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Consciousness. Meditation. Watcher on the HillsVolume 2

Jonathan Watkins
I believe the only news of any interest does not come from the great cities or from the councils of state, but from some lonely watcher on the hills who has a momentary glimpse of infinitude and feels the universe rushing at him.
Raynor Carey Johnson
Consciousness. Meditation. Watcher on the Hills was a combination of works by On Kawara –an early drawing, Date Paintings, the One Million Years books and a batch of telegrams– devised by the artist himself. This is not to argue for it as a work of art, but certainly it was as deliberate as any of the artistic gestures Kawara has ever made, an idea finely tuned, waiting –on a shelf, literally, in a box file– for the right circumstances. Starting from Ikon Gallery, Birmingham UK, in late 2002, the exhibition circumnavigated the world, clockwise (1), during the next four years –through France, Switzerland, Germany, Thailand, Singapore, Japan, New Zealand, Mexico, Canada and Peru– thereby playing on the artist's preoccupation with the passage of time. Each subsequent year on the tour was marked by the addition of another Date Painting. The original selection of thirty-eight paintings eventually became forty-two.

Consciousness. Meditation. Watcher on the Hills was an exhibition of judicious choices, not a survey or a retrospective. It was an epitome. Sober, with not much colour, yet with a lightness of touch and an open-ness to the various contexts that made up its itinerary, it engendered a wealth of possible meanings.

The drawing shown in the exhibition, 100 Years Calendar of Sundays (1964), is a deceptively modest key to Kawara's understanding of how art is bound inextricably to its circumstances. It depicts the grid of a calendar, with a few numbers inserted in order to suggest the method whereby the Sundays are ordered, flat against a plain background. Below is a horizontal line. This small formal element is very significant, marking the division between a vertical surface and the idea of a floor, and so we enter a pictorial space mimicking the space we actually occupy as we confront the drawing. We are in a room, actually, looking at a drawing of a drawing in a room. Through this neat, satisfying circularity, the 100 Years Calendar points up the fact that works of art are not self-contained, but rather they are fused with their environments, and we co-exist with them within bigger artistic equations, involving our imaginative association as much as a spatial context.

The room in a room is a metaphor for context overall. This applies as much to curatorial strategies as it does to the formal qualities of exhibition spaces, as much to the particular identity of an institution as it does to the entire history of a town or city where an exhibition might be shown –as much to time as it does to place.

100 Years Calendar is part of a series of drawings that On Kawara made during 1964, pivotal in his artistic career, distilling the salient qualities of earlier figurative works –especially those that involve a room as the mise en scène - whilst anticipating the work he is now most famous for. Then he was travelling between Paris and New York, without a studio, and so arguably he was freer to imagine artistic scenarios yet to be realised. This applied as much to everything else in Consciousness. Meditation. Watcher on the Hills, as it did, selfreferentially, to the 100 Years Calendar of Sundays, but it was the Date Paintings, above all, that occurred as a next logical step. This was reinforced by the fact that each of the Date Paintings selected –one for each year since he started this series, in 1966, with the exception of 23 August 1998, when there were two– was made on a Sunday. Thus, through their correspondence with the calendar, the ironic idea of On Kawara as a “Sunday Painter” was conveyed.

The Date Paintings constitute not only the most memorable series of works by On Kawara, known as the Today Series, arguably they amount to one of the most important achievements in the history of art. Then again, not only do they refer to every artistic gesture ever made, through the artist's choice of an all-too-familiar medium –paint on canvas– but also they evoke the essence of graffiti. By painting the date on which he painted a painting, he is asserting “I was here”. Ostensibly tautological, like our experience of the 100 Years Calendar, a Date Painting declares solely its date of production. If it is not finished by the end of the day, by midnight, it is destroyed.

There is extraordinary craftsmanship brought to bear on the production of a Date Painting. Four coats of paint are carefully applied for the ground, with enough time elapsed between for drying, followed by a rubbing down in preparation for subsequent coats. The outlines of the text are carefully drawn and then filled in with several coats of white paint with the use of tapered brushes, a ruler and a set square, a sharp blade and a brush for dusting. A considerable amount of time is spent eliminating imperfections, making minute adjustments to the outlines and fine-tuning of the composition overall …

This is what On Kawara did on all those Sundays, and on many more Sundays besides those represented by the Date Paintings in Consciousness. Meditation. Watcher on the Hills. (2) Other people might have set aside some time for religious observance or for TV or other weekend relaxation, but Kawara instead carried out his strict routine. Rather than asserting Sunday as a special day of the week, through this selection he was, on the contrary, suggesting that Sunday was like any other day, at once as worthy of attention and as unremarkable.

