GAME ON (36)


THE CODE OF CODES




ONE


It was December of 2023 when I first had a look at On Kawara's Code from 1969. It's now late January 2024 and some progress has been made. How so? Because of team spirit and collective endeavour. As I hope, dear reader, you will soon come to appreciate.

First, I need to say that my old friend (we studied Geography together at Downing College, Cambridge, from 1976 to 1979), Kit Nicholson, pitched in with the email that follows. Agnes is a character in Maggie O'Farrell's book, Hamnet. In fact, Agnes is the wife of William Shakespeare of Stratford. Kit wrote:

'Well, I have looked at the code. It seems to me that On Kawara is doing the same as Agnes, when she saw her husband off to London. In the wonderful words of Maggie O’Farrell, he is ‘conjugating the moment’. At times, he is absorbed in the minutest detail and the quickest flash of thought. And this alternates, in no particular order, with being lost in the endlessness of space. Veering between these states, he is conjugating his moments and his days and locating himself securely in the world around him.'

Now I think that's pretty good. But I better remind all readers what the code is at this stage. Here is the long title:

behqctusqaea002bqy6vqxaug_thumb_106d2 Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

The above consists of just two numbers. An enormous whole number and a part, or fraction of the number one. The whole number being the second one: 205,006,712,995,180. And the fraction being the first: 0.8802057201850504108.

Why are the numbers written out in words rather than expressed as numerals? It means that you have to get to the end of the list of words before you know whether you've got a huge number or a fraction of one, which is a bit disconcerting.

Let's pause there for a fraction of a second. Or for a very long time.

Then if we move onto the first of 12 paragraphs that are the art work itself, we have the following. Forgive my scribbles, but in some ways they may prove to be helpful:

dyvgexfysjs0025oqzry2fmag_thumb_106f2 Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

What one has to focus on (for the time being) are the 'life-size' numbers rather than the huge and the tiny ones. In other words, 500, 3, 59, 243, 5 and 206. If Kit is right, then these are the numbers where On Kawara was locating himself securely in the world around him.

I think that's useful and worth holding onto. But we must also take into account something much more specific. In GAME ON (35) I placed Heinz Nigg's diary from 1974 in conjunction with On Kawara's 'I MET' from the same time in order to bring out where On Kawara was in his Manhattan life back then. Now while reading that chapter, Anders Delbom, who was introduced to this website towards the end of GAME ON (21), picked up on some of the many art books that young, curious Heinz was reading while rubbing shoulders with On Kawara, Donald Judd, Carl Andre and Sol Lewitt in 1974. One of these was Conceptual Art by Ursula Meyer. Anders was able to download a copy from the web and he told me that there was something I should check out on page XII of the introduction. So I did:

'About his code: Eight Quintillion Eight Hundred and Two Quadrillion… (1969), which comprises five pages of spelled out astronomical numbers, Kawara said: "This code is easily cracked. You will find many answers which yield one question. I got this question from MAD Magazine (Number 128, July 1969)".'

On the face of it "Wow!" And so I immediately followed up this reference. Actually, Anders traced the MAD magazine to an online archive, so although a physical copy is coming to me from the States, I was clicking through its pages the same day as reading the relevant section in the Ursula Meyer book.

The magazine is great. Here is the cover. I would suggest it inspired John Baldessari's I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art, which was made in 1971.

1pu1md4orc2heil7afompa_thumb_106cc Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of MAD Magazine.

MAD, for the benefit of a UK citizen, is like a cross between Viz and Private Eye. Clearly it was essential reading for Kawara's generation. The map on the inside cover must have intrigued him, as would have the back cover. On Kawara was a heavy smoker who read, with heavy heart, about the Viet Nam War in the New York Times most days in 1969.

hqfp0hidt002bwkurcalcojoa_thumb_106cf.beafspruqsmt7jnczuybqq_thumb_106d1 Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of MAD Magazine.

MADly impressed by this as I was, I wasted no time in browsing the magazine for On Kawara's inspiration for his numbers code. When I first came across the following cartoon strip on page 33, I thought I might be in the right place. Once I'd gone right through the 52-page mag and returned to it, I felt fairly sure it had to be what I was looking for. Take it slowly, dear reader, as I will be:

elpsvvkmtjeccsk9hnobxg_thumb_10796 Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of Dave Berg and MAD Magazine.

I'm thinking that the many answers that yield one question is this. "What number should I play?" In other words:

Answer: "32…28…7…22…5…18…"

The first possibility to explore then, is whether On Kawara has used these 'found' numbers in his Code. As far as paragraph 1 is concerned (see above) this means seeing if those numbers can come up with 500, 3, 59, 243, 5 and 206. Apart from the concordance of 5, I don't see any satisfying connection.

But how would it be if On Kawara put himself and Hiroko into the cartoon? After all he liked playing with numbers. In 1969, her age was 32, his age 36, his favourite number could have been anything, but let's say 5 as that number is going to come up a lot. They were living at number 180 but earlier that year they'd been at numbers 53 and 97 and they were still renting a studio at 340. How old was Hiroko when she met On? That may have been in 1964, when she was 27, but I'm not sure. On and Hiroko didn't yet have kids, but Kasper had a new-born and Soroku had a youngster also.

Let's say for starters: '36…32...5…180…27.

Which still doesn't give positive results. Remembering it's the 500, 3, 59, 243, 5 and 206 from paragraph one we're trying to get to. Let's bring in other significant numbers. 241, 201 and 136 are the number of Date Paintings On made in 1966, 1967 and 1968, respectively. 241 is very nearly 243 but, in an On Kawara context, that isn't nearly good enough.

I think we have to give ourselves the benefit of more numbers. Only I'm going to make the paragraph more comprehensible by colour-coding each number and dividing it up into sentences by following the punctuation marks, which happen to be question-marks. So here goes:

500 0.210505106?
0.7450809 0.314175976?
60,425,071,901 675,039,976?
3 50,8130.40536?
5,901,8020.32704086?
8,101,047 601,901 0.30780031676?
50,930,805,513. 7,050,804,086?
2,000,805,513. 7,050,804,086?
0.9850103 0.3521679?
0.35809. 85.033?
59 243 0.3513?
5 0.75090804 206 95,076?

Does that help? Well, it does a bit, since I can now see that the number 7,050,804,086 comes up twice! That cannot possibly be random. I will keep my eyes open for more such significant occurrences. It's also the case that the red numbers, the fractions, are mostly around 0.35. Well, three of them are. At the moment, I've no idea what this implies, if anything.

Second paragraph:

tqutdrpjtimnirklf6o6ha_thumb_106f4 Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

The first time around, when I was doing some workings re GAME ON (33), I can see that when I did the circling of 'life-size' numbers I missed the second occurrence of 7,040 (first number on the second line). So let's immediately go to a colour-coded, structured set of numbers to maximise clarity. Thus letting the dog see the rabbit. The plethora of rabbits. Which will no doubt disappear down black holes as soon as they are revealed to my eyes.

