Liam Gillick, and David Shrigley. Now, I don’t do acid, so I’m not into these some kind of fanboy. I like these so much because they got me thinking about how all art presents itself as offering the possibility of a personal, transformative experience. Art is never just a thing, it’s the effect the thing has on you. Art fairs are weird because pretty much everything you see is intended for another context, but you have to look at it crammed into a booth in an enormous convention center. So many dealers pushing their wares at once can seem crass and exploitative, not unlike a drug pusher promising a great trip.

Reading On Kawara’s One Million Years at the Guggenheim

One Million Years
On Kawara, the conceptual artist whose work marked his own passage through time until his death last summer, has a retrospective on view at the Guggenheim Museum. I’ve always been a big fan of Kawara’s work ever since I encountered his “Today” series of paintings in an art history class in college. The paintings contain only the date on which they were painted in white letters on a solid background. I learned through a post on Hyperallergic that the Guggenheim retrospective would feature the work One Million Years, a piece that consists of binders filled with pages of years. One set includes years stretching one million years in the past, the other counts one million years into the future. When the work is exhibited, the institution is instructed to invite volunteers to read the years aloud in one hour shifts. They were looking for volunteers, and I noticed that one of the days where a reading would happen overlapped with a trip I had planned to New York. I emailed the museum, and first was told that all the slots that day were filled. Later, they told me a spot had opened up, so I took it.

Two days before my reading, I received an email with information and instructions. It included this background about the piece:

With the work One Million Years, Kawara opposes human awareness of the day, which conditions most of his other work, to an almost unimaginable measure of past and future time. 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 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.

In 1993, on the occasion of an exhibition at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York, Kawara expanded One Million Years to encompass live and recorded readings, which allows the project to be both preserved and perpetuated through public recitation. Since then, the work has been the subject of live readings and recordings around the world. All readings follow the same format: readers appear in pairs, one male (who reads odd-number dates) and one female (who reads the even numbers). Each session begins where the previous one left off. Dates are read from both One Million Years: Past and One Million Years: Future and are always recited in English.

I arrived early and met the museum employee coordinating the readings, and the women who would read with me. I asked the employee if she wouldn’t mind hanging on to my phone during the reading and taking a few photos. She happily obliged, explaining that nearly every reader makes the same request. It’s odd, but before reporting to the museum I had given a lot of thought to the problem of how I would document the experience so I could share images on social media. I certainly would have done it even if I couldn’t get a photo of myself, but having an image of the act felt surprisingly crucial.

One Million Years

We were each given a binder with pages of numbers, a ruler, and a pencil. On the table there were two microphones, two glasses of water, and a small white Braun clock. The rulers and pencils were for keeping our place in the compact blocks of text. We placed the ruler under the line we were reading and crossed off each number as we went. This may seem excessive, but I’m sure we would have lost our place many times without these aides.

When critic Jerry Saltz wrote about participating as a reader when One Million Years was shown at David Zwirner Gallery in 2009, he talked about how an attendant would stop the readers and make them repeat a year if they made a mistake. They did not do this at Guggenheim. We definitely messed up several times and we were never corrected. My reading companion made a string of mistakes about five minutes into the hour. I’m fairly certain I made mistakes as well, but I don’t really remember them. As I developed a rhythm of reading, I began to say numbers aloud without fully listening to myself. Several times I felt I could sense the reverberation of an error having just left my mouth, but I wasn’t sure.

We were reading from One Million Years: Past. Our numbers began around 812,500 BC, and progressed forward in time, which meant the values diminished, to about 811,700 BC. One of the first things I noticed was that the first half of the number, “eight hundred twelve thousand…”, became much harder to say than the second part, “four hundred ninety-one BC,” for example, which changes more frequently. Something about the repetition made it harder to say and comprehend. The consistency required a lot more concentration than reading the revolving numbers of the lower decimal places. The more I heard myself say the words, “eight hundred twelve thousand,” the less sense they made. 812 is three digits, yet to speak it I had to say four words. The order of the numerals 812 represents a clear logical progression through decimal places, largest to smallest: 800,000, 10,000, 2,000. But the words jump all over the place: ones (“eight”), hundreds (“hundred”), tens (“twelve”), thousands (“thousand”). Reading the years forced me to think way more about this than I ever have before, and the more I thought about it, the more arbitrary it seemed.

