Tuesday, July 26, 2011


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.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Three Versions Of The Self

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Bas Jan Ader, I'm too sad to tell you, 1970

"I go my lonely way along paths that no one has made for me."

                                                                              - Michelangelo

"Why have we kept our own names ? Out of habit, purely out
of habit. To make ourselves unrecognizable in turn. To render
imperceptible, not ourselves, but what makes us act, feel and think.
Also because its nice to talk like everybody else, to say the sun
rises, when everybody knows its only a manner of speaking.
To reach, not the point where one no longer says I, but the point
where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I. We are
no longer ourselves. Each will know his own. We have been aided,
inspired, multiplied.
                                                                          - Deleuze & Guattari

"This moral philosophy has tended to focus on what it is right to do
rather than on what it is good to be, on defining the content
of obligation rather than the nature of the good life; and it has
no conceptual place left for a notion of the good as the object
of our love or allegiance or, as Iris Murdoch portrayed it in her work,
as the privileged focus of attention or will."

                                                                            - Charles Taylor

It was inevitably the case, until very recently, that monographs took
a chronological or narrative form, tracking the development of
a body of work to the course of an artist's life. Change was
understood as occurring within a sense of self or oeuvre that
could be recognized across the changes.

Contemporary practice rejects such continuity as illusory and instead
works from a Deleuzean or post-modernist model of the multiple self,
different in all its moments. Don't expect work from one show to bear
any resemblance to work from the last show or the next. In this
version, ideas arrive (often fully developed) in the breaks in
self-recognition, out of a personal or professional ascesis, from
a prompting of the surrounding culture, or in answer to an impulse
of desire.

Neither of these models seems to fit artists who endlessly produce
the same. Perhaps for them the self is emergent: they will be the
person who will keep their promise, who will carry out a practice,
who will get the work done. In this case, the whole question of a self
may be postponed, in attention to a task at hand.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Opalka: towards white on white

In September 1973 Opalka completed a Detail in which he ‘crossed the million’ – as he phrased it in a telegram to a collector. It had taken him eight years, and he was now 42 years old.

In 1972, the year before, he decided to modify his commitment to retaining an absolute consistency in his canvases in one important way.

He planned to alter the dark grey background on which he had been painting his numbers, ‘to make each subsequent painting about 1% lighter than the one before it’. It is also apparent that with the passing years the portrait photographs he takes of himself are becoming increasingly lighter.

Opalka envisages the day when, in his Details, figure and ground will merge completely, and he will be applying white on white, so that the numbers become entirely invisible. At that moment, the only lasting documentation of the artist’s activity would be the audio recording of him counting out the digits as he proceeds up the number continuum.

It is clear that the whitening of the canvases is intended as a visual correlative to numerical progression. If a range of his Details were arranged sequentially, a viewer would perceive at a distance a gradual, controlled bleaching of the paintings – only accentuating the continuity of the project from decade to decade.

Opalka explained that he came to this decision to modify the colour of his backgrounds after having reflecting on how many Details he would be able to produce over the course of his life: he calculated this, apparently, based on the life expectancy of an average European. We can surmise then that he estimated he would be approaching white on white at a stage extremely late in his life.

In a similar way as Achilles will never get ahead of the tortoise in Zeno’s famous paradox, it is physically impossible for Opalka ever to attain a pure background by adding a little more lighter paint to his grey mix. In perceptual terms, however, he is now noticeably near to painting on a white background.

Opalka will be eighty this year, and it is hard not to analogize the paleness of his canvases to the whiteness of the hair in the accompanying photographs, which are now very light and over-exposed. Yet the whitening might also be perceived as symbolic of a gradual reaching towards infinity in an absolute sense.