7,040 6,780,076?
7,040 65,007,508,076?
0.750809 544,002?
5 0.508597 427?
7,040 6,060,086?
704,018 41,001,901 822,036?
7,040 0.11846 32,803?
7,040 30,596 206,061,080?
800,024,001,901 3,228?
5 0.50429 0.722704?
7,040 0.203085?
0.4588026 31,908?

Actually, the above is a strong pattern. I can see that what I need to do is have all twelve paragraphs in this coded form before I can hope to get anywhere. How long will it take to transcribe each number by hand? Shall we say a day? Dear reader, I will meet you here tomorrow morning without fail.



TWO

OK, I've had 24 hours to transcribe and colour-code the numbers, and I now think I know what On Kawara was doing. He was writing a glorious kind of poetry using numbers alone. Each of the 12 verses of What Number Should I play With? has twelve lines if one uses the question marks to indicate the end of each line. I refer you again to verse two in its published form (see above) which has got no such obvious patterning.

You wouldn't guess how much effort On Kawara had put into those numbers. And yet he'd kept the aesthetics so flat and hidden that no-one could possibly share his joy. Returning to a question I posed earlier, why are the numbers expressed as words and not numerals? It's because On Kawara was attempting to produce a novel form of poetry, a piece of unusual literature.

It's a bit like the time, a year earlier, when On Kawara decided that by simply listing the names of the people he was meeting each day in Mexico City, he was making a sort of poem - independent of language, though containing Spanish, English and Japanese names - that could be understood all around the world. Like this particular 'I MET' list from July 1, 1968:

7z6yoo002brrz002bl69k6xsivwa_thumb_d103 Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

I'm going to have to present the whole Code as I did to myself last night. The basic information properly divided, colour-coded and with the aesthetics tweaked just slightly. And I have to go back to the beginning:

WHAT NUMBER SHOULD I PLAY? (1)

500 0.210505106?
0.7450809 0.314175976?
60,425,071,901 675,039,976?
3 50,8130.40536?
5,901,8020.32704086?
8,101,047 601,901 0.30780031676?
50,930,805,513. 7,050,804,086?
2,000,805,513. 7,050,804,086?
0.9850103 0.3521679?
0.35809. 85.033?
59 243 0.3513?
5 0.75090804 206 95,076?

The black numbers provide a bit of everyday stability. The clouds and puddles of everyday life, you might say. But in this first verse, as in any poem, you need a good reason to keep on reading. The kingfisher flash comes from 7,050,804,086. A pair of them! Where have they flown from? From further than a light-year distant if we're talking miles.

Already in this first verse we have the astronomical and the microscopic. But hang on that's not quite right. We are given multiples of one and divisions of one. One taken to the power of billions or trillions. But then, as I said before, 0.35 is also given much emphasis. No less than six times, the number being played with is between 0.3 and 0.4. But on at least two occasions the fraction is expressed very accurately. Of what practical use would 0.30780031676 be to anyone other than Donald Judd when he was making one of his exquisite metal boxes?

A second thought on the first number. 500 is the number of years on each page that comprise the 200 pages of any one of On Kawara's books, ten of which were needed for Million Years Past, which he made in 1970/71 but may already have had in mind as early as July of 1969.

Next verse:

WHAT NUMBER SHOULD I PLAY? (2)

7,040 6,780,076?
7,040 65,007,508,076?
0.750809 544,002?
5 0.508597 427?
7,040 6,060,086?
704,018 41,001,901 822,036?
7,040 0.11846 32,803?
7,040 30,596 206,061,080?
800,024,001,901 3,228?
5 0.50429 0.722704?
7,040 0.203085?
0.4588026 31,908?

Twelve lines again. Shakespeare's sonnets were 14 lines each, but On was a Twentieth Century master. Every line ends with a question-mark. Though I think that just takes us back to the question that Kawara got from MAD: What number should I play?

All the solid, repeating numbers are at the beginning of each line. The opposite of words rhyming at the end of a line of traditional verse. I don't even think 427 should have been put in bold. It's just the six examples of 7,040 and the four examples of 5 that give the verse its stability and structure. 7,040 is divisible by 32, as it happens, giving a whole number. 32 was Hiroko's age at the time. 5 may have been On's lucky number. Oh, but that is a weak sentence! Such a weak ending to this paragraph which is also part of a poem of sorts.

Note that there is no repetition of either a huge number or of a very accurate one. A good poet doesn't play the same trick twice. A good poet, say, once underway, begins to weave a web of association, building up towards some sort of turning point, culmination and epiphany.

WHAT NUMBER SHOULD I PLAY? (3)

vocjezvhspkhqch5rrwhcq_thumb_106f0 Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

0.7080904002?
0.8041085012?
3,078,217?
0.180096010804 0.144501?
0.45101047 56,040,750,802?
0.72803203?
590,108?
7,040 95,030?
9,060 60,581,901 0.4576?
0.82906506129?
38,501?
6,190,140 0.614?

Thank-goodness for the single example of 7,040 which gives us hope that the poet hasn't gone off-piste. There is much measuring of the fraction going on in this verse. A certain proportion of one. It feels sad to be focussing on the single digit when there are such numbers as fifty-six billion forty million seven-hundred and fifty thousand eight hundred and two to think about. Mars is about 60 million miles away. But then I must remember that On Kawara is not rounding things up or down. The number is not 56,000,000,000. The artist is too interested in the unit one for that to be the case. It's always 56,040,750,802. The two units are as important as the 56 million.

Is this going well? Too soon to say. The important thing for me to remember is to enjoy the process. And to make it enjoyable for those that are following this.

WHAT NUMBER SHOULD I PLAY? (4)

xaz1kfifsqsirh1fcymndw_thumb_106ea Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

7,040 6,058 19 0.1079503?
60,804,224 0.750661901?
0.41010408 753,006?
64,500,342,836?
7,040 6,500,580,030 0.825087?
0.35881501?
310,028,080?
318,702 0.35015401906?
0.68003203 206 605,000,804?
318,702 0.3200106?
0.757046?
74,416 58,710,840?

7,040 crops up twice, both times at the beginning of a line. 206 is another number that also appeared in the first verse. And the number 318,702, which hasn't cropped up before, crops up twice.

On Kawara is not interested in those two opposites, infinity and zero. There is no example of 0.00000350154, say. It's infinity and one, On is playing with. So it's 0.35015401906.

Not so much 'why is there something rather than nothing?' But 'why is there a huge number of ones or a fraction of a single one?' Both are philosophical positions, I suppose. On's is much the more optimistic. Well, no, both are positive.

WHAT NUMBER SHOULD I PLAY? (5)

0bzvcdsarvez3hrtoy3n2w_thumb_106e9 Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

5 0.7058303 0.354
5 0.3250675080403 0.375080403 0.6354
5 0.420300353 0.720307
0.107 0.82901 0.64501
5 0.815 501,097
5 32,050 0.55060408
1,008,802 8,500,719
0.4381304 0.84050008
0.323 6,205,053
38 7,103,270,402 405,802
5 0.510809071901 0.8507071
0.353 0.350154019

The number 5 comes up on seven occasions. Every time at the beginning of the line. How structuring is that? Meanwhile there is much precision going on in measuring things that are between 0.3 and 0.4 again (five efforts no less). Though 0.3250675080403 takes the biscuit in terms of exactitude.