Date Paintings have an archival consequence, literally. Each is a subtitled –mostly with the day of the week on which it was painted– and this is registered in a journal along with details of size, colour and date. It is stored in a cardboard box on the lid of which is a label with a corresponding date. Inside, also, often is a cutting from a newspaper of the same day and place. The co-existence of the Date Painting and the newspaper cutting is poignant. Sharing the same day, both are cultural artefacts, dated and involving text. One is unique, whilst the other is an obvious product of mechanical reproduction. One has a distinctly high art identity, carrying with it connotations of timelessness, whilst the other is tomorrow's proverbial wrapping paper for fish and chips.

A Date Painting is a memorial for the time it took to make it. Within hours of its being finished, this incremental addition to the Today Series is about a yesterday. Similarly, in the case of the telegrams sent by On Kawara since 1970, bearing the words “I am still alive”, there is a temporal gap between the transmission and reception of the message that makes it understood to mean “I was still alive”.

Traditionally used to communicate important breaking news, the appearance of a telegram implies urgency; before fax, email and SMS, telegrams were the fastest way of sending written words. Now still they function as an effective symbol. Their intrinsic obsolescence matches the instant obsolescence of their message. On Kawara's I am still alive telegrams are eloquent also through what they don't say, what would be impossible to say –as saying anything would be impossible– were their message untrue. As with Descartes' famous philosophical statement, “I think therefore I am”, the “I am” of the telegrams is indubitable at the time of writing, and “still alive” is an acknowledgement of the dimension of time already embodied in a telegram. Its humour is derived from the fact that the recipient would be unaware of any life-threatening circumstances befalling the artist. It is like the answer to a question that hasn't been asked. And it is perfectly deadpan. The profound and counterbalancing seriousness of the telegram proceeds from the truism that we are all “still alive” (readers and writers of telegrams alike) but unexpectedly might not be.

The constant message of the telegrams, and its no-nonsense quality, corresponds with the sameness of the Date Paintings. Any variation in other aspects of the work is thrown into relief. Thus, in the case of the telegrams, the design and language of the document, the date and place of transmission, and the name and address of the recipient –often with correct spellings lost in translation– tend to be scrutinised more carefully. The colours and sizes of the Date Paintings are changed seemingly with arbitrariness, perhaps having the most significant effect overall. On the other hand, their dates change according to rules of a relentless succession and this is also compelling.

There were hundreds of telegrams in Consciousness. Meditation. Watcher on the Hills, retrieved from various friends and acquaintances that had been sent them –often more than once– and then arranged in chronological order between sheets of Plexiglas and UV filters on seven long tables. Sol LeWitt was the earliest addressee in the exhibition (5 and 11 February 1970) and subsequently there were other artists, including Jurgen Partenheimer and Michel Assenmaker and curators, critics and gallerists such as Petúr Arason, Yuseke Minami, Franck Gautherot, Lucien Terras, Paula Cooper and Micheline Szwajcer. These were people on the artist's mind, rather than individuals who were especially worthy or strategically significant. That being said, of course, this activity was impinging on an art world as much as being borne out of a social life, and the artist was being pragmatic, incidentally, about the fact he was still alive as a producer of works of art, irrespective of personal circumstances.

Concomitant with the notion of context crucial to the meaning and, even, to the identification of a work of art is Marshall McLuhan's truism that the medium was the message. “I am still alive” as a message transmitted by telegram is qualitatively distinct, quite unlike the same statement sent by letter, or painted or said. Also to be taken into consideration is the complicating factor of obsolescence, whereby the medium is no longer quite so still alive. On Kawara's use of telegrams certainly started with the idea that this means of communication was especially fast, but then it was superseded through the development of other technologies. Similarly, the impact of the Date Paintings and the One Million Years books would not have been possible without the inherent properties of the materials involved. Without modern, water-based acrylics, a Date Painting –requiring the quick drying of several layers of paint– could not be finished within twenty-four hours. The One Millions Years books, in spite of the aeons they evoke, were inspired by the instantaneous reproduction that arrived with photocopying in the 1960s. Typing all the dates by hand –two lots of a million years, chronologically, one backwards, one forwards– would have been impractical, but access to photocopiers combined with a template grid and shifting paper strips of numbers, made it possible. The production of the Million Years books still was very time consuming. Nowadays, of course, the same result would be achievable with a basic computer programme and automatic printing.

