ALBERT EINSTEIN






A train transports two of its passengers from Zurich to Bern at the speed of light. That's what happens when you get embroiled in an intense conversation: time flashes by. It's 12 APR. 2024 and I'm travelling with Heinz Nigg, artist and friend.

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Yesterday, at his home in Zurich, I asked Heinz what he remembered about the day he first met On Kawara, which was in Bern in October, 1974, fifty years ago. He told me that they met in a restaurant that had a striking purple decor. Hiroko was there. On told Heinz that he wasn't a Japanese artist. What was he, then? Above all else, he was a global traveller. The three of them got on well, and it was just a month later - when Heinz travelled to New York with the director of the
Kunsthalle in Bern - that Heinz stayed with the Kawaras for a fortnight. That's when Heinz met Sol LeWitt who told Heinz that Conceptual Art was 'mature', its main protagonists already solidly in place with dealers, and that if Heinz wanted to make a mark on the art world then he needed to choose a different sort of art. Which is why Heinz chose a career in community art, developing the potential of video for all.

It's a topic we've been returning to throughout my visit, but for now I want to know what else Heinz will say about that special October day in 1974, so I hand him the 'I MET' list which I've been saving up for this site-specific journey:

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

Heinz recognises the name of Phillip King, a British artist who also had a show at Kunsthalle Bern. And the other names? Heinz's good friend, Johannes Gachnang, was the director of Bern's Kunsthalle back then, the first time that the museum had an artist as its director. Marianne Schmidt is also a name that jogs Heinz's memory. She was the assistant of the director of the Kunsthalle. Heinz has a lot to say about Marianne and the essential role she played, engaging with the high society of Bern on the Kunsthalle's behalf.

And we're there. Zurich to Bern in exactly five seconds. Or at least that's how long one would conclude the journey took on the basis of how little I've observed of the passing countryside. In Bern, guided by the set of 19 daily 'I WENT' maps that I've loaded onto my mobile, we make straight for the
zytglogge. That's to say the town's massive clock tower. The thing that's impressive about it is the clock face, whether looked upon from the east or the west (as here). In my excitement I didn't take a photo of it when first passing, this was taken a few hours later at five minutes to two.

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It's already clear to me why the medieval centre of Bern is given World Heritage Site status. What is not yet obvious is why On Kawara stayed here for 19 days in the autumn of 1974. Sure, he had his first big show here, being 'One Year's Production: 1973'. But he avoided his own opening and the show closed just a week after his arrival in town.

Where did On and Hiroko stay? They stayed at a nearby hotel called Hotel Schlussel, now called
Goldenen Schlussel (key) so that's where Heinz and I will have our first coffee of the day. But before that, let us properly look at this clock which On Kawara would seem to have engaged with every day of his stay. This is a photo of it from the east at five to eleven in the bright Bern morning.

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There is a golden figure which strikes a bell up in the spire, out of shot. Below the huge clock face is a more complex dial, giving astrological information and confirming that the date is April 12. And how about the figures to the side of this? At the top, there is a jester who mockingly rings his bells slightly before the actual hour. There is a rooster to the left of the main set of figures, and a standing bear brandishing some kind of stick to the right of them. In the centre there is the bearded figure of Chronos, who turns an hourglass at the end of each hour. And there is a line of dancing bears (mostly) that moves clockwise, emerging from the tower and disappearing back into it over several seconds. If there is a more impressive clock anywhere else in the world, then I haven't seen it.

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Perhaps it's the date itself, writ large, that On Kawara would have focussed on.
Avril 12.

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Heinz and I sit down at a table outside the Golden Schlussel for our coffee. And I begin to study the 'I WENT maps. First, here is the single map I have that is of very good quality, taken from the book
On Kawara: Horizontality/Verticality. It represents On Kawara's movements on October 6, 1974:

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


Note that towards the top edge of the map, the
Zytglogge is represented diagrammatically, which On Kawara interacted with several times in the day. It would even seem that he stood slightly to the side of the east-facing clock, and looked upon it as I did. (From the letter 'K' of Kramgasse as marked on the map.) Perhaps he did that several times in the one day, I can't tell from the single red line of a route. Note the nearby hotel where he got up (the red dot). And note too the Kunsthalle, over the bridge and in the bottom half of the map, which he also visited on most of the days he was in Bern, both during and after his own show.