Easily the largest number is 7,103,270,402. Does it call out to that pair of 7,050,804,086 from verse one? Well, yes and no. You decide.

WHAT NUMBER SHOULD I PLAY? (6)

zn002bbarj0025qdg3glarsghgsq_thumb_1070d Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

6,014,003?
30,925,090,803?
6,500,550,806,003?
5,775,080,903?
0.705709?
0.6293403?
207,417,085,703?
58,806,703?
505,054,550,303?
0.5507 29 0.5820757129?
0.450010103 593 0.916603?
10,192,803?

Nothing much in the way of pork pies and pillows to give us everyday succour there. Everything either precisely measured as a fraction of one, or astronomical. Where does six trillion five hundred billion five hundred and fifty million eight hundred and six thousand and three get us anyway? It's a light year, approximately. But approximately is a word that On Kawara doesn't have any truck with. The 'infinitely large' and the 'accurate to the nth degree'. That's what's in On's bag.

We are now halfway through the 'poem' and I am drinking coffee and bathing my straining eyes with warm, distilled water soaked in cotton wool.

wnbfh002bg2svyt002bx1esdpdhw_thumb_10630

WHAT NUMBER SHOULD I PLAY? (7)

All righty, back to the magnifying glass. (Not really. That was yesterday.) sovdtf6vrgmka00253orqb2ag_thumb_106f1 Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

59 20,606 350,702 0.52410800359?
7,040 636?
5 609,570 0.820303127?
5 0.8076 96,606 70,503?
0.82509708 30,032,967,857,286?
53,002,085,706 206 0.68 42,000?
7,040 0.350228?
7,040 0.120008928?
7,040 0.590613097?
5,901,802 19 45,606?
0.5823002?
0.3157509?

What a relief to see 7,040 at the start of so many lines. And 5 is there twice. That maintains the dual focus of the composition.

206 keeps cropping up (verses 1 and 6 also), and I'd like to know what significance that has in On Kawara's mind. Maybe it's an address. It's a floating number, in that when it crops up it is not tied to the opening of a line.

There is one particularly large number there: 53,002,085,706. And one particularly accurate division of one: 0.52410800359. What do you get if you add these two together? Well, you get 53,002,085,706.52410800359. But that's heresy for On Kawara. Rounding up to the nearest one, you get 53,002,085,707. Solid ground, again! Though if we're talking miles then that solid ground might be on Pluto when, in its orbit around the Sun, it finds itself on the opposite side of the Sun from planet Earth. I hear a voice saying: "Cosmic, man."

WHAT NUMBER SHOULD I PLAY? (8)

a49s3qmksd6mi06itjidxa_thumb_106fe Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

8,208,096?
2,076,080,917,106?
0.3590424. 0.8200086?
5,070,060?
19,650,426?
0.7595956?
0.58516?
0.5140405 0.8850675?
0.35935456?
243 913,029 0.75077296?
0.64260086?
8,519?

This reminds me of verse six. Often with just a single large number or an exact fraction of one. Though there is no concordance of numbers, either whole or part. Instead we must interpret it as a virtuoso display of large numbers and divisions of one.

Not much to cheer up the weary researcher there. Except we now have verse/paragraph nine to consider, with its sentences full of double quotation marks. This is the most significant verse in the whole poem. Or at least it could be.

WHAT NUMBER SHOULD I PLAY? (9)

p4yxjathrb002bk4o5a7hiq6w_thumb_106ff Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

"0.3509 42,000 927 6058!"?
"0.3509 6058 927 42,000!"?
"0.4044 92 600 60,297 0.12!"?
"385,067 0.7008 927 675,030,976!"?
"0.75089 0.750702 0.75089!"?
"0.65608167 0.51016!"?
"913,029 6056 7,040 290!"?
"0.8203031 0.885036!"?
"600 42,000 0.350228 354,002!"?
"5005 50 151,967 7,040 60,544!"?
"60,547 169,002 410,006!"?
"620,809 17 72 0.3!"?

The quotation marks suggest that in this paragraph, this verse, all the numbers are words being spoken. And the four words in the first line are the same four words in the second line, only with two of them in a different order.

Maybe Kit Nicholson and I are talking as we cross the college quad on the way back from Geography lectures.

Me: "How far is near!"?
Kit: "How near is far!"?

Maybe Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong are talking on the Moon. After all, this piece was inspired by the July 1969 issue of MAD. In which case:

Neil: "MANY STARS ALL BRIGHT!"?
Buzz: "MANY BRIGHT ALL STARS!"?

I've introduced Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin partly because, if you recall, On Kawara made another code called Voice from Moon. A transcription of the conversation between NASA and the Apollo 11 astronauts from July 20, 1969. That code is cracked in GAME ON (3).

Or maybe it's On and Hiroko talking about On's moon landing triptych of Date Paintings.

Hiroko: "The painter is astronaut!"?
On: "The astronaut is painter!"?

What do we get from the rest of the verse's dialogue? The number 7,040 is there twice. But it's no longer confined to the first word of the line. Everything bounces around, moonside, where the gravity just can't hold humanity back or down.

Line three contains 385,067, which is about the distance in kilometres from the Earth to the Moon. But On Kawara would have laughed at such a statement and told me that 384,400 is not the same as 385,067

Line five gets obsessive in the region of 0.75.

The big numbers are not that big. Neil and Buzz (if it is them) are content to talk about what's in front of their visors. The Sea of Tranquility and the command module, for example. Oh, and that seemingly innocuous flag of the United States.

WHAT NUMBER SHOULD I PLAY? (10)

jpuiptumqvg1brntwaqeaw_thumb_10705 Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

601,704 910,104,767,108,096?
601,704 7,058 0.156?
601,704 0.3569 5,880,676
0.702 35,008,091,901
19 0.9193
601,704 5 0.7101 0.40442
0.702 80,065,061,901 72 416,709
601,704 5 62,901
0.702 0.20441901 0.750809
601,704 695,050,502 6,728,106
0.702 80,780,570,901
0.702 80,610,191,901

601,704 is the biggest repeating number yet (apart from the kingfisher flash in verse one). And like 5 and 7,040, it crops up exclusively at the beginning of a sentence. Moreover, numbers in the region of eighty billion crop up three times.

0.702 is the smallest repeating number yet, and that's exclusively at the beginning of a line too.

Are 0.702 and 601,704 the new 5 and 7,040? If so, minds would seem to have been expanded by the conversation which took place in verse nine.

And the nine hundred ten trillion number in the first line is the biggest so far. Everything is suggesting expansion since the divine dialogue took place.