The sublime quality of One Million Years (Past) and One Million Years (Future) arises out of our grasp of the duration of one million years compared with average human life expectancy. One page signifies approximately twenty human generations; one volume of Past plunges us into prehistory, and one volume Future propels us into a world easily imagined without the environmental conditions necessary for the survival of our species. Global warming, a direct meteoric hit, a nuclear war or something not yet dreamt up probably will wreck life as we know it long before we reach the end of On Kawara's last book. He anticipates this probability through his dedications of the Past and Future sets, respectively to “all those who have lived and died” and to “the last one”. There is a nice irony in the fact that the New York Xerox Center, the company that first made the photocopies for One Million Years, guaranteed legibility for fifty years; signified on a page by just five lines of typewritten dates.

The title of the exhibition, Consciousness. Meditation. Watcher on the Hills, suggests a transcendentalism that takes us beyond a counting of days –even holy days of the Christian calendar– and years, conveying more than a preoccupation with human mortality. It reflects an esoteric tendency in On Kawara's practice that corresponds particularly to the teachings of the Russian Armenian thinker George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, and so the exhibition was intended as a vehicle for something spiritual as much as an aesthetic/philosophical exercise. Thus notions of consciousness and meditation fit squarely into the artist's scheme of things, but the reference to a “watcher on the hills” was not exactly self-evident. Hills provide views through elevation that could be construed as analogous to a kind of consciousness that Gurdjieff advocated: “an aspect of the mind higher than ordinary thought”.

In 1959, Raynor Carey Johnson, a British physicist working in Australia with a strong interest in mysticism and psychical research, published a book entitled Watcher on the Hills. The foreword asserted the idea of the lonely watcher with a glimpse of infinity, feeling the universe rushing at him, as quoted above. Although On Kawara is not aware of having seen Johnson's book, its title and subject matter –especially with its emphasis on the relevance of scientific method vis-à-vis mystical experience– chime in so much with the artist's fundamental proposition, it is hard not to speculate on the possibility that, at least in some subliminal way, Carey Johnson has been influential.

The publication that accompanied our exhibition, the companion to this volume, contains an anthology of writing on the nature of consciousness compiled by On Kawara. Needless to say, Raynor Carey Johnson does not make an appearance, but neither, surprisingly –given the acknowledged influence– does Gurdjieff. (3) Nevertheless there is a fascinating variety of texts that indicates the breadth of Kawara's reading, and his ongoing, intense preoccupation with the theme. A section from Osho's Book of Secret's. The Science of Meditation… recommends a zen-like enlightenment that arises from individuals being both “the knower” and “the known”. Kajin Yamamoto describes “Cosmic Consciousness” whereby the universe is conceived of as being a “self-conscious infinite entity” corresponding to our own mental activity. Ikuro Adachi's observations on “three kinds of ‘Conscousness' and ‘Volition'”, place more emphasis on human physiology, and similarly (but without the same compelling idiosyncrasy) Stuart Hameroff and Roland Penrose, in their paper on “Conscious Events” are concerned to connect consciousness with the (universal) phenomenon of quantum gravity. Two other texts are stylistically more familiar to general readers. Kahlil Gibran's essay ‘On Friendship' has a sweet prophetic tone, whilst Krishnamurti, in his interview with David Bohm, refers to global dilemmas. He is both anxious and wise about terrorists, wars, national and racial divisions, and ecology –“perpetual wars, perpetual insecurity”– as he articulates a Buddhist critique of what the future probably holds for humankind.

Consciousness. Meditation. Watcher on the Hills embraced the world through circumnavigation and so alluded to On Kawara's impulse to transcend national borders, to be a citizen of the world. The work in this exhibition, like all his work in fact, is either generic to the point of internationalism or bearing the trace of considerable international movement. The telegrams are sent to and from places all over the world, and the Date Paintings, through the way the dates are spelt out, betray dozens of countries of origin. During 1991-93 there was an On Kawara exhibition, Date paintings in 89 cities, organised by a number museums in Europe and the US, clearly making the point that this artist is an inveterate traveller. (4)

Paradoxically, in the light of his essentialist artistic gestures, Kawara's practice overall has capitalised on the speed and convenience of modern technology. The advent of jet aeroplanes certainly has enabled him to make a point of being fugitive, here today and gone tomorrow. It is precisely this kind of scientific development that features in the newspaper cuttings that accompanied the Date Paintings during the 1960s and 1970s, with their strong sense of history moving forwards through them, defining the past as an indefinite epoch full of causes that would have effects in the future. With jet engines came the space race, and the cuttings of the late 1960s provide a progressive account of the Apollo missions until, finally, the headline ‘MAN WALKS ON THE MOON' is reached. Coincidentally, the Vietnam War unfolds. Such historical narratives were not a feature of our exhibition –the paintings were exhibited without the cuttings– but certainly confronting just the dates of the Date Paintings, one from each year since 1966, triggered all sorts of associations, personal as much as historical. At least some of these years we lived through, with the artist, and we remember summer holidays, pop songs, births, deaths and marriages, and what was happening in the news.