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Heinz and I spilt up. He goes to see the show currently at the Kunsthalle (at the far end of this bridge) and I, following him, take the path just before the gallery (as On Kawara did on October 6, 1974). It goes steeply downhill. Soon I find myself with a view of the large church to the north of the river. Is it spectacular exploring this city? It is indeed, 1974 and 2024, both.

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This is the sort of picture that was on the postcards that On sent for the first fortnight of his stay, as you can see from the one that he sent to Tokyo to his photographer friend, Ikko Narahara, on October 6, 1974. 50 years ago, I keep having to remind myself. And just a few days before On Kawara met Heinz Nigg.

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


And for the last five days of On's stay in Bern? We'll get to those special postcards soon enough.

Back on Bern's higher level, I take a photo of the
Kunsthalle. After all On's I WENT maps tell us he went into the building on 16 out of his 19 days. Note to self. There is only one door in and out.

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Of course, I go in. I have the following diagram in mind, the layout of On Kawara's show fifty years ago, as depicted by Kasper Konig. Entrance to the building is from the middle of the top edge of the diagram…

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…So when I enter, I turn right, because that's where the 'I GOT Up' cards were to be found bak in '74 and was also a way of getting to the Date Paintings. On wouldn't have needed to spend time with a year's worth of 'I WENT' maps or 'I MET' Lists as he had access to those in New York. This would have been his first opportunity to see a year's worth of postcards though. And as we can see from the historical photo, both sides of the postcards were visible

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It was Kasper Konig, as curator, that had chosen which of the two postcards sent out each day to call back for the show. He did succeed in getting 365 postcards including 33 to himself, 45 to J. Castenfors (who On had met in Stockholm) and 77 to Konrad Fischer in Dusseldorf.

Yes, the postcards and the paintings is what On would have wanted to see. Judging by the next historical photo taken in conjunction with Kasper's diagram, all 85 of the Date Paintings that On made in 1973 (less one or two he had given away as he went along) were hung in the large central gallery.

It has to be said that this display cannot compete with the display of 243 Date Paintings of mixed sizes that On hung on the walls of his Manhattan studio in 1966.

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An odd thing is that today, in 2024, Heinz is sitting on a beanbag in this large gallery, watching African fims. Why odd? Because in the historical photo reproduced above, Heinz can be seen roughly in the middle of the bystanders, wearing white trousers and sunglasses and with a bag over his shoulder. 50 years and still chasing cutting edge art around the world! We only exchange a word or two as we'll be catching up properly soon enough.

I walk back into town, following On Kawara's old routes, but always heading for the
Zytglogge. At two o'clock there is a lot of public interest in the clock.

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The jester does his thing, but if you blink then you miss Chronos turning over the hour-glass and even the dancing bears. One wants to stop time so as to be able to take it all in. Fifty nine minutes and fifty seconds of 'nothing happening' and then ten seconds of mechanical mayhem. That's how it seems to this onlooker.

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I have arranged to meet Heinz here at two, and we find
a shady spot where we can discuss our respective mornings. I've noticed two odd things about On Kawara's maps. The first is that he marks that there are two entrances to the Kunsthalle, or one entrance and one exit. Whereas there is only one way in or out and that's clearly always been the case. In other words, On's taken a liberty with his recorded route to allow a little more information to be assimilated by the viewer.

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


Or more likely it's an
aide memoire for On Kawara himself. On the above day, October 11, 1974, On went into the kunsthalle before emerging again and looking around some nearby buildings and streets.

More significant is the following map from October 17, 1974. Plenty action around the
zytglotte, but it's what happens on the bridge and long before the kunsthalle that demands attention.

