Tentatively, Convenience's Reviews > On Kawara: 1973 - One Year's Production

On Kawara by On Kawara
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Sometimes I'm 'torn' when I write these things. Can you tell? I once had a strong interest in conceptual art. I cd certainly be called a "conceptual artist" (even contemporaneous w/ the more famous ones - despite my younger age) - esp if you leave out the "artist" part. The emphasis on ideas rather than objects is very important to me. Alas, though, w/ that sd, once the gallery system gets its hands on something like this it creates superstars & sometimes canonizes work that I consider to be mediocre. I've probably already given a few digs at Sol LeWitt here & there. In other words, much of the work ended up so pseudo-'conceptual' that it was little more than the Emperor's New Clothes justified by theory of dubious quality.

As I recall, On Kawara traveled around the world sending post-cards to people who sponsored his trips that had as their message the date & the time he got up. On the one hand, I think that's pretty damn boring, on the other tentacle, I think it's an amazing way to get funding to sponsor traveling the world (if that's, indeed, what he did).

I'm reminded of my friend Dave Bakker. Dave has a boy mannequin named Bud that he takes around the world & photographs at tourist spots. At one point he got a grant to go to Hawaii for this. That's sortof outrageous! I mean it wd be easy to criticize that as a waste of money on him taking a nice vacation w/ Bud as an excuse. But, what the fuck!, it was probably a more original project than what other people submitted so I'm glad he got the money.

Kawara's work is simple & stark. There's a whole section in this bk of black pages. Kawara thinks of an idea & follows it strictly. "A Journal (loose-leaf binder) covers the annual production of the Date Paintings. All notes are in the language of the country where the artist spent the first day of the year. A calendar obtained in that country is used to enter date and size of paintings." The emphasis here on documentation of basic 'facts' of personal existence removes the art from more sensational entertainment, it shifts the focus prosaically. I like that.

BUT, once again, I'm reminded of friends who follow a somewhat similar framework whose work comes later & whose work I find much more powerful. Take Pete Horobin, eg. Pete's a neoist who creates identities that he follows for a decade. There was the DATA decade (1980s) when he filled out sheets of information about his bodily status (temperature, foods eaten, etc) as well as bks read, things done, etc.. It's similar, but it engulfed & shaped his life more than Kawara's projects seem to.

Or take Tehching Hsieh. He created yr-long performances that shaped his life to a disciplined extreme that wd rival any famous ascetic hermit saint. He lived in a jail cell for a yr w/o speaking to anyone the whole time. He & Linda Montano were tied at the waist for a yr w/o touching each other. Such intensity makes Kawara seem pretty trivial in contrast.

SO, Emperor's New Clothes or deep thinker? Maybe a little of both. Looking for him in the database I find an astonishing amt of bks about his work. I tend to think he doesn't deserve so much attn. Unlike Hsieh & Horobin, Kawara's work doesn't seem to much challenge the possibilities of who a person can be. He stays much too safely in the art world for my tastes. Still, I don't write him off altogether.


review of
On Kawara's 1973 - One Year's Production
by tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE - March 1, 2012

[Boy do I feel stupid. I just wrote the entire review below before I realized that I'd already read & reviewed this bk almost 4 yrs ago exactly. This review's a bit more long-winded but says much of the same things. I reckon it was bound to happen sooner or later! I include it here ANYWAY (despite the duplication) both so my time won't seem to've been so wasted & for whatever minimal interest it might have for others for comparison's sake.]

I often think about how I define Conceptual/Concept Art & about who I think are the most significant & insignificant artists creating w/in this context & I often think about writing on the subject in detail. So far I haven't. Don't know if I ever will. Nonetheless, I've decided to read some relevant bks & to feel around for a critique in the process.

My starting point for any such critique usually starts w/ the terms "Conceptual Art", attributed to Sol LeWitt whose work I think is completely banal, & "Concept Art", attributed to Henry Flynt whose work I think is truly conceptual. I don't really claim that there's a schism w/ Flynt on one side & LeWitt on the other but I DO claim that Concept(ual) Art's emphasis on the non-material is particularly susceptible to The Emperor's New Clothes. In other words, while theorists may claim that there's really something of substance there, there might really be nothing at all - & it's this that I try to distinguish. When I hear about something claiming to be 'concept(ual)' I'm prone to asking: "What's the concept?" & if there's no answer forthcoming & I perceive no evidence of a concept then I have to wonder whether there's pretense instead.

