Monday, May 13, 2013

Is On Kawara Still Alive?

In the 90s, before I decided to become involved in the social services and field of education, I became involved with a little not-for-profit art gallery in Chicago.  I did some mixed media pieces there and a little performance art - nothing ambitious (but I think it was pretty good stuff).

I was able to meet a Polish artist living in Sweden through my artistic dabblings and we began sending each other "mail art."  I would make goofy collages, put air-mail stamps on the opposite sides, and mail them to Sweden.  She would often take photos, put air-mail stamps on the other sides, and mail the photos to me in Chicago.  My mailman thought I was nuts.

One day I received a collage in the mail from Sweden in which Ewa wrote: "Is On Kawara Still Alive?" 

This was before the internet and I was too lazy to do extensive research, so I had no idea what she was talking about.  I thought On Kawara meant something in ancient Greek and I went to the library to look in an ancient Greek dictionary.  Finally, when I came to New York City just a few years later, and wandered into the David Zwirner Gallery, I saw a bunch of 'date paintings' and was shocked to see the name On Kawara.

Ah ha!  Now it all made sense!

So basically, every day that Kawara wakes up, he paints the date.

Recently I came across Kawara's work at the Leo Koenig Gallery in Chelsea.  They had some of his date paintings in a show called "All Is Number." 

Do I like Kawara's stuff?  I'm not sure.  One could say it's kind of a conceptual art gimmick.  It could also be argued that his art is a bit pessimistic - it reduces everything to a type of very Schopenhauerian scheme.  If we see a date, we assume we ate, worked, did whatever we had to do to survive.  What is the common denominator of each date, after all?  The common factors are that we eat, drink, sleep etc. each day. 

I guess the significance of the work could be in the fact that just by representing dates we have to focus on what the mere sequence of dates cannot convey about our lives. His work becomes a type of 'via negativa.'  The 'via negativa' is a theological term - we don't know what God is, but we know what God isn't.  These individual dates do not measure or record inner growth or development.  {If one really wants to be exact, they just really record the continued existence of On Kawara. (This is why Ewa's question to me was so clever - I now realize.)}

For example, let's say I am much more insightful and more humane than I was in 2004.  That didn't happen on a particular date though.  My inner change was due to a process, probably not an event.  These individual dates, therefore, perhaps, point in a negative sense toward this type of process.

It is, however, such an unusual experience to look at a date I lived through and just stare at the date not having any idea what I did or what happened to me on that day.  For each date that I stare at, I just have a vague idea of what I was doing those days or a vague idea of the sort of guy I was back then. 

What do we do every day? What makes a date memorable? Shouldn't each date be memorable?  When we look at a date, say October 20, 2008, what kind of sense do we get of that date?  How do we characterize the different periods of our lives?

To me the paintings call attention to how we conceive of or measure individual progress or success/failure.  Koenig wanted to focus more on social issues, however, and had date paintings showing three day sequences during which there was a space shuttle disaster and during which Hurricane Katrina happened.

I thought that was novel, but I'm not sure Kawara is concerned about his dates representing "news" events.  Who knows, I might be wrong.  For me, though, Kawara's work makes me focus on how interesting but glacial my own individual change has been and can be. 

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