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


But first, On Kawara's route is mapped as being along the
middle of the bridge. Now this is not how the crossing would have been made. In 2024, people walk down either the left edge or the right edge of the bridge, with motorised vehicles going up and down the centre of it in two wide lanes. And it's obvious that the road has been set up this way for a long time. Indeed, Heinz confirms that the movement of pedestrians and cars was this way in 1974. I just don't know why On didn't indicate which side of the road he walked on (for surely he was walking, it's only a few minutes stroll from the hotel to the art gallery). Information would seem to have been lost for no good reason.

Anyway, more fundamentally, what on earth is happening three-quarters of the way across the bridge? There is no way off the bridge there. There is no way off the bridge until one gets to the steep little path I took this morning just before the
kunsthalle. It may mean that at this point On stopped and looked to the east. Or he thought about throwing himself off the bridge. Which seems most unlikely, though there was 'I AM NOT GOING TO COMMIT SUICIDE DON'T WORRY' in a telegram from 1970 to take into consideration. But if On was signalling that he simply looked off to the right, admiring the view, then this would seem to be him breaking his own rules. Because it was not his habit to suggest viewpoints on these 'I WENT' maps.

Again Heinz and I go our separate ways. And again we plan to meet a few hours later. My immediate plan is to cover all the ground that On Kawara covered in those 19 days spent walking the streets of Bern. This means passing the
zytglogge every hour or so, and on one occasion a door is open…

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…and I find myself gliding through it and up the stone stairs as part of a tour group.

I know where I am courtesy of that small window in the next photo. I recall that this is to the side of the astral clock, and the guide is telling us about the movements of the clock and the figures.

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While he talks on (not one single person will be following the detailed information being given about cogs, pulleys, wheels and levers having consequential effects on each other), I consult my phone, and in particular an article called 'the clock that changed the meaning of time'. From this I learn that the guide in the yellow jumper is Markus Marti, a retired engineer, and that the superb clock, a marvel of medieval engineering, has been striking the correct time for over 500 years.

Then I read something that really grabs my attention. Albert Einstein lived here at the start of the Twentieth Century and this clock inspired his most important work.
'Einstein heard the toll one evening in May 1905. He had been confounded by a scientific paradox for a decade, and when he gazed up at the tower he suddenly imagined an unimaginable scene. What, he wondered, would happen if a streetcar raced away from the tower at the speed of light?'

What indeed? I give Markus Marti some more attention as he explains, with the help of a pointer, what has to be done every day to keep the clock going.

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But I need to know the answer to that question Einstein asked himself. So back to the article on my phone:

'If he was sitting in the streetcar, Einstein realised, his watch would still be ticking. But looking back at the tower, the clock – and time – would seem to have stopped. It was a break-through moment. Six weeks later, he finished a paper outlining a “special theory of relativity”. Later he would show how space-time, as he called it, affected mass, energy and gravity, foreshadowing the nuclear age, space travel, and our understanding of how stars and celestial bodies interact.'

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I am amazed. By everything I've seen, heard and read. I follow the group back out of the clocktower and gaze upon its surface once more, as On Kawara and Albert Einstein did, in 1974 and 1905 respectively.

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And I realise I couldn't be in a better place, which is no doubt what On Kawara thought fifty years ago.

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Is it five already? I've been all round this city any number of times. I'm meeting Heinz at six.

This next photo is taken from the other side of the clocktower, looking east. There is a tramline that goes all the way to the clocktower and further on east.

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So I've followed that tramline and this is the view back west to the clocktower. Note the statue by the fountains. There are several of these that go all the way down the middle of the road


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Still going east, one gets to four or five fountains. You can see that water passes underground along the middle of the road. Another feat of medieval engineering.

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Time to sit down. I choose a place with tables running alongside the road. The tram coming from the direction of the clocktower will pass mere inches from me but that's how things work in this city.

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Now I can follow up on a couple of things. If On Kawara sent postcards showing general pictures of Medieval Bern for a fortnight, for the last five days of his visit he focussed on postcardsshowing the zytglogge. The cards for October 14 and 15 are both close-ups, and as a recipient I don't suppose one wouldn't realise the significance of the images.

