– Spring/Summer 2016

Space/Time: Matter and Motion in On Kawara

Nikos Papastergiadis

On Kawara, I Got Up, 1968–79, stamped ink on postcards, dimensions variable, detail. © and courtesy The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

For these people, the natural world was not an object suitable for experiment, analysis and exploitation. It was not an object at all. It was alive with certain mysteries and powerful forces, and man’s life still possessed a richness and a dignity which came from his sense of participation in the movement of these forces.

— Philip Sherrard, 19561

The end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 60s were a decisive period in On Kawara’s life and work. It was then that he began his lifelong project of travel and turned toward what he called ‘primordial’2 forms of image-making, articulated through direct communication systems and sustained over considerable periods of time. This was also a time when new theories of worldliness were being developed in France, when the ideas of progress and enlightenment that were the foundations of the modern consciousness were being challenged. The scope of the civilisational shift can be measured by the epigraph to this essay, drawn from critic Philip Sherrard’s contemporaneous commentary on Greek modernist literature. At one level, Sherrard simply notes the continuities of belief in the cosmos that arc from the time of Pythagoras, infuse the lifeworld

  1. Philip Sherrard, The Marble Threshing Floor: Studies in Modern Greek Poetry (1956), Athens: Denise Harvey, 1980, p.128.

  2. See Jonathan Watkins, ‘Survey: Where “I Don’t Know” is the Right Answer’, in On Kawara (ed. J. Watkins and Rene Denizot), London: Phaidon, 2002, pp.40–109.

  3. See ‘Tribute: Testimonies and Reflections on On Kawara’, in On Kawara, op. cit., p.15.

  4. See Joan Kee, ‘Uncommon Knowledge: The Art of On Kawara’, Artforum, vol.53, no.5, January 2015, pp.170–77.

  5. See ‘Tribute: Testimonies and Reflections on On Kawara’, in On Kawara, op. cit., 2002, p.8. Seung-duk Kim has recalled one occasion in which On Kawara agreed to an interview, but when the interviewers arrived at the meeting place ‘all they found was a cigarette smouldering in an ashtray’. Ibid., p.26.

  6. Ibid., pp.24–25.

  7. Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose, ‘Conscious Events as Orchestrated Space-Time Selections, 1996’, in On Kawara, op. cit., pp. 120–27.

  8. See Kostas Axelos and Sally Hess, ‘Planetary interlude’, Yale French Studies, no.41, pp.6–18, 1968; and Stuart Elden, ‘Introducing Kostas Axelos and “the World’’’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol.24, 2006, pp.639–42.

  9. See Jean-Luc Nancy, The Creation of the World or Globalization (trans. François Raffoul and David Pettigrew), Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007.

  10. On Kawara moved back and forth between Paris and New York between 1962 and 1964, and I wonder if at some point he picked up a copy of Arguments from the Boulevard Saint-Michel.

  11. The historical references to Axelos and Arguments are from S. Elden, ‘Kostas Axelos and the World of the Arguments Circle’, in Julian Bourg (ed.), After the Deluge: New Perspectives on the Intellectual and Cultural History of Postwar France, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2004, pp.125–48.

  12. See Roger Caillois, Man, Play and Games (1958, trans. Meyer Barash), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

  13. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (1967, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak), Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984, p.50. This is a reference to Axelos’s Vers la pensée planétaire: Le devenir-pensée du monde et le devenir-monde de la pensée (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1964), which in turn is a response to both Martin Heidegger’s concept of worlding and the fragment from Heraclitus in which he declared that aion (time, but also the world, the cosmos) is ‘like a child playing a game’. (I am in debt to Stuart Elden for this little journey in the history of thought.)

  14. Conversation with Jeffrey Weiss, 30 March 2015. Weiss recently curated ‘Silence: On Kawara’, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 6 February–3 May 2015.

  15. R. Caillois, Man, Play and Games, op. cit., p.6.

  16. Jason Farago, ‘On Kawara: Silence review – bringing cosmic time to a human scale’, The Guardian, 6 February 2015, available at http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/feb/06/on-kawarasilence-review-date-paintings (last accessed on 2 December 2015).

  17. K. Axelos, quoted in S. Elden, ‘Introducing Kostas Axelos and “the World’’’, op. cit., p.134.

  18. J. Weiss, ‘Bounded Infinity’, in On Kawara – Silence (exh. cat.), New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2015, p.37.

  19. Ibid., p.38.

  20. Ibid., p.35.

  21. J.-L. Nancy, The Creation of the World or Globalization, op. cit., p.39. Emphasis in the original.

  22. The subtitle for DEC. 21, 1966 reads: ‘… I don’t know what I do but I know that I collect dates; that is, painted canvases on which the dates are written by me.’

  23. Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society: Creativity and Autonomy in the Social-historical World (1987, trans. Kathleen Blamey), Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997.

  24. J.-L. Nancy, The Creation of the World or Globalization, op. cit., p.51.

  25. Ibid., p.52.

  26. J.-L. Nancy, ‘The Technique of the Present: On On Kawara’ (1997, trans. Alisa Hartz), Multiple Arts: The Muses II, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006, p.199.

  27. Ibid., p.200.

  28. Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel: A Historico-philosophical Essay on the Forms of Great Epic Literature (1914–15, trans. Anna Bostock), London: Merlin Press, 1971, p.29.

  29. Ibid., p.62.