WHAT NUMBER SHOULD I PLAY? (11)

okev1nxwscq0025bnfeupug3a_thumb_10709 Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

5 67,570 206 0.30801090802
0.82241901 20,606 0.508123
70,457 0.4 6,056 20,501,771,901
9060 0.42413502
59 0.30785 310,013,093
70,457 0.4 6,056 50,057,101,047
7,040 60,902 6,056 0.65441901
70,457 0.4 6,056 5,090,617
5 3,502 206 0.3250891901
0.4 6,056 5 9,060 0.1859306570408
0.759098500570802
6,058

This penultimate verse is full of significantly repeating numbers. 70,457 crops up three times at the beginning of lines. 6,056 is in there four times, floating free. There are five examples of number 5 in this verse, and two numbers 206. But look at 0.4, in there four times! As if On Kawara couldn't care less about accurate measurement any more.

But this is contradicted by 0.759098500570802, the most accurate fraction yet used in the work. 15 digits in the number, the same as in the largest of the big numbers.

0.702 and the 601,704 from verse ten are nowhere to be seen. Though the whole poem shares the same language, and shows sign of a story arc, each verse would also seem to be self-contained in terms of certain motifs.

WHAT NUMBER SHOULD I PLAY? (12)

y3ackkulqk6ijp4ppocbrw_thumb_1070f cp7ergvyrgwyqbvua2xauw_thumb_10702 Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

0.628 0.85403
0.628 0.40405
5,005 7,040 95,712,954 0.150583
0.628 59 190,006,710,157,129
3,154 5 0.5850208
0.628 0.416 0.5105 593 0.72604
2,507 600 0.028 6,593,601,080,406
0.628 0.41010408 753,006
0.628 0.205054 71,030
0.802072302 950,306
0.628 66,051,901 0.804590106
0.416 0.3270408

Suddenly, in this last verse, 0.628 emerges as the most oft-repeating number. Exclusively anchoring the lines as often as seven times.

Once again, as in verse 10, we reach the enormous peak of more than a hundred trillion. That's 10 raised to the 15th power, if I'm not mistaken.

5 makes it to the final verse. 600 likewise. And 7,040. How often does 600 crop up throughout the poem? Just three times actually, twice in the dialogue verse and once in the final verse.

Is that all I have to say for now? Well, it is lunchtime.





THREE

A few days ago, Heinz Nigg, fifty years on from 1974, wrote to me:

'I'm curious to know what you're going to find out about the "code". What does it mean when On Kawara said, 'This code is easy to crack'? And why did On Kawara destroy most of his Code paintings? And why did he keep some of his Code drawings? Was the 'code phase' in his work a method of finding out more about his role as an artist? How he could hide from the public gaze? And why was he interested in withdrawing from public life? Why are you interested in the "code phase" of On Kawara? What do you hope to find out?

That's a lot of questions, Heinz (still curious after all these years). But I hope I've provided a few answers already, and that there are a few more coming up in this final section. On made sure there was a 'Codes' section to On Kawara: Silence, published at the end of his life. And Code was reproduced over a double-page as follows.

hlubbywvrqifozmq002b8pxua_thumb_1062f

It was there all right, but it was barely legible even with a magnifying glass and the content is bewilderingly inaccessible. Ecstasy and wisdom, beauty and a sense of awe, hiding in plain sight.

In writing about Kawara's 'Codes', Anne Wheeler said that Code (1969) consisted of 'presumably meaningful ciphers', implying that On Kawara hadn't told her what was going on. In other words, On was very secretive about this work. After all it was a code, it was supposed to be obscure! Thank goodness On did tell something to Ursula Meyer when she interviewed him about his work on October 7, 1970. The reference to MAD issue 128 was a rare public utterance from On Kawara about his art.

Code (1969) is a very important part of On's oeuvre, as I'll now try and demonstrate. Not just because it was composed in 1969, the year of the Moon Landing triptych, plus so much more, including another surviving code, 'Voices from the Moon'. When On had the opportunity to produce a massive retrospective book about his work in 1995 - the book being Whole and Parts published in 1996 - he took the opportunity to reprise Code and place it all over the cover and back cover, plus numerous end-pages, front and back. What had been a relatively short 'poem' with a dozen 12-line verses, as discussed in some detail above, became a 16-page prose-poem, much less divided up by questions. A stream of numerical consciousness, one might describe it as. Here is one page from it:

qwubtisbryqse6rfaxdvhq_thumb_10701

Note the old favourites from Code (1969). Though I marked up the page before I'd embarked on this essay's work. 7,040 is there at least four times. While 5 crops up repeatedly also. And good old 206. On Kawara didn't even give this piece a title, or perhaps he did. Anne Wheeler refers to it as No Title (1995).

Today - this very day - I got an email from Micheal Wynne whose work is the subject of GAME ON (30). He was telling me that his copy of Whole and Parts had just arrived and that he was looking forward to getting stuck into it. His email was accompanied by this pic of the book's front cover:

3d4mdhbaqus8g3lwta4nxg_thumb_10700 Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of Michael Wynne.

I'm pleased for Michael. I guess he paid about 300 dollars for it. Though I suspect it won't be long before the 2000 copies of the first and only edition sell for nearer the thousand-dollar mark. It's an iconic cultural event more than a book. Think, Shakespeare's First Folio.

Recently Michael Wynne has been pestered by time travellers downloading him doing various ordinary things, such as filling his car up with gas and smoking fags. Now he must be prepared for time travellers downloading him engaging with this ground-breaking, number-crunching tome.

Code is all about the number 'one'. Divisions and multiples of it. Yet On Kawara has said that it was Westerners that focus on 'one', while the Japanese think 'two' is the most important number, and that in Japan 'complements' permeate all thought. Maybe this just emphasises that On Kawara internationalised himself and became as comfortable with the 'one' as with the 'two' in things.

How to round this off? God is one, one might say. And divisions and multiples thereof.





FOUR

Heinz Nigg has thanked me for the 'beautiful poem' which he thinks is a bit like reading One Million Years, or listening to a pre-recorded version of the same. Meanwhile, Anders Delbom, while also impressed with what's been done so far, remains unconvinced that each number does not translate into a specific word.

Anders has provided me with an online function that puts numbers in ascending order, which means that On Kawara's 12-verse poem can be expressed in a way that brings attention to duplicate numbers that have so far gone under the radar. What do I mean? Let me show you, verse by verse. In verse one there are two such hidden jewels:

WHAT NUMBER SHOULD I PLAY? (1)

500 0.210505106?
0.7450809 0.314175976?
60,425,071,901 675,039,976?
3 50,8130.40536?
5,901,802 0.32704086?
8,101,047 601,901 0.30780031676?
50,930,805,513. 7,050,804,086?
2,000,805,513. 7,050,804,086?
0.9850103 0.3521679?
0.35809. 85,033?
59 243 0.3513?
5 0.75090804 206 95,076?

What's new in the above? Well, the kingfisher flash of 7,050,804,086, so obviously echoed in the next line, is now superseded in terms of impact by 5,901,802 which crops up again in verse seven. But get this: 0.32704086 is also the very last number in the final verse. There must be a few poems which introduce a word in the first verse, where that word is then used to round off the whole composition. In fact, here's one off the top of my head that very nearly does that. It's from A.E Housman's timeless 'Shropshire Lad'. As it's something of a numbers poem, I'll reproduce the whole thing. Though it's the word 'cherry' I'm specifically thinking of:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now Is hung with bloom along the bough, And stands about the woodland ride Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten, Twenty will not come again, And take from seventy springs a score, It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom Fifty springs are little room, About the woodlands I will go To see the 
cherry hung with snow.