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

These next two (Oct. 16 and 17) are of the clocktower, roughly from where I'm sitting at the café.

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

Whereas this last image, above. Posted to Ikko Narahara on the final day of On's stay in Bern, is of another clocktower on the way to the station. So we can discount this one, if that's what I mean to say.

I should add that On Kawara made three Date Paintings while he was in Bern. The roll of honour reads:

13. OKT. 1974

15. OKT. 1974

17. OKT. 1974


The day before meeting Heinz. The day after meeting Heinz. And on his second-last full day in Bern. By this time, On would have soaked up the Einstein ambience.

I guess by October 17, On was feeling pretty good about everything. He sent a couple of 'I AM STILL ALIVE' telegrams that day. One to the French writer who'd written about his work, René Denizot, and one to Teresa O'Connor, who lived in Manhattan with On's best friend, Aoki. Strange that, the 100-odd 'I AM STILL ALIVE' telegrams almost always went to professional contacts as a way of responding to their business communications. There was just one that went to Hiroko, when On had travelled on his own to Japan in 1970, and this one to Teresa in 1974.

And my phone has just told me that October 17 was the day that On marked up the crossing of the bridge in that strange way. That strange leap off the bridge! So this occurred the same day that he managed a third Date Painting, plus the same day that he sent a couple of 'I AM STILL ALIVE' telegrams. A little joke he was playing with himself, or with researchers poring over his work fifty years later:

I AM NOT GOING TO THROW MYSELF OFF THE BRIDGE DON'T WORRY

I AM NOT GOING TO THROW MYSELF OFF THE BRIDGE WORRY

I AM GOING TO SLEEP FORGET IT.

Einstein lived in a second floor flat on the same side of the street where I'm sitting, between here and the
zytglogge. What a location for someone whose writing was all about clocks and time. Ha! - that is the drink talking. Einstein wrote about light, time, space, gravity, electro-magnetism and the history of science: all sorts.

I point my camera at the café blackboard and my camera translates 'Drink over it!' Or should that be: 'Think bad, drink yourself better!'?


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Let me follow something up on my phone. First, let me get up On's map for October 14, 1974. He starts off at Hotel Schlussel. He visits the Kunntshalle. He crosses back and forth around the Zytglogge. Heinz reckons that he met On and Hiroko in a restaurant, possibly just south of the clocktower, Heinz reckons. But what I need to focus on is where On went on the road from the Zytglogge towards the right edge of the map.

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


Now compare the above 'I WENT' with this Google Map which has 49 Kramgrasse (Einstein's address) marked with a red pin. The Zytglogge is marked with a turquoise pin. I am sitting at a roadside café closer to the right edge of the map, but still with a good view of the clock-face.

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So there you have it. On Kawara may well have visited Einstein's house. I'm sure he was aware of Einstein's presence in Bern back at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.

I use my phone to track down the texts of the papers that Einstein published in his
annus mirabilis of 1905. One of them (courtesy of a website provided by Princeton University) dealt with the Special Theory of Relativity. I skim read the 30-pager and conclude that Einstein didn't include the anecdote of the clocktower and the speeding streetcar in the paper itself. He must have mentioned it in autobiographical writings later.

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I'm going to reproduce the first page of this paper so you can see how complex it is for the general reader. You will see that 'the principle or relativity' is mentioned towards the bottom of the page, if you get that far.

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I hope you'll agree that there is an awful lot of physics in that page, embedded in precise language.

On this next page, see below, clocks are mentioned quite a lot. Not in a way that can readily be understood, but no matter. Would I have understood this page when I was studying Maths and Physics at school for my 'A' levels back in 1974 (the year when On Kawara was thinking about Einstein's earlier presence in Bern)? I doubt it, even though I was one of the best students in the class, or at least my test marks suggested that I was. But On Kawara would have fully understood it, I have no doubt about that.

