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.
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.
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.
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.
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.