On to a Million

Photo of Fan and Sophie, courtesy of David Zwirner


In 1969, Japanese-born, New York-based artist On Kawara opened his leather-bound volumes and began to typeset the years 998,031 BC–1,001,995 A.D. For the insomniacs among us, in 1993, Kawara turned it into an audio project. His current exhibition, On Kawara: One Million Years at David Zwirner, offers an opportunity for a certain set of masochistic volunteers to insert themselves in history by reading—live, on tape—from Kawara’s volumes. I couldn’t resist.


Volunteers whose idea of an hour well spent is the recitation of consecutive dates in a glass booth slightly more charming than an interrogation chamber can sign up for a time slot to read. Only here, the glass isn’t one-way: you can watch the open-faced gallery patrons watching you as you dumbly pursue history’s timeline: 959,738 B.C., 959,737 B.C. …


Each recording session is made up of one male and one female participant; my partner, Sophie, had the misfortune to sign up for the same time slot that I did. As is protocol in Kawara’s project, boys sit on the right side of the table, girls on the left. Boys read the odd numbers; girls, the even ones. The sessions last a little over an hour, with brief, intermittent breaks. Some participants volunteered more than once. I lasted one round, and barely.


It sounds easy, but for a few obstacles: (1) I am an incurable mumbler (2) I had barely eaten all day, and low-frequency stomach rumbles in a soundproof booth with a girl you hardly know is not becoming (3) right off the bat, in my nervousness, I forgot that in B.C. years, you counted towards zero, not away from it (4) I had come in expecting to recite, nice and easy-like, 1993 A.D., 1995 A.D. … instead, I was faced with the relative mouthful of, say, 958, 974 B.C.. Try it right now, out loud: ‘nine hundred and fifty-eight thousand, nine hundred and seventy-four, B.C.’ See?


Another participant told me the repetition brought her to a mysterious, meditative center—not me, but once I settled in I found I could let my mind on a long leash and still perform my duties adequately, like driving a car or talking to my mom on the phone. I searched for something dazzling to say to ingratiate myself with Philip-Lorca DiCorcia, who was scheduled to read immediately after me, but mostly I thought about what I might have for lunch later.


Afterwards, Scott, the editor of the recordings, judged that Sophie and I had done pretty well. Jerry Saltz had tried to get creative with his reading—Scott didn’t suppose that Kawara would appreciate the irony. Another participant was a little too good; previously, he’d briefly held a voice-over career. As for us, I think Sophie proved the better reader.

But it isn’t really a matter of winning and losing: with On Kawara, only time counts.

The readings began January 14, and run through February 14. David Zwirner is located at 519 West 19th Street, New York. To participate in the reading, contact David Zwirner at 212.727.2070.