Opalka’s art seems to constantly invoke the ideal of infinity as completion, enlightenment, wholeness – as something superior than what Hegel would call a ‘bad’ or ‘negative’ infinity (just one thing after another, going on for ever). The prospect of attaining this state is the constant underlying drama underscoring Opalka’s relentless progression. 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Opalka's consistency

Opalka's studio in 1972, indicating the camera and lamp positions 
he uses for photographing himself

Opalka is conscious that his program needs to retain an exceptionally high level of consistency. The canvases must remain the same size (195 x 135cm), the lines of numbers must stay straight and not vary in height, his black-and-white self-portrait photographs (shot at the end of the day when the painting is concluded for the evening) must be taken always against a white backdrop under the same lighting conditions, with the same expressionless frontal gaze, and so on. Only if he strives to keep his project utterly consistent, and consciously works to constrain any differences, however slight, will tiny, involuntary variations gradually become apparent. These little variations and differences might merely register the contingencies of everyday life, such as a pause to answer the phone, or a momentary slip of concentration, or whatever. Or, they reflect his inevitably aging bodily facilities.

Opalka's final painting

Opalka once called himself an “accountant of irreversible time” and it is hard to think of another artist who is more preoccupied with his own mortality.

“When will the life-work conclude?” – the artist was once asked.

“Your question concerns my last Detail, the biggest suspense of my life-work…. The last conclusion will be what the ponderous painting of the first sign of “1” started at the easel of the first Detail.”

It is clear that Opalka’s thoughts have turned on many occasions to the last painting he will ever produce, when the gradual progression of numbers will reach an abrupt halt.

In 1987 he spoke of his wish not to die in a pause between finishing one work and commencing the next, but mid-way through a canvas: “I never finish a given Detail without starting another as quickly as possible: I thereby reduce the risk of seeing my life draw to an end at the end of a given Detail, rather than putting an end to my work by ceasing to be.”

In 2004 he told his interviewer that he believed that since he would be continuing his project for the full duration of his life, death was “included in the conception of this program.” “It’s rather as if death was collaborating with the work”, he adds. “For the first time in the history of painting, an unfinished painting defines the absolute finished painting.” 

Opalka's Statement of Intent, 1972

In 1972, Roman Opalka wrote out a statement by hand, which has been reproduced countless times in exhibition catalogues. Translated into English it reads:

"In my approach, which is a life-long program, progression registers the process of work, documents and defines time. There is only one date, that of the coming to life of the first detail of the idea of progressive counting.
Each successive detail is one element of the whole. It is designated with the date of the first and last number in the given detail. I count progressively from 1 towards infinity on details of the same size (with the exception of 'travel sheets'), by hand, using a brush and white paint on a grey background, assuming that the backdrop of each following detail will be 1% fainter than that of the preceding one. As a consequence, I envisage my reaching the limit, where details will be counted in white over whiteness.
Each detail is supplemented by a phonetic recording on an audio tape and by photographs of my face."

A decent reproduction of a section of Opalka's first Detail (1-35327), currently in the Sztuki Museum in Lodz, is included in the French catalogue published by Flammarion in 1992.

Unfortunately the picture is cropped on the left hand side, so you can't quite make out Opalka's initial number 1, but this is still a useful illustration:

By 2010, Opalka had completed 233 canvases, and had reached the number 5600000.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Adrian Piper

What Will Become of Me (December 1, 1985-on. Ongoing
installation: Hair, skin and nails collected in honey jars)

"1985 was a bad year. My father had been diagnosed with cancer
of the pharynx the previous fall. My marriage began to fall apart
in January. I sought counselling to help my mother deal with my
father's illness. My father died in April. In June I received my
senior colleagues' yearly evaluation of my philosophical work,
which they had written up after consulting a university lawyer
about how to deny me tenure without incurring a lawsuit. In it they
described my work as 'incoherent,' 'inadequate' and 'defective,'
and me personally as 'baffling,' 'frustrating,' and 'unresponsive'
(albeit 'poised'). During the following summer and fall, my marriage
deteriorated further. By the time I was denied tenure in mid-
December, my husband and I had not been on speaking terms
for weeks.

I felt sure that if I could just hold myself together for long enough
to escape from Ann Arbor, I'd be alright."

                                                                    - Adrian Piper

Cuttings will continue to be collected in honey jars up to
the artist's death, when her ashes will complete the series.