On Kawara died on July 10, 2014. He was 81 years old. The artist’s death was somehow the final act of his art. It was not hurried. Kawara’s death realizes the ghostliness of the art itself – the otherworldliness of “I am still alive” is realized when it becomes on some level untrue, or at least ontologically more complicated.
Kawara’s work is about the fleeting aliveness of everything. The condition of the artist as he created his date paintings every day, or the transitory way that the language of the art works is the focus. The concept of what came to be called conceptual art is this: that at the baseline of every work of art there is this statement. I am still alive.
If everything else is washed out there’s always still this. That someone was there, someone was alive on that date. We date things. Dates are a demonstration of aliveness – you stop being “dated” after you die. The dates given next to a name – open ended if the person is alive, and closed if dead – indicate exactly the dates or years that a person was alive. To confirm that Kawara had died you might have gone to Wikipedia to see the artist’s entry – now somehow complete with the closing date.
These dates bracket the possibility of a life within a time. Kawara, who stubbornly recorded his dates of life, sent telegrams stating that he was alive, and tweeted that he was alive, somehow lives beyond the closing bracket of his own death. The date paintings, collectively called the Today Series, are a simple meditative reminder of time. “The project is designed to end the day he does,” said an undated essay on Phaidon’s website.
But I’d argue that the “end” of Kawara is not the end of the project. Actually, the end of Kawara’s life is like a realization of the completion of the Today Series. It couldn’t be completed until the artist’s life was over – because the work is the artist’s life. This meditative practice of painting the days simultaneously reduces the experience of living to a series of dates and forces a dramatic expansion. It signifies everything that is absent. In Kawara’s absence now we are left with everything rather than nothing.
When I first encountered the I GOT UP postcards at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, I was moved to tears. The cards aren’t even hand written. I GOT UP, is made with a stamp of some kind. On the front of the cards there are scenes from 1970’s New York City. The best-known cards are addressed to John Baldessari, but these aren’t the only cards Kawara sent. This is roughly the same time that Kawara started the I AM STILL ALIVE telegraphs – which became the I AM STILL ALIVE tweets.
Like the Today Series the postcards are moving in their absolute ontological intimacy. If you were to say one true thing what could you say? I AM ALIVE. I GOT UP. Those would be options. These are things that you could be reasonably sure would be understood. These works are also about intimacy, relationships, and communication – on a basic level this is what we say to each other over and over again. I am alive, I’m here, I understand.
Kawara’s Twitter bot lives on. As of this writing the @on_kawara account has tweeted “I AM STILL ALIVE #art” either two or three times since the artist’s death – the Twitter account relayed the message on the day of his death, and it’s hard to know based on the media reports if Kawara was actually still alive at the time of the tweet. Somehow, the Twitter bot that is repeating this statement is a perfect realization of Kawara’s work. It should be regarded as a new work – a piece that Kawara created that continues after his death.
Kawara’s Twitter bot continues to do what he did in life – even though he is no longer alive. It reminds us of being alive, and of what that means. It also raises what are perhaps even more interesting questions about what it means to be alive: in a bizarre way the Twitter bot is successfully passing a complicated Turing test. It is creating art. The Twitter bot says “I AM STILL ALIVE” and I believe it.