ZURICH: 14. APR. 2024




I've been looking forward to this day. It'll be my first Date Painting made somewhere other than New York. I mean other than Blairgowrie. Today, for the first time, the numbered day of the month will come before the abbreviation for the month. And as if that's not enough, I've decided to make two paintings in the one day. Which will be yet another first for me. I'm all set up in Heinz Nigg's garage for an early start tomorrow morning.

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The early start was 7a.m., even earlier than planned. The master plan, which Heinz and I hammered out between us in his kitchen, is that when our guests arrive at 11am there will be something definite for them to see. Me, in the process of Date Painting, and, by noon, a finished Date Painting. Or, if not a finished Date Painting, then one that's got to a certain definite stage. A Date Painting that's fit to be seen, shall we say. Or even two Date Paintings. Both will be red, but, as of right now, one has been given a first coat of raw Sienna and the other a first coat of burnt umber.

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I've taken this next documentary photo for three reasons.

First, it shows that I've switched tables so as to make the most of the light that floods in from the garage door.

Second, for the first time I've used a hair dryer to help dry the acrylic paint, and boy does that speed things up. It's made me realise that the time it takes each coat of paint to dry has been dictating the length of my whole operation. No wonder photos of On Kawara's process usually show the presence of a hair dryer.

Third, the bowl of red-dyed water. There is an outside tap by this row of garages but I soon realised that making a bloody mess on the immaculate, white-washed Swiss exterior would not be an acceptable option. I must contain my raw redness as I endeavour to keep my one large brush clean of raw Sienna, burnt umber and, now, burning red.


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It's time to accept that I'm only going to be making the one Date Painting today. It's not my usual red cadmium I'm using, but a tube of Liquitex called 'Napthol Red Light'. The paint has a plastic finish to it which does not take pencil easily. It took a long time to get the lettering done on the first canvas and I don't fancy going through that again.

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However, the white paint has been going onto the red quite nicely. And I've persisted with each number, or punctuation mark, until I've got a finish that looks aesthetically pleasing, at least to my eye, though nothing is yet finished. It's ten thirty and if the audience arrived right now, there would be something for them to look at, as well as a process for them to observe.

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And the audience does begin to arrive. Heinz has sent out an enticing email ('Was ist ein Datum?') to some of his contacts inviting them along to his garage. Oh, and while I've been painting, Heinz has set out snacks and coffee-making facilities on the other table. As it's a beautiful Swiss Sunday (23 degrees in mid-April), the visitors are sitting just outside the garage. Leaving me with the interior of the garage as my stage, as it were.

First, I turn to the audience and blink until my fixation with applying white paint within the narrow confines of pencilled lines dissolves. I just about manage to smile and say hello.

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But I need to be able to do little more than that. I need to be able to listen to questions, and speak about things other than whether the line I've just drawn is straight or not… whether the paint I'm using is the right degree of malleability or not… whether a letter is finished or not… I would like to be able to think and talk a little more abstractly than that.

I tell these friends and colleagues of Heinz Nigg that this is the first time that I've made a Date Painting where the number comes before the abbreviation of the month. But for that to make any sense at all, I must tell them about On Kawara and his globe-trotting. How On's Dates would look subtly different depending on whether he was at home in New York or in France, Germany or Japan.


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Heinz is doing most of the talking as the main language of the group is German, with Italian coming in a close second. Switzerland is that odd thing, a country that has no language of its own, but many of whose people speak four languages. German, French, Italian and English. German and French are the official languages. If I was in Geneva, I would be painting in the French format, which would mean that the number again came first, but there would be no full stop after it. But Zurich is in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, so that dot separating '14' and 'APR' is most definitely there.

Heinz does his best to translate this. I'm sure his best is near-perfect. As he flips from one language to another, leaving me effectively deaf.