9 June 1968, for example, the day when On Kawara was making the third Date Painting in this exhibition. I have no memories of that particular day. On the other hand, I remember the feeling of the summer that year, an English summer with the Beatles' All You Need is Love as a soundtrack, long evenings playing cricket in the middle of the Ashdown Forest. I remember too my parents talking about the Russians rolling into Prague. Very unhappy with Harold Wilson as the British Prime Minister, they talked about emigrating to Australia to get away from it all. Sundays? It wouldn't be long before I was enrolled in a Cathedral School, singing for church services everyday and twice on Sundays, when On Kawara might be making more paintings. I was eleven then.

Every visitor to Consciousness. Meditation. Watcher on the Hills could respond in a similarly associative way to the Date Paintings. If not alive in 1968, sooner or later in the sequence they would come across the year of their birth, and then all the following dates would mean something unique to them.

Concerning the nature of meaning, and memory, geographical location is crucial, providing a very particular point of view at a moment in time. On Kawara has made thousands of Date Paintings in various rooms –studios, domestic rooms and hotel rooms– and the telegrams, likewise, were transmitted and received through offices scattered around the world. The message of the telegrams was always the same –“I am still alive”– but read differently by every recipient, according to who they were, how they were, where they were et caetera. With the Million Years books and the 100 Years Calendar drawing, the selected paintings and telegrams were gathered together for our purposes, like ingredients for curatorial recipes to be undertaken in other kinds of interiors, exhibition spaces in a join-the-dots journey that was global in turn.

The exhibition spaces for Consciousness. Meditation. Watcher on the Hills, variously configured in museums and galleries around the world, were epitomised, as it happens, by the 100 Years Calendar drawing. In everyday (institutional) life, of course, such spaces function idiosyncratically, largely due to the influence of curators. These individuals are the keepers of art, custodians who develop artistic programmes according to their understandings of their particular circumstances, and shape exhibitions with practical considerations in mind as well as philosophy that bears some relation to that of the artists with whom they work. For this exhibition, as ever, On Kawara kept his distance from its materialisation. He attended neither the installations of his work nor the opening events, and mostly didn't visit venues, but instead enjoyed the reports and documentation of the various outcomes that sprang from his original concept. Curators were thus unusually free in their activity, with art work at their disposal that was uninsistent –like the artist– lending itself very much to the interpretations of others.

It was my privilege to begin the journey of Consciousness. Meditation. Watcher on the Hills. Ikon Gallery, a refurbished neo-gothic school-house in Birmingham's renascent city centre, was a perfect foil for the starkness of the exhibition, and the arrangement of works there was especially pragmatic perhaps subconsciously in reaction to the elaborate Arts and Crafts design that adorns the façade of the building. The 100 Years Calendar was asserted as seminal, by itself at the beginning of the exhibition, and then the Date Paintings sat at regular intervals on an invisible date-line, winding clockwise through another two rooms. The Past and Future sets of the Million Years books were at either end of a chapel-like space, in order to suggest something sacred –as they mean more, ultimately, than all recognised holy books– leading to the tables of telegrams in the last rooms. On the wooden staircase down to the entrance of the gallery building was the recorded sound of the Millions Years being read aloud, the steps of outgoing visitors then tending to coincide with the rhythm of verbalised dates.

Ikon's installation of Consciousness. Meditation. Watcher on the Hills was the simplest one, straightforward in its chronology. In Dijon and Braunschweig the Date Paintings were “phrased”, divided into smaller consecutive groups, and combined more with the other works. Also in Dijon there was a telling juxtaposition with an exhibition of work by Swiss artist Rémy Zaugg, whilst in Kurhaus Kleve there was interplay with the permanent collection. Haunted by the spirit of Joseph Beuys (who once had his studio in part of the building), Kleve capitalised on the sympathetic works of other major figures such as Franz Gertsch and Richard Long. The darker, industrial atmosphere of the Centre d'art contemporain, Geneva, on the other hand, was a strong setting for the delicacy that characterises Kawara's work.

