This afternoon, I was wandering around a quiet section of the Dorsoduro neighborhood in Venice, not quite sure of where I was supposed to be going and listening hard for two people reading numbers. But all I could hear was Hot Chip. Someone was really blasting it from inside their apartment! Eventually, though, I spotted a sign for what I was looking for—On Kawara’s One Million Years (Reading)—and walked through a low doorway into an old church building. There they were: a man and a woman reading from a set of books by the late, great On Kawara that lists one million years back into the past from 1969 (when the artist first made the work with the aid of a photocopier) and one million years into future from 1980.
The two were on 271,586 A.D. when I arrived and joined the two audience members. It’s in a well-weathered room, and an altar looms behind them. It’s a little terrifying to note that the entire existence of Christianity only covers about 1/500th, or .05 percent of the A.D. book before them. A pamphlet from the show’s organizer, Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, England, provides another heavy fact: the artist dedicated his A.D. book “For the last one.” The introduction from Ikon cheerfully mentions, “Global warming, a direct meteoric hit, a nuclear war, or something not yet dreamt up probably will wreck like as we know it long before we reach the end of On Kawara’s last book.”
Back in 2009, I read from the piece at David Zwirner in Chelsea and remember having some heavy existential thoughts and also being surprised by what a distinctly difficult experience it is to speak numbers correctly for that long. (Readers often use rulers so they don’t lose their place in all the dates). The readers this afternoon were doing a superb job, though, moving at a solid pace, never once slipping up or pausing over a number.
The show runs through July 30, and a lady manning the desk today told me that they are still seeking volunteers. Women have been offering to read, but there is a shortage of men. Men: step up now, before it’s too late.