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But I do hear Heinz mentioning Bern. Presumably he's talking about our successful trip the day before yesterday. 12.APR.2024. Otherwise known as Einstein Day. It only takes an hour to travel from Bern to Zurich, a much larger city with much going for it. Yet On Kawara didn't visit Zurich when he was in Switzerland in 1974, instead he spent 19 days in Bern during which time he made three Date Paintings:

13. OKT. 1974

15. OKT. 1974

17. OKT. 1974


I repeat. He never did make that short journey by train in order to look round the city or make a Date Painting. So this, after a fashion, will be the first Date Painting made in Zurich.

I ask Heinz to tell our guests that I'm writing a biography of On Kawara and that these Date Paintings are only by-products. The making of them gets me into the right mind-set. Once he's explained this in German, Heinz asks me what exactly do I get out of making a Date Painting, and I try and explain. I talk about consciousness. It doesn't matter what I do on any day, as long as I'm alive. By chaining my mind to the pencil and paintbrush, and the engagement of the those tools to the canvas, then there is no possibility of distraction. It's as close to living in the moment as you can get. And so the time passes.

Am I still alive? Yes, I am still alive. Well, that's all right then. Carry on painting the date…

.

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I'm not sure if I put this across convincingly. After all, this is not a normal Date Painting day. I am conscious of a duty to the audience. This is a position that On Kawara never put himself in. He did not do his Date Painting in public. Or if he did it was while playing mah jongg, and no-one in his inner circle paid it much attention. On was simply doing his thing.

After ten minutes or so, I return to my seat in the garage. I am aware that there is an inconsistency in what I've been saying. Surely it would be better to be standing in the sunshine, congratulating myself for being in good health in the middle of my 67th year.


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The sun shines. Am I in a position to enjoy the sunshine? Yes, I am. On the other hand, no I'm not. I've agreed to sit here and apply paint as carefully as I can, blocking out all thoughts of sunshine until my largely self-imposed task is complete. By which time I will be a little greyer of head. A little more bowed of back. A little closer to my inevitable end. These are melancholy thoughts. Unworthy of an apprentice Date Painter.

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But all's well that ends well. At noon I'm able to stand in the sun and display the finished Date Painting to the camera.

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From left to right, Yusuf, who used to work in an art school, then went to Iraq for five years but who is back in Switzerland, where he takes photographs of his smiling grandchildren and turns those photos into screen prints. Then Heinz, my well-organised and always kind and enthusiastic host. Then me, Date Painter, ordinaire. Then Patricia, who used to be involved with Heinz in making videos with the community, a woman who knows more about Einstein's theories of relativity than I do. And then Roland, who arrived late and so missed the conversational part of the performance.

The finished Date Painting is much admired. Why? Because these are generous individuals who have enjoyed having the opportunity to meet again and to chat to each other as I painted. And who could be anything other than happy on a day like this in a well-to-do suburb of Zurich?

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Exactly for this reason, Switzerland avoided getting involved in either of the World Wars that shattered most other European countries in the Twentieth Century. Who won WW1 and WW2? Sweden and Switzerland did.

It's now 1pm. The event, I remind myself, was supposed to finish at noon, but Heinz seems happy that Roland has stayed around to talk. Heinz Nigg and Roland van Straaten went to the same school. I know that Heinz is in his mid-seventies so Roland must be too. Roland is a musician and plays the harmonica. He's also quite capable of sounding out a tune at the drop of a hat. Though a little earlier, when the rest of the group was still here, he turned to his phone to play for us a piece that he composed for harmonica and hurdy-gurdy. The instruments complement each other perfectly, and it was a pleasure to listen to the sound on a Sunday morning, whether in this garage or, as I can imagine, in one of the churches where Roland sometimes has gigs. It strikes me that the hurdy-gurdy sound would work particularly well in conjunction with the clock tower at Bern. Especially with the dancing bears and the jester doing their thing.


