Trends in life expectancy at birth (years) for selected countries by sex, 1970–2009.
Sources: WHO Health for All Database and Human Mortality Database
The artists we are considering at this site all share an ambition to persist with a single project for the remainder of their working lives. Arguably this decision makes the day when they will die seem more important than it often is for other artists, simply because it is the only factor that legitimately can conclude their continuous work.
This is why Roman Opalka seems so central. No other artist has made art-making synonymous with their entire life to the degree that he appears to have achieved. For him it is as if living and breathing, painting and counting is one and the same activity.
As mentioned in previous entries on Opalka, the pathos of his ongoing work derives in large part from the fact that he has set off on a task (to paint every number from one to infinity) that could never be completed within a single lifespan.
The progression of numbers he inscribes on his canvases is symbolic of the passing of lived time, as he experiences it in his body. Sometimes in books he captions the photographs he takes of himself simply with the number that he has just reached, as though to say “this is the appearance of my face at the moment I passed the number x”. Here, the numbers function like an idiosyncratic timeline.
Opalka’s counting out of these abstract numbers could also be said to stand for the unremitting, infinitesimal movement of finite knowledge. His self-imposed task is to know and experience numbers one by one, by painting them out while also speaking them into a microphone. In his writings, he often refers to certain numbers he predicts he should be able to attain, so long as he is able to carry on working systematically and efficiently at rates he knows are achievable. We might say he has chosen to define his life almost entirely in terms of rational and steady progress. As such he allows his life and work to be audited as though it were as incremental as a savings account, or contributions to a pension plan.
By setting out on a task that could never be completed, Opalka is aware he can only sample a tiny fragment of what he foresees could potentially be known. Very large ‘milestone’ numbers, such as 88888888, have become emblematic for him of life experiences he knows he can never have. In other words, he will never see the day when he gets to photograph his face after having passed eighty-eight million, eight hundred and eighty-eight thousand, eight hundred and eighty-eight. In short, he has envisaged his life as placed in relation to a progression that has no foreseeable conclusion; never will he die satisfied that he has done enough counting.
How Opalka envisions his life may seem very peculiar and distinctive to him. But at least to a certain degree, everybody who lives in a rational, civilized society will experience his or her life as like this. In his essay “Science as a Vocation”, Max Weber argues that because we live in a world invested in scientific and cultural development, death itself has ceased to be a meaningful phenomenon. The ideal of 'advancement' itself has changed the status of death.
Weber’s reasoning relies on Tolstoy here, who notes that Abraham, or even an old peasant, could die “old and satiated with life”, since they still remained in the organic cycle of life. At the end of their days, they truly could die contented that life had given them all that life had to offer. But no modern, civilized person could spend their last days resting in this satisfaction. Because we are conscious that change and transformation will continue long after we have passed away, no one could ever say that their life experience has been anything other than provisional. Consequently, death itself seems less meaningful.
Opalka’s art is testament to this change in the status of death that Max Weber outlines. The artist’s faith in incessant, incremental progress has cancelled out any residual faith in the conclusiveness of the eternal.