So let's go through the rest of On Kawara's Code and see where we've got to:

WHAT NUMBER SHOULD I PLAY? (2)

7,040 6,780,076?
7,040 65,007,508,076?
0.750809 544,002?
5 0.508597 427?
7,040 6,060,086?
704,018 41,001,901 822,036?
7,040 0.11846 32,803?
7,040 30,596 206,061,080?
800,024,001,901 3,228?
5 0.50429 0.722704?
7,040 0.203085?
0.4588026 31,908?

No number surprises there.

WHAT NUMBER SHOULD I PLAY? (3)

0.7080904002?
0.8041085012?
3,078,217?
0.180096010804 0.144501?
0.45101047 56,040,750,802?
0.72803203?
590,108?
7,040 95,030?
9,060 60,581,901 0.4576?
0.82906506129?
38,501?
6,190,140 0.614?

No surprises there, either.

WHAT NUMBER SHOULD I PLAY? (4)

7,040 6,058 19 0.1079503?
60,804,224 0.750661901?
0.41010408 753,006?
64,500,342,836?
7,040 6,500,580,030 0.825087?
0.35881501?
310,028,080?
318,702 0.35015401906?
0.68003203 206 605,000,804?
318,702 0.3200106?
0.757046?
74,416 58,710,840?

The numbers 0.41010408 and 753,006 also re-occur, side by side, in the final verse. Who would have noticed that with human eye unaided? Not me.

WHAT NUMBER SHOULD I PLAY? (5)

5 0.7058303 0.354
5 0.3250675080403 0.375080403 0.6354
5 0.420300353 0.720307
0.107 0.82901 0.64501
5 0.815 501,097
5 32,050 0.55060408
1,008,802 8,500,719
0.4381304 0.84050008
0.323 6,205,053
38 7,103,270,402 405,802
5 0.510809071901 0.8507071
0.353 0.350154019


No changes there.

WHAT NUMBER SHOULD I PLAY? (6)

6,014,003?
30,925,090,803?
6,500,550,806,003?
5,775,080,903?
0.705709?
0.6293403?
207,417,085,703?
58,806,703?
505,054,550,303?
0.5507 29 0.5820757129?
0.450010103 593 0.916603?
10,192,803?

And no changes there, either.

WHAT NUMBER SHOULD I PLAY? (7)

59 20,606 350,702 0.52410800359?
7,040 636?
5 609,570 0.820303127?
5 0.8076 96,606 70,503?
0.82509708 30,032,967,857,286?
53,002,085,706 206 0.68 42,000?
7,040 0.350228?
7,040 0.120008928?
7,040 0.590613097?
5,901,802 19 45,606?
0.5823002?
0.3157509?

That's the 5,901,802 repetition from verse one, for all you folks paying special attention.

WHAT NUMBER SHOULD I PLAY? (8)

8,208,096?
2,076,080,917,106?
0.3590424. 0.8200086?
5,070,060?
19,650,426?
0.7595956?
0.58516?
0.5140405 0.8850675?
0.35935456?
243 913,029 0.75077296?
0.64260086?
8,519?

I've drawn attention to the 913,029 because we find that in the very next verse:

WHAT NUMBER SHOULD I PLAY? (9)

"0.3509 42,000 927 6058!"?
"0.3509 6058 927 42,000!"?
"0.4044 92 600 60,297 0.12!"?
"385,067 0.7008 927 675,030,976!"?
"0.75089 0.750702 0.75089!"?
"0.65608167 0.51016!"?
"913,029 6056 7,040 290!"?
"0.8203031 0.885036!"?
"600 42,000 0.350228 354,002!"?
"5005 50 151,967 7,040 60,544!"?
"60,547 169,002 410,006!"?
"620,809 17 72 0.3!"?

Why wasn't the second 913,029 noticed before? Because our minds are not familiar enough with the variations of numbers. If it had been a six-letter word like 'Aldrin' or 'Hiroko' or 'Kawara' then of course we would have noticed its repetition.

WHAT NUMBER SHOULD I PLAY? (10)

601,704 910,104,767,108,096?
601,704 7,058 0.156?
601,704 0.3569 5,880,676
0.702 35,008,091,901
19 0.9193
601,704 5 0.7101 0.40442
0.702 80,065,061,901 72 416,709
601,704 5 62,901
0.702 0.20441901 0.750809
601,704 695,050,502 6,728,106
0.702 80,780,570,901
0.702 80,610,191,901

Verse ten is as was.

WHAT NUMBER SHOULD I PLAY? (11)

5 67,570 206 0.30801090802
0.82241901 20,606 0.508123
70,457 0.4 6,056 20,501,771,901
9060 0.42413502
59 0.30785 310,013,093
70,457 0.4 6,056 50,057,101,047
7,040 60,902 6,056 0.65441901
70,457 0.4 6,056 5,090,617
5 3,502 206 0.3250891901
0.4 6,056 5 9,060 0.1859306570408
0.759098500570802
6,058

Verse eleven is as was also.

WHAT NUMBER SHOULD I PLAY? (12)

0.628 0.85403
0.628 0.40405
5,005 7,040 95,712,954 0.150583
0.628 59 190,006,710,157,129
3,154 5 0.5850208
0.628 0.416 0.5105 593 0.72604
2,507 600 0.028 6,593,601,080,406
0.628 0.41010408 753,006
0.628 0.205054 71,030
0.802072302 950,306
0.628 66,051,901 0.804590106
0.416 0.3270408

Three of the four extra repetitions have their second showing in the last verse. That's what a poet does: they time things so that the poem goes out with a bang, lighting up the reader's mind as it does so.

Let's finish with the Housman:

Loveliest of 5,901,802 the cherry now
Is hung with 0.32704086 along the bough,
And 753,006 about the woodland ride
Wearing 0.41010408 for Eastertide.

Now, of my 913,029 years and ten,
5,901,802 will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me 913,029 more.

And since to look at 0.41010408 in bloom
753,006 springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry 0.3270408 with snow.

If you could see me now, you would see a man laughing. Just as if you could see On Kawara back in 1969, I believe you would see a man smiling and nodding. A happy man. Smiling and nodding.



FIVE

Maybe I've finished this essay now. I've just received this postcard from Anders:

unadjustednonraw_thumb_1075b Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of Anders Delbom.

I think he's right. Code is poem made from numbers alone.

Two days later I get this postcard from Michael in Texas:

unadjustednonraw_thumb_1075c Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of Michael Wynne.

Which puts me in mind of this photo that Anders recently sent via Instagram, which I believe deliberately echoes Michael's similar photo of a 300-dollar investment a few days before:

unadjustednonraw_thumb_1075d Reproduced with the permission of Anders Delbom.

So there is another deciphering yet to be accomplished. The text that begins on the cover of Whole and Parts and goes on for another sixteen pages before ending on the back cover. I guess this will turn out to be a short story made entirely of numbers, rather than a twelve-verse poem, but that remains to be seen.