But Concept(ual) Art's very nature as something designed to make one think w/ a minimum of emphasis on the object is one of its biggest breakthrus & strengths & the crux of what makes criticism so tricky. Criticism of craft, on how well a thing is put together, can get shifted to how well a catalyst for thinking is functioning &, of course, that brings up: in relation to who & by what standards? Then again, maybe that's usually the challenge of criticism - the newer the work, the newer the parameters for its discussion.

Essentially, it seems to me that elegance comes to the fore in the same way that it does in math: What's the minimum amt of material used for the maximum content? Euler's "e to the power of pi times i = -1" comes to mind as does Einstein's "E = MC squared". But both of these equations set a high standard for practicality wch Concept(ual) Art need not do.

I think of Robert Barry's Inert Gas Series where he released a specified quantity of a gas in specified environments & then photographed the environment at that time. The gases are invisible so it's up to the person viewing the foto & reading the accompanying explanatory text to imagine the gas as being there. This, in turn, might stimulate this person to think more about the other things that're invisible in the photograph: other gases, eg. As Barry says in an October 12, 1969 interview w/ Ursula Meyers in the bk she edited entitled Conceptual Art: "The idea is to work with the space in which the art occurs. I did not want to control space variables, I wanted to incorporate them into my art. And I did not want to impose myself on my material or on the space. I was trying to get away from some sort of style." I find this interesting.. but in a somewhat tenuous way.. wch isn't necessarily something that I object to (pun intended).

But perhaps I shd get to On Kawara & this bk. This is a catalog from a show at the Kunsthalle Bern from a show primarily of On Kawara's work from 1973. The catalog claims that this was his "first important show" by wch I assume it's meant that it was the largest scale one-man show he'd had to date. I find this interesting b/c the show was from August 31, 1974 to October 6, 1974 & On Kawara had apparently been active since at least 1965. During those yrs he traveled w/ great frequency & was referenced & represented in many bks & articles. An incomplete "List of Publications" lists 52 of these! That's not bad for someone having his "first important show".

During this time, On Kawara was a world traveler. In 1973 alone, he went from Stockholm to Casablanca to Las Palmas de Gran Canaria to Dakar to Freetown to Halifax to Boston to Halifax again to Saint John to Portland (ME) to Boston again to New York City to Pittsburgh to Columbus to Indianapolis to St. Louis to Topeka to Denver to Santa Fe to Flagstaff to Las Vegas to Los Angeles to San Francisco to Sacramento back to Los Angeles to San Diego to Atlanta.

This brings me to what I might call the 'working class question': HOW DID HE AFFORD THIS?! That's a question not addressed in this catalog. I'm reminded of being in Chicago during the 2nd Church of the SubGenius Convention in 1982 & hearing a political investigator (it might've been Sherman Skolnick) talk about asking one of the Chicago 8 (it might've been Rennie Davis) "Where does the money come from for all your traveling?" or something like that. The way I remember the story is that the investigator was accusing the political activist of funding his activities thru cocaine sales & that he further implied that the coke was probably originating from the CIA. This isn't that improbable (think of Abbie Hoffman's arrest for cocaine dealing) & it wd considerably complicate the integrity of the politics if the CIA were involved - wch the CIA might very well have been given their well-documented history of the use of illegal drug dealing as a fund-raising tool.

The point here is the usual class one I bring up: Was On Kawara's work supported to the remarkable degree it was b/c it was intrinsically profound or b/c he came from an upper class background that enabled him to travel & to hobnob w/ wealthy museum & gallery & publishing industry people?

On to the work: In what might pass as the introduction, an article entitled Readings by René Denizot, a semiotic essay is presented that has more to do w/ what constitutes writing & reading as, perhaps, a parallel to On Kawara's work than as an actual commentary on the work itself. Near the end of this Denizot writes:

"Because it's written, it's to be read, the reading takes place. The reading doesn't simply take place. The place, too registers : it takes place there [it has place there]. The place is written in the text that's read, on the margin of the reading, and in a certain way gives itself to be read.