There were stops on the tour that had more personal significance for the artist; especially Mexico City and Toyota, near Nagoya. The latter is close to Aichi-ken, where Kawara was born and brought up, prior to his emergence as an artist in Tokyo followed by some years in Mexico, 1959-1962. He had another very fruitful trip to Mexico in 1968. At the Toyota Municipal Museum of Art, there was an exceptional presentation of the Date Paintings, playing on the idea of them as funerary monuments for delimited time. In the high central exhibition space the paintings were placed, face-up, on low marble plinths on the floor. From a viewing balcony, they could be surveyed as points in a grid, like headstones in a cemetery. In Mexico City, the paintings were hung on the walls of a vast square-shaped gallery at different intervals to indicate the amounts of time elapsed between them. They could be read, from the centre of the floor as a 360° horizon line, surrounding a flat uninterrupted plain.

In Toronto, the display was similarly expansive. It was augmented by live readings of One Million Years at the entrance to the exhibition spaces and a manifestation of Pure Consciousness, Kawara's ongoing series of installations of Date Paintings for children, at a nearby kindergarten. (5) In Bangkok, the About Studio/About Café was completely transformed to accommodate the exhibition, becoming an immaculate whitened interior, belying the chaotic frenzy of city life just outside. This setting could not have contrasted more sharply with the volcanic coastal landscape that surrounds the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth. It is impossible to ignore the sublime ancientness of this place, informing our understanding of everything experienced there, enhancing reflections on the nature of human consciousness and mortality that lie at the heart of On Kawara's practice.

Lima, also coastal, is shrouded eerily by fog most of the year round. So it was during the time for Consciousness. Meditation. Watcher on the Hills at the Museo de Arte de Lima, the last stop on the tour. The date of the opening, 4 April 2006, coincided with political rallies that eventually would lead to the extraordinary re-election of Alan Garcia as the president of Peru. Speeches made inside the museum building to mark the occasion of the exhibition were in competition with the megaphoned rhetoric outside, reminding us that artistic experience is often in the eye of a storm. Certainly Kawara suggests this through his accompaniment of Date Paintings with press cuttings, signifying the complexity of current affairs that continue throughout the world while he quietly concentrates on his inscription of a date.

Lima, like New Plymouth, is in the southern hemisphere, and so the exhibition had two venues that, to some extent, counteracted a northern bias. The line drawn by the tour around the world, as a result, had an interesting zig-zag towards the end. We tried to include other museums and galleries below the equator, but for various reasons they were unable to join in. Likewise, between Braunschweig and Bangkok we were keen but frustrated in our attempts to work with colleagues in Istanbul and Delhi; ditto, between New Plymouth and Mexico, somewhere on the west coast of America. On the other hand, it was gratifying to realise that the idea of Consciousness. Meditation. Watcher on the Hills appealed to many of the institutions we approached, but the added complication of an unstoppable eastwards trajectory made transport schedules even tighter than they usually are.

After Lima, at the end of the exhibition, the telegrams, the Million Years books and the drawing were returned to lenders. The Date Paintings instead were reassembled for another exhibition at Ikon, during the summer of 2006. They were hung in the same galleries, exactly as they had been four years previously, except, of course, the paintings that had been made during 2003 – 06; these were shown in a small adjacent room. The exhibition, entitled Eternal Return, was a curatorial analogy for the consecutive production of Date Paintings, asserting significance in small differences, testing our notions of repetition: “I was there”, “I was there”, “I was there”, ad infinitum. It was a conundrum, whereby the closing of a circle demonstrated the impossibility of getting back to the beginning. It brought home the fact (of life) that all things come to an end. Clockwise.

1. In space, of course, a clockwise direction is absolutely dependent on one's point of view. When it was decided to tour On Kawara's exhibition, Consciousness. Meditation. Watcher on the Hills, clockwise around the world, we were starting from somewhere in the northern hemisphere, tending to orientate ourselves towards the North Pole, and so we went east.
2. By the time Consciousness. Meditation. Watcher on the Hills, On Kawara had painted 312 Date Paintings on Sundays.
3. An excerpt from Gurgjieff's Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson was published as the catalogue text for the artist's exhibition at Akira Ikeda Gallery/New York during 1 July – 31 December 2004.

. On Kawara. Date paintings in 89 cities, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam; Deichtorhallen, Hamburg; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, 1991-93.
5. Pure Consciousness is a travelling exhibition (since 1998), of Date Paintings installed in kindergartens, to become part of the furniture of a classroom. Seven, with consecutive dates from 1 January 1997, are located on walls that are often filled with teaching aids, especially for elementary spelling and numbers, and children's drawings. Locations to date include Madagascar, Sydney, Bhutan, Abidjan, Istanbul, Shanghai and Reykjavik.
On Kawara: other titles

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