There are at least three of us with the text to be translated at our fingertips, and the tools do to that translation. I dare say there are others.

In the meantime, I finish this essay in the certain knowledge that it is intended to be a prose poem. I'm grateful to all those who lent a hand to its composition.





SIX

Ha, I suppose this piece is finished when it's finished. The physical copy of MAD for July 1969 has just (FEB.14, 2024) arrived in Blairgowrie and the comic strip is well worth a second look. For example, I didn't notice the sailor before, trying out his luck.

tpamer7lqayjilghex0025ivw_thumb_10797 Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of Dave Berg and MAD Magazine.

The strip was written and drawn by Dave Berg. It puts me in mind of Roy Lichtenstein. But let's give credit where credit's due: writer and artist, Dave Berg.

g0025giw7yvtq2coreaih5tag_thumb_10798 Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of Dave Berg and MAD Magazine.

The guy may have '9823' written in front of him in the above panel, but not in the first panel. A '7' is involved in that one, where the '8' or the '2' are in the second panel.

But what do I know? I very much identify with the unlucky man in the cartoon strip. Not the man setting out the conditions and roaring out the answers, He is not subject to the Wheel of Fortune. He is not at the mercy of Lady Luck.

xap5zu2tq9gujse7mo5rsw_thumb_10799 Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of Dave Berg and MAD Magazine.

No, I mean the average Joe who is caught between a rock and a hard place. Caught staring into the eyes of that hard place.

9vg2zhurqsyoq2iu6pvlsw_thumb_1079a Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of Dave Berg and MAD Magazine.

And since to look at things in bloom
28 springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.





SEVEN

Well, well, well. That was the wrong answer. The specific numbers can indeed be deciphered into actual words. I was looking at the wrong page in MAD Magazine. Can you believe that? Let me put it this way, dear reader, all that you've read in parts one to six of this essay to date is complete twaddle. Actually, let's put it another way, that when it comes to the macroscopic and the microscopic, Sir Isaac Newton's theory must give way to Mr Albert Einstein's!

I got a call last night from Anders Delbom in Sweden. Though he congratulated me for cracking the code in that recent postcard, I knew part of his mind had reservations. As indeed did mine, though I was happy to have got a completed essay out of it. Anyway, Anders had set out the code scenario to Tommy Wrede, his partner's brother, a man who likes solving all kinds of puzzles, and it was he that spotted something in the double-page centre spread of MAD, issue128.

I think Anders must have said to Tommy that all we know for sure is that the list of numbers called Code is explained by something in this issue of Mad Magazine, because On Kawara said that to Ursula Meyer in an interview in 1970, and she wrote it down in the pages of Conceptual Art . I think Tommy must have looked at the numbers of the code as transcribed by me from streams of letters to numbers, the first being 'five hundred' represented as '500'. And I think he must have noticed the 500 at the beginning of panel one in this double-page spread. And his mind would have lit up - as mine does now - at the sight of twelve panels with twelve lines in each panel!

mc8etjw4tj2kpe9qtyip2q_thumb_10822 Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of Frank Jacobs and MAD Magazine.

So let's go back to 1969 and imagine On Kawara relating to this MAD Magazine article - written by Frank Jacobs - for the first time. The reader is supposed to take one possibility from panel one, add the words 'paraded through' from the 'PROTEST NEWSPAPER STORY' control panel. Then take a sample phrase from panel two and add the word 'in' from the control panel. And so on. So, just choosing the first option each time, one would have:

'500 Yippies' paraded through 'the streets' in 'Berkeley' today protesting 'the war in Vietnam'. The demonstration began after 'a bearded male' was seized by 'an off-duty policeman'. When police arrived they were greeted by a shower of 'rocks' and shouts of "Make love, not war!" The police responded 'with nightsticks'. Speaking over television, this evening, the Governor declared 'a state of emergency' and called 'for calm'.

So perhaps On Kawara went though a few possibilities and amused himself that way for a while. Then he realised he could use the MAD feature in another way.

wjaz9ct9t7oqmid00258m3jzw_thumb_1080c How has Tommy Wrede decoded Code? How has he got from the MAD article to the list of numbers?

Well, the feature starts '500 Yippies. Which has to code into 500 0.210505106This becomes the first line of Code, being 'Five hundred two hundred ten million five hundred five thousand one hundred and six millionths'. How did On put it to Ursula Meyers again? 'This code is easily cracked. You will find many answers which yield one question.' To which Ursula Meyers commented 'He enjoys punning the self-seriousness of artists - '"Recreation is more important than creation." What On Kawara had done in Code was to recreate the double page spread of Mad Magazine for July, 1969.

So that first line again, '500 YIPPIES'. 500 doesn't need coding, but 'YIPPIES' does::

Y = 02
I = 1
P = 05
P = 05
I = 1
E = 0
S = 6

If a numbers such as 02 (or 03 or 04 etc.) comes first, then it has to be expressed as 0.2. It's that which decides whether a number is going to be a multiple of one or a fraction.

Tommy will have gone down panel one and found out the numbers corresponding to most of the letters of the alphabet. Though he may have had to go through a few panels before the more obscure letters like Q, X and Z were lined up with numbers, either 1-9, 01 to 09, or 10 to 60.

A = 5
B = 07
C = 08
D = 3
E = 0
F = 06
G = 01
H = 04
I = 1
J = 10
K = 09
L = 4
M = 03
N = 9
O = 2
P = 05
Q = 20
R = 8
S = 6
T = 7
U = 50
V = 00
W = 60
X = 30
Y = 02
Z = 40

Numbers 70, 80 and 90 were not required as there are only 26 letters in the alphabet needing coding.

You can see from the above photo that Tommy has enumerated the first panel of the feature on that first page of his notebook, down to 'overpaid teachers'.

qe5uships4cjprjnom2vkq_thumb_10806 Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of Frank Jacobs and MAD Magazine.

I had been curious as to why seven of the lines in 'verse' 5 began with the number five. Now I know it was simply sentences beginning with the word A.

wu1qykcgqfwrtawcdye11g_thumb_10800 Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of Frank Jacobs and MAD Magazine.

I had been curious as to why six of the lines of 'verse' 10 began with 601,704. It's because the word 'with' is decoded as follows:

W = 60
I = 1
T = 7
H = 04

b2grzghmreeg8nphnuouxw_thumb_1080d Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of Frank Jacobs and MAD Magazine.

Let's focus on one more panel. The one involving a lot of dialogue. None of it is conversation between Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, it has to be admitted:

lx00257dd1atwodh0025u5uuhjfq_thumb_10808 Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of Frank Jacobs and MAD Magazine.

I'd noticed that the first two lines contained the same four words but in a different order.

Not:

Me: "How far is near!"?
Kit: "How near is far!"?

Nor:

Hiroko: "The painter is astronaut!"?
On: "The astronaut is painter!"?

But actually:

"Make love, not war!"
"Make war, not love!"

