Right now at David Zwirner Gallery, you can dip into one of the weirder artistic rivers of the last 40 years and behold -- or participate in -- On Kawara’s mad epic sculpture-performance One Million Years. The Japanese-born, New York-based artist’s rarely seen work is centered around a desk and two chairs in a windowed booth at the center of the otherwise almost empty Zwirner gallery. During business hours, two volunteers sit inside the room. One man and one woman take turns reading progressive dates going one million years into the future or into the past. Several Fridays ago, I spent an hour reading the 875 years between A.D. 38,658 and A.D. 39,533. It was one of the odder hours I’ve ever spent in a gallery.
Kawara’s obsession with time can be traced to January 4, 1966, the day he made the first in his series "The Today Paintings." For each of these works -- there are now more than 2,000 of them -- Kawara paints only the alphanumeric date on which the painting was made. The lettering is plain, and always appears on a monochromatic field of red, blue, gray or black. If a painting isn’t finished the day it is begun, Kawara destroys it. Each one comes boxed with a newspaper page from the day it was created, as a sort of birth certificate. The works themselves have the presence of tombstones, signs or mementos. Drop-dead simple, repetitive, almost boring, they also put you in touch with ideas about chance, minimalism, the monochrome, seriality, conceptualism and a vaguely Eastern attitude about self-negation.
Which brings us back to One Million Years. I arrived early at Zwirner to watch other people read. The exercise seemed simultaneously stimulating and dull. I loved that human beings were animating this minimalist box, giving it voice and personality. The overall effect was of a Kafka play, or Beckett, or Monty Python -- existential, absurd, ridiculous. From outside the box the experience is pretty low-affect, more like seeing newscasters in the NBC windows at Rockefeller Center than watching, say, a dialogue in a Greek play.
Still, just before I was scheduled to read, I felt a case of stage fright coming on. Nervously approaching the two sound engineers seated at a desk across from the booth, I asked to participate for only one of my two hours. Since the experience was so rich and bizarre, I kept mental notes on how my time unfolded.
12:55 p.m. My reading partner hasn’t shown up yet. Paranoia sets in, because (a) she’s associated with a famous American art magazine for which I have never written, and (b) I have written lukewarm things about the art of her late husband. A gallery assistant reassures me, and I calm down some.
12:56 p.m. My assigned partner’s substitute, the painter Molly Heron, arrives; we meet and chat. Good vibe. Find out we were born only days apart. Given subject matter, think this synchronicity means something.
12:57 to 1:06 p.m. Enter booth with sound engineer Scott Fulmer, who instructs us how to read. He looks at me and says, "Don’t read ironic." Paranoia returns. We’re told to read at our own pace and to pause between dates. "The woman," he says, "has the harder job because she reads the even dates and is responsible for going to the next line without losing her place." "Yes," I say ponderously, "there is something Darwinian about women having to be more aware of the cycle and men being in abstract time." Both blink at me, silently.
1:05 to 1:10 p.m. Five-minute test read goes perfectly. "This will be easy," I think.
1:10 to 1:15 p.m. We begin with A.D. 38,658. After a few minutes, I begin to drop the word "and" from the dates, reading them in the form "Thirty-eight thousand six hundred fifty-eight A.D." Molly quickly begins following same template. Happy we are in sync. Wonder if she feels the same way.
1:15 to 1:25 p.m. Dates roll by. I am in doing-my-job mode. I cross out each number after I read it. Sneak peeks at Molly. She does not look back. Feel alone.
1:25 p.m. At 38,697, I read the wrong date. Hope no one notices. Scott’s voice comes over headphones, "Um, Jerry, could you read that one again?" Molly finally looks at me.
1:30 p.m. Read well for almost 100 years, then get a date wrong again. Then again. Then again. What’s going on?
1:33 p.m. Settle down. Out of nowhere, I read one of Molly’s dates. She and Scott look at me. I say, "I think I wanted to be the woman." More blank stares.
1:37 p.m. Scott interrupts, "Um, Jerry, could you stop scratching out the dates? The microphone is picking it up." Uh-oh, my security blanket is gone.
1:37 to 1:45 p.m. Bad stretch: Read six dates incorrectly in less than 100 years. Embarrassed. Remember what a terrible student I used to be.
1:45 to 1:50 p.m. Somehow, it occurs to me that we are now reading dates that end in digits that correspond to my life. Think of family, friends, shortcuts to school. Decide that if I have a funny feeling when I read a particular date after A.D. 39,009, that will correspond to the year I will die. At 39,129 I feel a tingle. I’ve got twenty years left till 2029. Start to get depressed.
1:54 p.m. Depression turns to fury as I realize Kawara has turned me into a puppet. Read another wrong date.
1:55 to 2:05 p.m. Something amazing happens. I decide to look up from the page and begin reciting years with my eyes closed. Start drifting. No idea how many years are passing. Hear only sound. Then sound seems to fall away. I become some sort of Indian raga, the singer and the song. Perceive cadences, rhythms, tonalities. Euphoric.
2:05 p.m. Slowly come back into my body. Look at Molly while reading. She seems to be responding to something too. Feel great.
2:06 to 2:10 p.m. For the last four minutes read perfectly, contentedly, happily, without thought, without time or worry. I like Kawara; I love art. Think about how art has long sought to vanquish time, stretch it, crawl inside it and allay our fears that no one gets out of here alive.
In One Million Years, Kawara looks slyly and seriously into the face of our metaphysical gatekeeper, time, and allows us to muse about temporality, duration, doom and life. The week passes. Life goes on, but I keep returning to Zwirner to watch, hoping I’ll be asked to step in and read for someone who doesn’t show up.
On Kawara, "One Million Years," Jan. 14-Feb. 14, 2009, at David Zwirner, 519 West 19th Street, New York, NY 10011
JERRY SALTZ is senior art critic for New York Magazine, where this article first appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org