Today series

Midway through, I recalled the subtitle of the work, which I hadn’t really considered before, “For all those who have lived and died”. Kawara’s work is about measuring time and particularly measuring life within time. His series of telegrams which bear only the message “I AM STILL ALIVE” are a particularly good example of this. The postcards, the date paintings, and other projects are also very much about death. In one obituary of Kawara (which I can’t seem to find now) the writer noted that in dying, Kawara completed the act that all of his work anticipated. The telegrams asserting that the artist is still alive also bear a shadow message, that one day the artist will no longer be alive. This notion of the artist reducing his own existence to the most atomic, essential binary—alive or dead—has always been one of Kawara’s great triumphs. Every artwork, from prehistoric women spitting paint to make hand shadows on cave walls to whatever you just posted to Instagram, all contains the most essential, irreducible message, “I am still alive.” And when you die, what you made will mark that you were once here.

One Million Years: Past is a little different, however. Unlike the telegrams and date paintings, the work is about a span of time, but it doesn’t mark time with its creation. Rather than marking the duration of his own life as he experienced it, Kawara is inviting us to contemplate an vast span of time, one that extends far beyond our lives. One million years in the past is at once a mind-boggling amount of time, but it’s also quite small, considered against the age of the planet and the universe. The Earth has existed for four and a half billion years, meaning that the most recent one million years (of which I read only a small fraction) account for only about 0.02% of all the time the planet has existed. If One Million Years: Past can help us comprehend how small we are in one slice of geologic time, it’s best to think of it as a stopping point on the way to understanding how truly vast time is. In the face of the thirteen billion year history of the universe, one million years starts to seem downright cozy.

As I read the years, I started to think about how each year represented a single trip of the Earth around the sun. In any climate, current or prehistoric, this trip produces a recognizable pattern of seasons. In nomadic and agrarian cultures, the rhythm of the orbit could be sensed, anticipated, and marked. I started to think about how each year contains two sets of people, those who were born and those who died. I thought of the scene in Vertigo where Kim Novak is looking at the rings on a slice of a giant redwood tree and she finds the ring representing the year she was born, then the ring corresponding to the year she died. These two groups of people, the births celebrated and the deaths mourned, are unknowable at a distance of 812,000 years in the past, but the numbers are still finite. I can’t imagine how we could ever calculate the figure, but some finite number of people were born in 812,491 BC, and some finite number of people died in 812,491 BC.

Vertigo

Among the class of births and deaths for each year of the deep past, our ancestors were there, scraping together a living, managing to have children. I started to think about these people, I felt gratitude for their persistence and mourned their loss. Then a thought hit me. They are ancestors, yes, but is “people” even the right term? Homo sapiens, our species of upright ape, emerged in Africa around 200,000 BC. The years I was reading occurred 600,000 years before we, in a genetic sense, even existed. Homo erectus were the ones walking the savanna in 812,000 BC, using tools, lighting fires, and caring for the young and weak. We have stone tools older than one million years, but the earliest cave paintings are only about 40,000 years old. When we consider our global family on the scale of one million years, we’re forced to expand the definition of “us” to include our fragmentary knowledge of beings in the dark recesses of history.

One Million Years binder

Every few lines I would look up at the cute little Braun clock. The time passed steadily. The sun was lowering over Central Park behind our backs and it beamed in through a large, wet window. My neck started to hurt, the small glass of water they gave me was empty. The museum employee approached our table and asked us to circle the last number we read, so the next readers would know where to begin.

One Million Years is distinct from many of Kawara’s other projects in that it’s designed to live on after his death. The date paintings, the telegrams, the postcards all have the built in terminus of the artist’s death. Those projects reached completion with his death in July, 2014. Readings of One Million Years, however, will continue, and we have no way of knowing how far into the future they will reach.