Yes, it all falls into place, panel after panel. Congrats again to this bearded man: Tommy Wrede:

unadjustednonraw_thumb_10811

As you can see, Tommy is now applying himself to the text that begins on the front cover, ends on the back cover, and covers fourteen internal pages of the book, Whole and Parts. And if it is the same cypher as for Code - as I think it is - then we'll soon have an On Kawara text to read. Let's hope it's 'Metamorphosis' by Franz Kafka. How great would that be? Though I'm quite prepared for it to be another text from MAD Magazine.

unadjustednonraw_thumb_10812

As Tommy gets on with it, let's give more credit where credit is due. I have in mind Anders Delbom. It was when reading Heinz Nigg's invaluable 1974 diary entries concerning his stay with On and Hiroko in Manhattan in 1974 that Anders noticed the mention of Ursula Meyer's book. (Heinz saw that On Kawara had a copy of this book in his loft.) Anders then got hold of a copy of Conceptual Art and came across the reference to On Kawara's Code. That was very observant him. To be honest, I don't know how he had time to do that. He works in a factory and, on top of that, every day he makes a red, blue or black painting (On Kawara colours) of a skull or an ice-cream. In those last two photos (above) you can see a test painting that Anders made just before the beginning of his 'Death or Ice-cream' project that has now (as of FEB. 24, 2024) been going for no less than 592 days. Are we talking an On Kawara level of commitment here? 'I GOT UP', 'I WENT', and 'I MET' went on every day for nearly eleven years. Well, that's suggesting a lot, but let's keep an eye open for the show he has in L.A. later in the year. (More details to follow.)

As for me, well I've always known I was more of a Doctor Watson than a Sherlock Holmes. Watson wrote up the detective's best cases, you may remember. More of an all-too-human being rather than a code-breaking genius. Judge me on this chapter of prose, not on the flawed hypothesis that I insisted on holding onto until its inadequacies were pointed out to me by Tommy Wrede's theory that explained the data. Every last number; every single word.

Perhaps I am over-egging this. Perhaps the solving of On Kawara's Code is not such a big deal. After all, the piece Code was not really in the public realm until 2015, when On Kawara: Silence was published. At least I don't know of its earlier appearance in exhibition or publication, though it was created in 1969. And it was reproduced in the 2015 catalogue in such a way that the 'numbers' could hardly be read. I am probably the first person who has made a protracted effort to solve the puzzle, so let's not be too hard on the rest of humanity who have been oblivious to the problem's existence. Besides, I've only been successful because I've roped in a team of brilliant fellow detectives.

Over to humble Doctor Watson, from the beginning of 'The Five Orange Pips':

'When I glance over my notes and records of the Sherlock Holmes cases between the years '82 and '90, I am faced by so many which present strange and interesting features, that it is no easy matter to know which to choose and which to leave. Some, however, have already gained publicity through the papers, and others have not offered a field for those peculiar qualities which my friend possessed in so high a degree, and which it is the object of these papers to illustrate.'

Yes, that's my authentic voice all right. But surely it is On Kawara that is my Sherlock Holmes. Let's get back to brilliant On Kawara. I wonder what it was that drew his attention to Frank Jacobs' piece in the first place. On was reading stories about black militants and shouting students on a daily basis. He was no stranger to news items on President Nixon or the war in Vietnam. Such stories, clipped from The New York Times, lined the cardboard boxes made to contain his Date Paintings.

So let's go through MAD's all-inclusive do-it-yourself PROTEST news story one more time, choosing options at genuine random. Of course, I don't have a 12-sided dice. And if I use two die, that would mean that the minimum combined total would be 2. But given that I've already gone through the PROTEST newspaper story using the first option in each panel, that is actually quite appropriate. So here we go, first dice courtesy of Cluedo, and second dice courtesy of a Wind in the Willows board game:

6 + 6 = 12
5 + 2 = 7
6 + 1 = 7
3 + 4 = 7
5 + 6 = 11
3 + 6 = 9
4 + 2 = 6
5 + 2 = 7
2 + 2 = 4
3 + 3 = 6
4 + 3 = 7
3 + 2 = 5

Wow, just a single '1' cropped up, whereas '6' came up five times. But that's just a probability distribution thing. Anyway, that gives me the following sentence. (And I don't care what it says, this will be the final sentence in this essay):

'A bunch of nuts paraded through the girls' dorm in anger today protesting divorce. The demonstration began after a picketing cabbie was applauded by advocates of free love . When police arrived they were greeted by a shower of praise and shouts of "Draft beer, not students!". The police responded with a big hello. Speaking over television, this evening, the Governor declared the sky was falling and called Dial-a-Prayer.'

Ha-ha! I must continue. Over to Doctor Watson again, from the beginning of 'The Adventure of the Copper Beeches':

'"To the man who loves art for its own sake," remarked Sherlock Holmes, tossing aside the advertisement sheet of the Daily Telegraph, "it is frequently in its least important and lowliest manifestations that the keenest pleasure is to be derived. It is pleasant for me to observe, Watson, that you have so far grasped this truth that in these little records of our cases which you have been good enough to draw up, and, I am bound to say, occasionally to embellish, you have given prominence not so much to the many causes célèbres and sensational trials in which I have figured, but rather to those incidents which may have been trivial in themselves, but which have given room for those facilities of deduction and of logical synthesis which I have made my special province."'

I'm back into that state of excitement whereby I cannot stop adding to this text. Believe it or not I'm bringing in Doctor Watson yet again, this time from the end of 'The Adventure of the Dancing Men':

"See if you can read it, Watson," said he with a smile.
It contained no word, but a little line of dancing men.
"If you use the code which I have explained," said Holmes,"you will find that it simply means 'Come here at once'. I was convinced that it was an invitation which he would not refuse, since he would never imagine that it could come from anyone but the lady. And so, my dear Watson, we have ended by turning the dancing men to good when they have so often been agents of evil, and I think that I have fulfilled my promise of giving you something unusual for your notebook. Three-forty is our train, and I fancy we should be back in Baker Street for dinner."


Back to 221B Baker Street for dinner! It is well-know that Sherlock Homes liked to inject a solution of cocaine into his system in between cases. But that was a post-dinner indulgence. Dinner itself may have been something more along these lines:

unadjustednonraw_thumb_10813 Anders Delbom: death_or_icecream. Blueberry soft iceCream in a coupé, dripping

Oh, the adrenalin rush of the last 24 hours. When will I again be calm enough to sleep, perchance to dream?

'Nixon was the one! Sock it to me! Walt Disney lives!'

Not just yet, it seems.

I go out for a walk and try to get things in perspective. On Kawara made Code in 1969, the same year he did a lot of other glorious work. He realised he needed to put into the public realm the information that the key to the code was a text in Mad Magazine, so he did that in the 1970 interview with Ursula Meyer. He published the piece called Code on his deathbed knowing that in maybe 100 years, maybe 1000, an art historian would decode it after coming across the key in Ursula Meyer's Conceptual Art. But along come Anders, Tommy and myself and the code is deciphered in 2024, just ten years after On Kawara's deeply regretted death.

I carry on walking and find myself passing from a Perthshire field where sheep are grazing to a crowded Manhattan street circa 1969. I bump into On Kawara who hands me the piece of work called Code in typed manuscript form.

