The Japanese-born American conceptual artist On Kawara’s performance piece, One Million Years, is heading to the Venice Biennale next year. The epic, ongoing project will be performed for the first three months of the biennial (13 May until around 1 August) in the Oratorio di San Ludovico Dorsoduro, a 16th-century ecclesiastic building dedicated, fittingly, to the spoken word.
“The ecclesiastic setting is very appropriate for a work that has such profound philosophical implications,” says Jonathan Watkins, the director of Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, which is organising the Venice presentation.
Part sculpture, part performance, the work consists of two sets of volumes listing dates one million years into the future and one million years into the past. Kawara started the past volumes in 1969 and took two years to complete, while the future years, begun in 1980, were written over 18 years. The texts are dedicated respectively to “all who have lived and died” and to “the last one”. The artist died aged 81 in 2014.
In 1993, Kawara turned One Million Years from written form into live readings and recordings. Volunteers (one male, one female and always chosen from the country where the performance is taking place) read alternate lines from the 20,000 pages of notebooks.
Watkins, who met Kawara in 1997 and has organised two exhibitions of his work at Ikon, says he first asked the artist if he wanted to exhibit in Venice around ten years ago. “He said yes, and that he wanted to present One Million Years, but for one reason or another it never happened,” Watkins says.
Kawara’s other ongoing project, Pure Consciousness at 19 Kindergartens (begun in 1997), is due to go on show in Sculpture Projects Münster next year. The work consists of black-painted canvases, each bearing the date of their creation in white letters, which the artist placed in kindergarten classrooms around the world.