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How do I know On Kawara would have understood this? Well, in
On Kawara: Consciousness, meditation, watcher on the hills, published jointly by Ikon and les presses du Reel in 2002, Kawara chose the essays, and one of them was co-authored by the Nobel prize-winning mathematical physicist, Roger Penrose, 'Conscious Events as Orchestrated Space-Time Selections'. This has a section in it called 'Space-Time: Quantum Theory and Einstein's Gravity'. Clearly On Kawara kept himself abreast of developments in science, especially where that meant new understanding of human consciousness on the one hand and the design of the Universe on the other.

This interest in the time-space continuum continued all through On Kawara's life. So that the last publication that he was able to choose essays for,
Date Paintings(s) in New York and 136 Other Cities, published in 2012, includes a piece by Lei Yambe called 'On Kawara's Quantum Gravitational Body, or, the Confinement of Space-Time and the Liberation of Consciousness'. So you see, On Kawara would certainly have been most interested in the great clock of Bern and that the most important theoretical physicist of the Twentieth Century had worked within sight of said great clock.

Of course, On Kawara may simply have stayed in Bern for nineteen days because Hiroko loved it here. But that's not what I think. Oh, Hiroko would have loved it here all right, because she could see the place made On particularly happy. On would have been buzzing on a day to day basis. What is a Date Painting if not a clock? What was On from 1966 until his death if not a Renaissance timekeeper?

Heinz is excited when I meet him at six o'clock. He too has discovered that Einstein lived and thought on this street, within sight of the
Zytglogge.

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Heinz persuades me to walk back down the street and pose for a photo outside Einstein's house. Against my better judgement I sit where Einstein once sat. (Nonsense, I ask Heinz to take the photo. And when he looks dubious, I beg him to co-operate.)

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Did On Kawara sit there too? Well, the house only opened to the public in 1977, so possibly not. On the other hand, two of the maps (the first day of his stay, 30 September, 1974, and the day he met Heinz Nigg, October 14, 1974) suggest that On Kawara wandered down Kramgrasse to number 49, so maybe he was
WELL AWARE of the significance of the address.

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As we take our leave of God-given Bern, everything seems to make sense. Einstein having made his scientific breakthroughs here in the vicinity of an inspiring clock. On Kawara having chosen to stay here with Hiroko for 19 days, soaking up the Einstein vibe, sending out his 'I GOT UP' cards and creating his 'I WENT' maps as per brilliant usual.

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1905 and 1974 were both a long time ago. 50 plus 70 years is 120 killing years. And as Shakespeare famously said:

Golden lads and lasses all must
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

1905. 1974. 2024. It's all the same date really. All the same space-time continuum. If I know one thing, I know that. Or put it another way:

13. OKT. 1974

15. OKT. 1974

17. OKT. 1974

I AM STILL ALIVE




POSTSCRIPT

I'm back in Blairgowrie. I got there a day or so before the following postcard arrived from German-speaking Switzerland:

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As I inspect the card - over the Moon about the post office's various interventions - that I've sent to myself from Heinz's Swiss address to my 'permanent' home, I bring to mind a street-car that is moving away from the Bern Zytglotte at the speed of light. Inside the streetcar, Albert Einstein and On Kawara are sitting side by side. Both are staring at their watches. Precision instruments that they wear securely strapped to their left wrists. After ten minutes, On turns to Einstein and says:

"What time do you have?"

"Ten past the hour."

"Me too. Let's see what the time is on the
Zytglogge."

They both look up from their wrists and it may indeed be that the clocktower is still signalling the hour. But neither man can see the clock-face. Neither man can even see the Earth. Not so much as a smoky blue marble. That's the thing about moving at the speed of light. It soon takes you to another part of the Universe altogether.

From the centre of the known, inhabited Universe, to nowhere. In the blink of a butterfly's wing.



The next day's post brings this:

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Which leaves me wondering whether it is Einstein and On Kawara, or myself and Heinz Nigg, that are digging around in the present in order to reveal the past and the future.