Friday, July 11, 2014

On Kawara is no longer alive

(For several years On Kawara, a Japanese artist, painted the date for each day that he woke up.)

On first sight many might feel that the work of On Kawara was a kind of a conceptual art gimmick.  It could also be argued that his art was pessimistic - it seemed to reduce everything to a type of very Schopenhauer-like 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 ate, drank, slept etc. each day.  

I think, however, that Kawara’s work was more than a gimmick and was, in fact, highly optimistic and positive. The significance of his 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 or meaningful experience, but they point to these experiences. 

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.  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. Instead of the dates pointing toward mortality and demise, we can believe they point toward everything that made life livable and worth living on that date.

It is, however, such an unusual experience to look at a date we lived through and just stare at the date not having any idea what we did or what happened to us on that day.  We’re left, however, with a type of confidence that we did not ‘waste’ that day – that we did as well as we could have to engage ourselves and others in a good process, despite everything. For each date that we stare at, we may just have a vague idea of what we were doing those days or a vague idea of the sort of people we were back then, but the feeling of our sense of self-worth and engagement with others is readily apparent.  

To me the paintings call attention to how we conceive of or measure individual progress or feelings of success and failure.  Kawara's work always made me focus on how interesting but glacial my own individual change has been and these dates from the past always pointed toward possibilities for even more enriching experiences in the future.  

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