Not just year’s end, mind you, but world’s end, if you believe the Mayan prophesy: tomorrow marks the end of the 5125-year-long cycle in the Mesoamerican calendar, so we will either undergo a spiritual transformation (and enter a new era of development) or face cataclysmic destruction. On the radio this morning they were talking about dates which possess a magical alignment of numbers, such as 12/12/12 (which, if I can remember all of two weeks ago, was a relatively normal Wednesday), or today, 20/12/2012 (a perfectly pleasant day, but in no way transformational). What does all this counting, this numerological grasping to make some kind of sense of it all, give us? Depending on your outlook, either a feeling of control, or a deathly dread. In 1965, the Polish artist Roman Opałka started painting numbers. In the top left-hand corner of a canvas he began with 1, and continued, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and so on, number by number, in perfect horizontal rows, until he had filled an entire canvas. Each new canvas started the count where the previous one had left off. Each canvas was exactly the same size, each crammed with tiny, perfectly-rendered numbers. After each canvas was completed, Opałka photographed himself in front of the painting. Each painting was accompanied by a recording of the artist speaking the numbers aloud as he painted them. In 1987 he wrote: Time as we live it and as we create it embodies our progressive disappearance; we are at the same time alive and in the face of death – that is the mystery of all living beings. The consciousness of this inevitable disappearance broadens our experiences without diminishing our joy. There is always the omnipresent idea of nature, of its ebb and flow of life. This essence of reality can be universally understood; it is not only mine but can be commonly shared in our ‘unus mundus’.
Opałka said, all my work is a single thing, the description from number one to infinity. A single thing, a single life. A life’s work. He died on 6th August 2011. The final number he painted was 5607249. I move through time to November, 10/11/12 to be precise, the final day of a thousand hours, the potter Edmund de Waal’s installation for the Alan Cristea Gallery in London. Of the show, de Waal wrote:
‘a thousand hours’ has at its heart a meditation on time, both the time it takes to make something, and the time it takes to see something … I have made a vast installation of a thousand vessels housed in two great vitrines, placed so that you can walk between them. There are pots below you and high over you. Some are easy to see and others disappear into a haze behind opaque glass, out of reach. They are uncountable. I hope it records hours of pleasure, tiredness, exhilaration: my sense of the fleeting moment and its afterlife.
The fleeting moment and its afterlife: as the year begins to disappear, the new diary already opened to the first clean week of January 2013, I try to gather those fleeting moments, which might at some stage reappear as lines of poetry. What Opałka started as an exercise in counting became a way of recording his existence: the paintings wouldn’t mean quite the same without the photographic record of the artist – at first a young man, aging as the numbers grew, until he was old – and his voice, speaking the years. With de Waal’s project, counting is translated into object – the vessel – which represents a period of making, the physical act of sitting at the wheel and bringing the object to life. The potter says that the vessels are brought together to slow down time, and walking through them, between two vitrines, I could see what he meant. I felt as if time had halted as I stood in the middle of the piece, surrounded by vessels behind their hazy glass, caught in memory, out of reach.
I end with an image by Jasper Johns. Invective will take a short break for the holidays. The next post will be in the new year, assuming we survive tomorrow …