In On Kawara’s pedagogy, everything that happens happens today, but no particular today. Habitation institutes a pedagogy of patience, of desire without possessiveness. Everything that happens happens for the learner, but no particular learner. Can there be progression without development? Exploring this question as a question of aesthetics and pedagogy, Kawara’s Pure Consciousness, an offshoot of his more famous Date Paintings, intimates a pedagogy of habitation, of merely living with. Of sidling encounter.
-Do not announce the exhibition or produce any press releases about the exhibition.
-No one outside the ages of 4-6 may see the exhibition.
-The paintings are to be hung high up on the wall so the students don’t touch them.
-Teachers are not to answer any questions about the exhibition, explain the exhibition, or respond if asked about it.
These statements, so unwelcoming in their strictures and tone, even antisocial, make up part of the instructions that the artist On Kawara includes with his Pure Consciousness project. In that project, Kawara circulates seven Date Paintings to kindergartens around the world, exhibiting them in that context from one day to two months. The Date Paintings, or Today series as it’s sometimes also called, is the collective name for a project—in some sense a singular artwork, in another sense a very long series of discrete paintings—begun in January of 1966. In it, Kawara paints each day’s date in oil on canvas on the day of the date depicted. If he cannot finish a particular day’s date on the day so depicted, he destroys it. If he does complete the painting before midnight (very occasionally he completes two; and once, three), it falls into the record of the work, a record that was ongoing until Kawara died last year. Kawara set out in 1966 to paint the date every day for the rest of his life. Within the vicissitudes of particular days, something his project not only accommodates but thematizes, he succeeded.
While the temporality and labor of the project approaches the sublime (that task, that labor, every single day), its means are so minimally varied, so unchanging as to be almost a flat line. The date, painted in a font Kawara invented for the series, always looks the same, and when it changes, when January 2 becomes January 3, so does every other calendar in the world. The variations in the work are minimal: eight pre-determined canvas sizes and three basic colors (blue, grey, red, although each is mixed anew each day). While the dating convention is a minimally-motivated choice (Kawara matches the orthography of the date to the conventions of the country in which he made the painting), the logic or illogic that determines size and color on any given day are entirely obscured, or simply nonexistent. Pure Consciousness, which circulates the paintings January 1, 1997 to January 7, 1997, has been exhibited twenty times so far, in twenty kindergartens around the world. As one of only two projects that Kawara has allowed to proceed past the moment of his death, it will be exhibited again.
Just some dates, the works hang there silently high up on the wall of a kindergarten classroom, barely announcing their facture at that altitude, sitting in familiar and explainable sequence, matching the materials of their surroundings, inuring us to their presence as art, as art lesson, as worth looking at on all these levels. On their own, the paintings are unclamorous, their silence fortified by the enforced absence of dialogue about them. So the instructions are a double refusal: if the paintings on their own refuse to vary relative to their surroundings, refuse to do more than simply track the way time itself is marked by dates, then the instructions want to keep those very facts from generating value.
In refusing to caption itself, to brook a supplement, to announce itself, to be narrated or interpreted, Pure Consciousness asks the viewer to simply live with the paintings and the most basic facts about the paintings, all of which are announced by the paintings themselves. The paintings, the instructions insist, are all there is; nothing should arrive from the outside to redeem them. They will simply hang there, high up in the students’ vision, along a wall, maybe not noticed, barely announced outside of the classroom, seven paintings that depict and are no more than the schematic code for seven dates from the recent but receding past.
The Date Paintings probably don’t look out of place in most kindergarten classrooms. Like a calendar. Like a counting exercise. Like a lesson in color (the seven paintings are all close shades of grey). Like a lesson in dating conventions or orthography. Like a child’s art project which is maybe simple, but might also be cheeky—self-conscious of the expectations that dog such projects (for creativity, for expressivity, for a certain playful seriousness) and so, in its un-creativity, thumbing its nose at them.
On the other hand, given the art world that has become the Date Paintings’ gaudy home, the exhibition enacts a familiar kind of iconoclasm, the basic hide-and-seek game with the art market that is so familiar in the long run of modernism, so iconic of a defining desire of modernism to exceed that which nevertheless defines it. Pure Consciousness seems to want to run as far from its art world as possible and to seal itself off there for a few days. But iconoclasm needs a media space in which to reverberate. The instructions for Pure Consciousness stipulate no media, no press releases, no announcements. And as a kind of failsafe—because PR is more or less synonymous with the production of value itself in whatever register (witness: the appearance of Pure Consciousness in the Guggenheim retrospective Silence, the occasion for these very remarks, themselves PR of a sort, now triply redundant upon the show itself and its own attendant PR)—the instructions also ask that no one outside the ages of 4-6 be allowed to see the works. This is an effort, however futile, to dampen the walls of media’s reverberating chamber.
Perhaps the project idealizes childhood, over-invests in its self-adequate purity. But also, in its explicit refusal to educate, to caption the object world of learning, it does something very much like the opposite. That is, it refuses all forms of investment. It simply shows up. The project courts encounter, but one that won’t be explained and for which one cannot prepare. Without planning, no curriculum. Without lessons, no “social purpose” (as On Kawara himself puts it in the instructions). The event of encounter, contingent in and of itself (will they even notice it?), will not tip forward as preparation, will not fold backward as development.
In all of this, Pure Consciousness intimates a pedagogy of habitation, of merely living with. Of side-by-sideness. Of sidling encounter. This is not a description of the exhibition’s heroism, but of its aesthetic modality and that which shows up under the pressure of its resistance (what it resists, what resists it). The project, conceived decades after the Date Paintings had begun in 1966, suggests how much that ongoing project seen precisely in its ongoingness comes to depend upon, and so underscore a labor of placement, of distribution, of the global and displacement as such (Candida Hofer’s book of photographs, Date Paintings in Private Collections, makes this point precisely). On Kawara mostly stayed out of the administrative portion of this labor, leaving decisions about groupings and showings to collectors, galleries, museums—always refusing the caption. Kawara’s apparent indifference makes the institution’s labors of exhibition appear all the more meretricious. In Silence, the Guggenheim’s wall labels diffidently suggest that perhaps the large format of the Date Painting that Kawara made on July 20, 1969 might correlate with the Apollo 11 moon landing on that date. But with Pure Consciousness, Kawara does not stay out of it. He wrote instructions. And those instructions set themselves one task: dictate the end of instruction itself. “Allow children to look at the paintings as they are.”
While ascending the spiral ramp at the Silence exhibition, I saw a group of older children, maybe 12 years old, asked by a docent to rate On Kawara’s Date Paintings: thumbs up, thumbs down, or thumbs horizontal. Most didn’t bother to raise a hand at all, refusing even the neutral third choice offered them. Those who did gave the thumbs down. Pure Consciousness suggests that maybe they had On Kawara exactly right. Because it suggests that the kind of looking there being organized was too curricular. Let the indifference or displeasure, the mild interest or annoyance—the pedagogy, in short—arise instead from habituation, from living with, from a sidling practice. In refusing to be explained, Pure Consciousness refuses to teach, to intervene, to disturb. That is not its aesthetic modality; it is not modernist in that sense. It leaves everything to chance because it believes in persistence alone, as though suspecting that modernist disturbance itself is now fated to always and only educate capitalism and not its subjects.