On: "If you buy the current issue of of MAD Magazine the code is very easy to crack."

Me: "You mean it will take me about ten minutes flat?"

On: "No more than that."

Me: "Not fifty years and ten minutes then?"

On: "Ah, you've got me, Duncan. You must have been the cleverest boy in your class at school."

Me: " I don't know about cleverest. I was the boy who couldn't stop playing games."



EIGHT We nearly forgot to decode the title. First, here it is in its original form:

behqctusqaea002bqy6vqxaug_thumb_106d2-2 Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

This can be expressed as two numbers. A fraction being the first: 0.8802057201850504108. And a whole number being the second: 205,006,712,995,180.

Using Tommy Wrede's deciphering alphabet we get:

0.8 8 02 05 7 2 01 8 5 05 04 1 08
C R Y P T O G R A P H I C

20 50 0 6 7 1 2 9 9 5 1 8 0
Q U E S T I O N N A I R E

Cryptography is the process of hiding or coding information so that only the person a message was intended for can read it. Which means that Code was written by On Kawara specially for Anders, Tommy, myself and everyone who has read this essay.



NINE

An overview:

As we know, On Kawara went overboard for the Apollo Moon Landing in 1969 with his huge Date Painting triptych. He had most of his brilliant ideas (except Date Painting itself) in 1968, 1969 and 1970. One of these ideas - in 1969 - was to do the MAD Mag code. Although Code: Eight quintillion was written in 1969 I don't think it appeared in public then. Ursula Meyer referred to it in Conceptual Art, following an interview with the artist on October 7, 1970, as follows: 'About his Code: Eight quintillion Eight hundred and two Quadrillion…(1969) which comprises five pages of spelled out astronomical numbers…'

Sure enough, the 2015 catalogue, On Kawara: Silence, shows five pages (six including the title page) of typed out numbers as follows:

hlubbywvrqifozmq002b8pxua_thumb_1062f-2 Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation and Guggenheim Gallery, New York.

Code's first appearance in public may have been in that catalogue. The work couldn't be dryer: just typed numbers. Though we now know that effectively those six dry pages were saying this:

mc8etjw4tj2kpe9qtyip2q_thumb_10822-2 Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of Frank Jacobs and MAD Magazine.

At the back of On Kawara: Silence, the work, Code, is described as being in a 'Private collection', as opposed to the 'Collection of the artist'. This may mean that On Kawara had given/sold the work to a friend/collector who would have had the relevant copy of MAD Magazine. Perhaps one of his Japanese-New Yorker friends, such as Soroku Toyoshima or Aoki. Or maybe Kasper König was an avid reader of MAD Magazine. That too would have made sense as a non-financial transaction between two friends who shared a sense of humour and humanity.

For sure, it makes a lot of sense that when On Kawara was putting Whole and Parts together in 1995 for 1996 publication, he made reference to the importance of 1969 to his art and life by wrapping the 700-page tome in a text that commemorated both the MAD Mag code and the Moon landing.

icizzgk5r0025002bgxly44q43ng_thumb_10629 Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

A day or so after cracking Code, Tommy Wrede began to investigate whether the same code had been used in the creation of this sixteen-page code that began on the cover, ended on the back cover, and covered fourteen pages of the 700-pager.

0.42506729; 78,592,050,141,702;

Applying the code that was derived from MAD Magazine dated July 1969, we can indeed decode the first two words as follows:

H = 0.4
O = 2
U = 50
S = 6
T = 7
O = 2
N = 9


T = 7
R = 8
A = 5
N = 9
Q = 20
U = 50
I = 1
L = 4
I = 1
T = 7
Y = 02

However, Tommy has detected a difficulty. ("Houston, we have a problem.") This seems to be that certain zeroes have been missed out, and have to be added back in order for the Moon landing transcript to be adhered to. I will return to this qualifying detail.

Meanwhile, Anders Delbom forwarded me a transcript which was printed in the New York Times of July 21, 1969. This whole newspaper was placed in a cardboard box that accompanied JULY 20, 1969, the third of the three giant Dates that On Kawara painted on those specific dates of July 1969 to commemorate the moon landing, moon walking and moon talking. You can see the words 'Houston Tranquility' on the first line of words actually spoken:

xso8l8vxq0unu5iriz20xq_thumb_10824 Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of New York Times and any further copyright holder.

So why the errors in the transcription? It may be that On Kawara was listening to a tape of the exchange between NASA and the astronauts, and it was his way of reproducing the fact that some words had been clipped either at the beginning or the end. Anyway, nothing could be clearer than that this - untitled - piece celebrates the moon landing.

What appears to be a completely low-key book cover - a list of very large numbers and fractions - is actually a capturing of collective human joy. For wasn't everyone watching the television or listening to the radio or reading the newspapers the day that mankind landed on the moon? The day that astronauts walked and talked somewhere other than on planet Earth? But, as I say, what could have been an emotional work, almost a sentimental one, is made deadpan through the sensibility of On Kawara.

Then, in 2011, another big catalogue was commissioned, so On Kawara made Voice From Moon for it. This code did not use the Mad Mag code again, but did reference the Moon landing transcript, this time an exact and unclipped version of it. It was in 1965 that On Kawara first used the coloured line style of code, where the 26 letters of the alphabet are each represented by two strokes of colour. (Five colours in all. 5 x 5 = 25 with the 26th letter, W, being formed by putting two Vs together.) Here is the first page of that code as it appears in the book Date Painting(s) in New York and 136 Other Cities

uhyszu5frrirkvsj002buwpja_thumb_e20e Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

The first two words are again 'HOUSTON' and 'TRANQUILITY'. In fact, here is the page, together with its decoding by me in 2022:

mesiuy3wqxcqp0025bm0025essxa_thumb_e19d Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

Right now, Tommy Wrede will be getting these same words by applying the MAD MAG code to the cover text - I mean the numbers - of Whole and Parts.

But what On Kawara was doing was showing loyalty to his own creativity. Having acknowledged that the Moon Landing coincided with his creative flowering as a man in his mid-thirties, he never forgot that apex of achievement for the rest of his life. In 1996, when Whole and Parts came out, he was 63-years old. And in 2012 when Date Painting(s) in New York and 136 Other Cities came out he was 79. But still an astronaut with a sense of social justice and a sense of humour.

Lastly, the On Kawara: Silence catalogue came out in 2015, immediately after On’s death. On arranged for Code - the MAD Mag code - from 1969 to be reproduced in its pages. As I keep saying, I don't think it had ever appeared anywhere else before then.

So he kept his eye on the ball. As far as On Kawara was concerned, life is - and always would be - walking on the Moon with the latest issue of MAD Magazine, shouting "Make love, not war!…Hell no, we won't go!…Nixon was the one!.."

And the art world didn’t really appreciate much of this until Tommy, Anders and I cracked that code. So right now we're partying online like it’s 1969…

72030302: "Beautiful view."

593086: "Ain't that somethin'? Magnificent sight out here."

35090859: "Magnificent desolation."

FEB. 28, 2024