The New York-based conceptual artist On Kawara lived 81 years – 29,774 days, to be exact.
But is his work insanity or is it art?
The boundary between the two has always been hairbreadth. Often, we can’t tell the difference.
And that’s precisely the question that popped in my head when I viewed “On Kawara—Silence Exhibit”, a retrospective on his life’s work which felt more of an archival overload.
What else can I call these acrylic paintings of 3,000 dates, brushed in sans serif font, white against backgrounds of red, blue and gray, lining the spiral ramps of NYC’s Solomon Guggenheim Museum?
Obsessed with passing time, Kawara turned each of his day spent in over 112 cities into little tomb markers, each ending as soon as he finished painting them.
For over 8 years, starting 1966, he toiled on his so-called Date paintings series. If he failed to complete a day’s painting by midnight, he destroyed it. The completed ones, he registered in a journal marked on a One Hundred Years Calendar.
Mounted on plexiglass panels for double-sided viewing, the museum also displayed 1,500 postcards which Kawara sent to friends, rubber-stamped with the time he woke up that day – he kept irregular hours, rising early some days; mid-afternoon, on others.
He sent a thousand telegrams as well, each stamped: “I am still alive” and hasn’t committed suicide, until telegrams became obsolete.
Add to that, Kawara recorded where he went in a given day, drawing his routes in red lines on photocopied maps, what he read, the names of people he met.
On top of all these oddities, in 1970, he manually pounded out a list of the previous million years on a typewriter, from 1969 to 998,031 B.C. In 1998, he did the same with the next million, 1999 to 1,001,998 A.D.
Unhinged ramblings? Well, for one thing, Kawara was a survivor of the most atrocious act of man against man.
He wasn’t in Nagasaki or in Hiroshima when America dropped the atomic bombs that vaporized the two cities, but he was twelve, a high school student in his birthplace, Kawahara, near Nagoya, when it happened. No doubt, it affected him.
After graduation, he moved to Tokyo, taught himself to paint naked mutilated bodies in tiled rooms crawling with slugs (his Bathroom series) until he hit on the date motif, an avant garde outlet for his tortured psyche.
At age 26, Kawara joined his engineer dad in Mexico and attended art school there before roaming all over Europe. He settled in the Big Apple in 1964, making the country which quashed his homeland his own. He lived quietly in Manhattan and kept a studio in the East Village until he died there last year.
Although his obssessive cataloguing kept him preoccupied most hours, Kawara found time to travel around the world, get married to Hiroko Hiraoka, a Neo-Dadaist artist he met in Japan, and produce two kids.
I know nothing about his family, what his children had become or what they aspired to. Nevertheless, I wondered what it would have been like, being a spouse or a child to a man perpetually hunched over a desk, earnestly listing the mundane and painting dates
Kawara mixed his own paints and never used stencils or easels. It was hard work. Each date painting took hours and hours, day after day, for 48 years.
For half a century, he survived frugally on funds from odd jobs, random sales of his work plus gambling winnings, moving from one downtown dig to another.
However, Kawara was never a recluse. Although he didn’t attend his own exhibition openings and refused to talk about his work or to be photographed, people who knew him claimed he laughed easily, that he loved to fly-fish in upstate New York. He also gambled, played mahjong, chess, Go, roulette.
Nevertheless, Kawara was obsessive-compulsive, plain and simple. But the world applauded his output and called it art, so how can he complain?
In a 1998 traveling exhibition, Kawara lent seven Date paintings (January 1 to January 7, 1997) to schools in Madagascar, Australia, Bhutan, Côte d’Ivoire, Colombia, Turkey, Japan, Finland, Iceland, Israel and the U.S.A.
The schools showcased paintings bearing dates that fall within the lifespans of the children. Nursery classrooms in 21 locations from Abidjan to Istanbul, from Reykjavik to a rainforest in Colombia also installed his Date paintings.
They said it’s Pure Consciousness – one unsullied by experience. But is it?
Looking at his work now and mulling on how the world received it unsettles me.
I have been writing diaries and journaling since I was eight. Like him, I have a fondness for cataloguing many things from packing lists to groceries, for mapping the chronology of my life, though not with mad compulsion. But no great museum displayed the order of my personal routines.
But then, listings didn’t consume my days and years. I have better things to do, such an exciting life to live.
Thus, I recoil at Kawara’s exercise in futility. Not the least, I find i
t’s all so contrary. I have always counted on art to exhilerate me. This one drains and disturbs me.
But is that the effect Kawara wanted deliberately? Is that why he said so little of his work? To keep the enigma?
There’s no way to confirm it with him now that he’s dead.
Did he waste his life on lists? Only he can judge if he did.
No matter, people paid outrageous sums for what he called art.
At Christie’s, NYC, someone coughed up $1.8 million for one of his Date Paintings.
Last year, another date painting, May 1, 1987- probably the birthday of a filthy rich collector or someone significant to the buyer, sold for $4.2 million.
So, I guess, Kawara can afford to have the last laugh.