The significance of On Kawara’s “Today” series 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’ of our own experience throughout a course of time (‘via negativa’ is a theological term – we do not know what God is, but we know what God is not and therefore can intuit aspects of God’s existence by what God is not). These individually painted dates, of course, do not measure or record for us our own inner change, growth or development. If one really wants to be exact, they do not necessarily have anything to do with our own lives, they just really record the continued existence of On Kawara from January 4, 1966 until his death last year.
Is this, therefore, a type of self-absorption or narcissism on Kawara’s part? At the very worst it could be. Or it could even be a form of pessimism. Like Schopenhauer, On Kawara could be asking, “What is the common denominator of all of our days?” If we see a date from the past, we have to assume we ate, worked, did whatever we had to do to survive one more day. A painted date tends to obfuscate the coarse, natural processes we engaged in on that day just to get to another day, while perhaps falsely validating the process of existence as something autonomous from our physical beings – a date occurs whether or not we lived it or recorded it, after all. What is the common denominator of each date? The common factors are that we ate, drank, slept etc. each day. We forget all the natural, survival stuff we do on each day, and the date becomes a record of something apparently ‘higher’ than and divorced from the animalistic. Each date could, in reality, merely pay deep homage to our viscera and the will to live.
I think the key to understanding On Kawara, however, is that he synthesizes time and being. Time, as we measure and display it, is intricately tied to human being and action. Indeed, the recording of days is a phenomenon tied up with the process of urbanization, civilization and the creation of religious thought. There is no April 12, 52,000 BCE. A date now occurs whether we individually record it or not, and dates occur whether we are alive or not, but these particular dates in this show only exist in a represented form because On Kawara himself existed. He asserts that time is not autonomous from our individual being nor can we forget the intersection of being and the historical, economic and social processes we are born into. His dates are more than dates – there is history, culture, society, technology, individual experience, religion and philosophy embedded deeply into each painted date. To what extent are we a part of or divorced from this historical flow of time? To what extent have we all been molded by the circumstances inherent in each of the dates presented? I would also say there is no pessimism in the show either and point back to the ‘via negativa’ argument I referred to earlier.
I think On Kawara points to the highest and best that we can attain to through his Today pieces. Let’s say I am much more insightful and more humane than I was in 2006. 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. On Kawara makes us think about what is possible through a sequence of days – which processes are possible? What do we hope to gain through enduring time in its petty pace? He implies, perhaps, that no one day is good enough – we need a long sequence. He opens up a whole range of humane possibilities through his paintings of a sequence of dates. 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 or can we do every day to make each day meaningful? Can I look back on October 20, 2008 and be assured I didn’t waste this day? What about my life now makes me think I used October 20, 2008 well? For me Kawara’s work makes us focus on how interesting but glacial our own individual change has been and the possibilities for even greater, meaningful and humane development for ourselves and the world in the future. The common denominator of all of our days can be a higher process of development and individual engagement with each other, beyond the mere necessities of life.
Please be aware, by the way, that the Today series is just one part of this show on Kawara. The show runs through May 3, 2015.
Writing by Daniel Gauss