Artfully documenting, contextualizing and transcending time

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On Kawara, Oct. 31, 1978 (Today Series, “Tuesday”), 1978, acrylic on canvas with two newspapers. (C) On Kawara. Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York.

A lot of us have been relegated to atypical and banal regimens in the midst of sheltering-in-place. Have you been losing track of what day it is? I know that I have. Weekdays and weekends feel like a blur. I am maintaining a more uncommon schedule nowadays: taking naps in the middle of the day, working till 5am, observing the “weekend” on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The list of uncharted routines goes on.

Looking at the calendar has become akin to viewing a surrealist work of art. In light of social distancing, we have celebrated birthdays, Passover, Easter and Ramadan in solitude or on Zoom. Seeing documentary images of empty church pews, Seder tables and city streets have been sobering. Everyday tasks, like cleaning, shopping, eating and sleeping become more pronounced and connected to the psyche in light of these challenging times. More than ever, we need art to help us alleviate the stress and channel our time in isolation into moments of creativity.

Conceptual works of art by Tehching Hsieh and On Kawara utilize a logistical and structured approach to recording time, in a way that simultaneously transcends and diverts the concept of time. Both Hsieh and Kawara’s work comments on the construct of time in relation to the human experience. Their respected works reinvent and re-present the traditional telling of time using experiential, narrative and embodied processes.

Hsieh combines performance and documentation in his art, often through absurd actions that test his physical and mental endurance, in order to explore subjects related to labor and quotidian life.

In the late-1970s, Hsieh began to conceive his ‘One Year performances,’ which are durational works of art featuring repetitive and ordinary activities, realized over the course of 365 days. One of the most well known examples is One Year Performance 1980–1981 (Time Clock Piece). From April 11 1980 to April 11 1981, Hsieh punched a time clock every hour on the dot, taking a photo of himself each time he did so. At the beginning of the performance, Hsieh appears with a shaved head. As the piece spanned onward, his hair grew back in, which symbolically reflected the passage of time.

On Kawara’s life’s work is his oeuvre of acrylic text-based paintings, which are minimal in their composition, consisting simply of a monochromatic background and the date when the painting was completed, which he rendered in hand-painted typography. These paintings, aptly called the Today Series, began on January 4, 1966 and continued throughout his life, up until his final years (he passed away on July 10, 2014). Every single Today Series canvas is displayed with a handmade cardboard box and a newspaper clipping from a local paper published on the same day that the painting was made (Kawara lived and worked in over 100 cities around the world, so the newspaper clippings reflect a diverse range of geographical and cultural topics).

The meaning that each painting has is particularly ambiguous and open ended. Dates mean many different things to many different people. Some days are etched in infamy, like September 11, 2001, while other days like my birthday (August 15), are less acknowledged across culture (it’s OK, I don’t like too much fanfare). Dates are not binary and time is in flux, but our consciousness enables us to assign and fix sensory emotions and qualities to specific moments in time. Kawara’s Today Series paintings capture our individual and collective notions regarding time and place.

Lizz Brady, My life expectancy according to statistics, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

In the computer generated artwork, My life expectancy according to statistics (2017), artist Lizz Brady, utilizes the quantification of time to express how a person’s quality of life is altered in relation to mental illness. Brady depicts the average life expectancy of a woman in the United Kingdom (around 82 years), with each dot representing a week in 82 years time (4,275 weeks). The black dots signify her current age at the time of the print. The grey set of dots are the estimated number of weeks left in her life expectancy. The white dots symbolizes the potential years lost due to having a diagnosed mental illness. Studies have shown that people with severe mental illness die 14 to 32 years earlier than the general population (see: Aarhus University, 2019; Insel, 2011; and , 2018). In the example within Brady’s work, that time is 15 years. Brady’s aesthetic calendar turns data into a qualitative reflection on mental health awareness. My life expectancy according to statistics prompts us to look at the mortal impact of mental health on individuals, and the stigma around talking about and treating mental illness in the culture at large. Brady’s conceptual calendar communicates her own struggles with mental health and personalizes scientific research, transforming quantitative information into a social and emotional learning experience that encourages empathetic and informed responses from viewers.

Art helps us to record and assess moments in life that we want to remember, communicate to our peers and pass on to future generations. One way of doing this on a consistent basis, is keeping an artist’s journal or diary. There are many great examples of diaries kept by artists, some of which include the introspective records of Frida Kahlo, Keith Harring, Leonora Carrington and David Wojnarowicz.

In educational settings, prompting students to keep a visual journal is a great way for them to hone their observational and communicative skills. Journals can be multimedia manifestations, combining a variety of materials and techniques so that they have a well rounded vocabulary and can hone their prior and ongoing artistic learning outside of class.

Art makes standardized systems of measurement such as time profound through the incorporation of human expressions and symbolic communication. Creating and viewing art is an immersive action; one which requires us to be careful observers and participants within our culture at large. Being enveloped in art can slow down, speed up, reverse, or more aptly, make us lose track of traditional notions of time. It gives us the agency to create and present our narratives in a process that is intricately layered and evolves as we experience the journey of life.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

In conjunction with the 2015 exhibition On Kawara–Silence, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum developed a series of classroom activities inspired by Kawara’s work addressing his interactions with people, places and things that he experienced on a daily basis.

Aarhus University. “Mentally ill die many years earlier than others.” ScienceDaily, 25 October 2019.

Insel, Thomas. “No Health Without Mental Health.” The National Institute of Mental Health, 6 September 2011.

Rorimer, Anne. “The Date Paintings of On Kawara.” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol. 17, No. 2 (1991), pps. 120-137+179-180. Accessed 4 May 2020

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