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Clearly Heinz and Roland come across as much younger than they actually are. Perhaps I do as well. That's the charm of a life in the Arts, it seems to keep you young, or should I say involved in life in a nurturing way. Heinz and I bumped into Roland at an opening at Cabaret Voltaire on Thursday evening, all of us sipping free wine. We mentioned this Sunday's event to him then, but Roland has told me that he subsequently spent a couple of hours on my On Kawara website. An essay he read featured Heinz's New York Diary from November 1974. Roland liked to read about Heinz's Manhattan experience because it was in the late Seventies that he himself spent a whole year in the Big Apple. He loved his time there, feeling more alive than he ever had either before or since. His wonderful time only came to an end there because he ran out of money.

Roland surprises me by saying a couple of other things. That he has a friend that might be interested in publishing my book
Chinese Illustrations of the Path to Immortality. However, I suspect that is a book that will never be published for one reason or another. David Bowie had his chance and he blew it. Roland further surprises me by asking what is going to happen to the second Date Painting. Well, he can have it, if it is of any interest to him. And he takes me up on my offer as he bids us farewell.


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The day is still young. I walk to Heinz's local church and set up the next shot. Of course, it's the clock face of the Bern Zytglogge I'm thinking of. But in the absence of that, this will have to do.


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Still in the churchyard, I try and capture the fact that the Alps are not far away, complete with snow covering. In other words, the bottom line of clouds is not a line of clouds! I plan to go to Lake Zurich next, and I am conscious that the air temperature might be 23 degrees under a blue sky, but that Lake Zurich will be full of cold water that has flowed down from those ice-white slopes.

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On my way in to Zurich, tramming along the course of the river, Heinz forwards me the following image that Roland has just sent him. Note the seriously hot action taking place in the bottom left corner.

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And elsewhere in the image? The cold, mountain water of Lake Zurich flows towards the suburb where Heinz lies napping in the warm, wooden-floored flat that he so understandably loves.

Who won the war? Nobody.

Who wins the peace? Switzerland does.


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I should be employed by the Swiss Tourist Board, I really should.

I am in the centre of the city now. The gilt-edged clocks beneath a couple of spires catch my eye. But I've feeling that it's the baby blue sky and oily blue water that the camera captures most emphatically.

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Here we are at the lake. Everyone else is here too. It is going to be a fine Alpine evening. Eight o'clock and still scintillatingly warm.

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On my way back to the tram, I take this next shot for Kate. She has noted the disappearance of campari from British culture. She needs to come to Zurich where the classics are not forgotten.

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Oh, and Roland has sent more images of his day, post-garage event, this time directly to me as well as Heinz. Unquestionably this is the pick of them. I can't help feeling it's the image of the day, though I can't make out the top word…

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There is a famous photo of a wide-eyed Einstein sticking out his tongue for/at the camera. In the above image, I think of Einstein looking out of a streetcar that's leaving Bern towards Zurich at the speed of light, and as he looks back at the Zytglogge he is delighted to observe that its big and small hands do not tick on. How to stop time? Move from point A to point B at the speed of light, always keeping an eye on the Date Painting you left for dead at point A.

Heinz and I started off by hoping that the second Date Painting would become a group effort. And in the end it has done. That is, if the anonymous graffiti artist, Walt Disney, me and Roland van Straaten can be called
a group.

Back at Heinz's flat, I help myself to a beer (to be replaced tomorrow without fail: true hospitality should never be abused). I flick through the thick book of Donald Judd's art writings but come to the conclusion that there is not a single word in the volume about On Kawara.

Judd's mate, Carl Andre, is well represented in the index though. That's the artist who, according to Nobu Fukui, thought that On Kawara had 'some funny ideas'.


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No doubt that's what many of my contemporaries think about me, if they think anything at all on the subject. That I've got some funny ideas. Surely I do. Live one day at time, but live it as if it's both your first and your last day. End of story.

E = m c2

Einstein = mass x concentration squared

Or:

Everything = Mickey Mouse squared x consciousness.

Or:

14. APR. 2024





NOTE

I wish to paint more Date Paintings outside the UK. If anyone has a room to offer for a day or two, then I would gladly make my way to that place at the speed of light, and a Date Painting experience will be had by one and all. Where all is a number between two and infinity.