""In a certain way" that is no way of reading, and without giving something (in the sense of a referent) to be read, the writing bursts into the text where it appears as reading deviation. The deviation registers the leeway [the margin] of a reading process whose movement is indefinitely put off since the deviation marginally determines its progress.

"Thus it is written: "This is to be read in relation with O.K.'s work."

"This is not to say that the reading takes place nor that in the place of the writing the sense of the "relation with O.K.'s work" is expressed. To begin with this indicates (that) there is a certain work, there is ON KAWARA, there is this paper with something written on it, there is something to be read, etc. ... This doesn't indicate "all" there is, and not at all "what" it is."

In other words, don't hire Denizot as a carpenter - yr job'll never even get started, let alone done. I tend to perceive OK's work in a more pragmatic (or, perhaps, prosaic) way: OK as I mainly know of him painted date paintings & kept artifacts & simple lists of things relevant to his days: newspaper clippings, maps showing where he went, who he met, & the 2 post-cards he sent out each day that specified when he got up & where he was. The Date Paintings are described in this catalog as follows:

"DATE PAINTINGS. On Kawara has been producing Date Paintings since 1966. Each was made on the date painted on it. Annual production ranges from 63 to 241 paintings; dimensions range from 8" X 10" to 41" X 56" 1/2. Supported on wooden frames measuring 2" in depth the canvas is tucked around the sides and fixed to the back of the frame, front and sides being painted in acrylic. Each of the works is painted in a specific colour. The large number of paintings from the early years are strong-coloured, whereas the later ones tend to be darker. The date is painted in white in the center of the canvas.

"Each painting is kept in a specially made cardboard box. Part of a page or an entire page from the local paper of the day are often enclosed provided the dimensions of the painting do not exceed those of the newspaper. Each painting is given a subtitle."

See what I mean by "prosaic"? Perhaps these paintings are 'existential', whatever that means; perhaps the importance of them is similar to what Barry had to say in the above quote. Perhaps they're just calling attn to the day & doing very little else. They border on time capsules in wch little of general interest, other than the newspapers, is presented. It's as if OK presents the bare-bones of his day w/in the broader context of society w/o having the pretension of saying that his day did much more than just happen. He got up, he went somewhere, he looked at a newspaper, he met some people. It's so matter-of-fact.

I'm reminded of Scottish neoist Pete Horobin's DATA Decade: 1980-1989. During this time he had forms that he made that he & friends filled out about what his PH was, what he ate, what he did - that sort of thing. I always interpreted this as meaning that Pete was calling attn to minutia of daily life as important - art as life n'at. Perhaps Pete wd explain it differently. In OK's case, I don't even get the impression that he's doing that.

Instead, I get the impression that OK's making art objects for sale that basically say something like: 'this day existed & here's something that was made during it' &, perhaps, nothing more. If I'm 'right' about this then I find it somewhat fascinating that OK cd strip the content down so much. In the long run, tho, I only find it somewhat fascinating - I want more.

On April 7, 1973 OK read in the paper that some Elvis fans were suing him & his bodyguards for roughing them up when they tried to crash the stage.

"The Journals 1966-1972 contain series of photographs taken by the artist showing aspects of his environment (e.g. a sequence of his studio; another of entrances he often used). However, in the 1973 Journal [..] 31 black pages occupy the section that corresponds to the photographs in earlier Journals."

This reminds me of Tehching Hsieh's use of dated but otherwise blank pages for his documentation of the 13 yrs when he made art but didn't show it publicly (1986-1999). In fact Hsieh's work reminds me of OK's in other respects insofar as he used maps to show where he went during his one-yr performance where he stayed outdoors. The difference is that Hsieh's one yr performances tended to be endurance tests & whatever stark documentation he made of it was a hard look at this endurance. OK's work has no such emotional or challenging element.

In the end what I'm most stimulated by in OK's work is imagining that sales of these, presumably somewhat cheap, paintings & post-cards & journals might've actually financed his world travels. It's as if his saying that he's alive & doing something & documenting that in as simple a formal way as he can think of is enuf to justify him to continue doing so. I'm reminded of my friend Dave Bakker's getting a grant to travel w/ his boy mannequin to Hawaii to photograph their travels together.

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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
April 6, 2008 – Shelved
April 6, 2008 – Shelved as: art

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