Art Review: What We Can Do With One Million Years

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In a glass case that looks like a fish tank, a thick book rests propped into a wide “v.” The open-faced pages reveal a small-print list of consecutive years; a round speaker is embedded in the white platform on which the book sits. I listen to a recording of two narrators, a woman and man, taking turns reading aloud unfathomably futuristic dates: “…seven hundred thirty-five thousand, nine hundred thirty-eight…seven hundred thirty-five thousand, nine hundred thirty-nine…seven hundred thirty-five thousand, nine hundred forty…”

This is the late On Kawara’s One Million Years, featured in the Museum of Modern Art. The small but dense book on display serves a simple function: it lists the years between 998,031 BC to 1,001,992 AD. The purpose, as the plaque reads, is to “make viewers aware of their place in history and give the passage of time a kind of materiality.”

As I stand there listening to the narrators monotonously see-saw between consecutive six-digit years, I think about time; the piece fulfills its purpose. I realize, though, that One Million Years’ penetrating message, its bite, is lost on me as a Christian—and I’m not referring to the age-of-Earth debate.

Kawara, it seems, has a cynical view of time, which I believe can be transcended with a theological worldview. In the secular framework, One Million Years is challenging, or better put, concerning. The art evokes a feeling of insignificance; our existence is represented by a mere row of digits on a page. It may even conjecture a sense of existentialism, raising the question of whether our existence or work is significant. Arguably, One Million Years seems to discourage passion and investment in this world.

I’ll juxtapose Kawara’s postmodern art with a sermon. One Million Years causes me to think of a metaphor used by Francis Chan, bestselling author and former pastor. To describe time, Chan used a long white rope that stretches across the stage. “Let’s imagine this thing goes on forever,” he said. As is the case with One Million Years, it’s impossible to portray eternity with limited materials. Constraints aside, at the end of Chan’s white rope is a small piece of red tape. “This tape represents your life,” Chan said.

One Million Years manifests a similar theme, but more sophisticatedly. Regardless, the open book and the flimsy rope both help us to visualize the minuteness of our lifespans; we should put our existence in perspective. But Kawara doesn’t give us the reason why we should do that.

Chan’s Long String With Red Tape isn’t art, but he uses it as a tool to assert that our puny life actually matters. What we do during these red tape years, he said, will affect the rest of the rope. Many times, we focus on the temporary, a world that tempts us with comfort, sin, and fleshly desires. By deliberately giving in, we’re at risk to waste our eternity.

Rather, purposefully, we can steward our short time and serve God, investing in that eternity, our “one million [and many more] years.” Chan’s perspective raises the importance of our small lifespan; Kawara’s view seemingly devalues our life. We mustn’t act with carelessness, as though our life has no lasting significance or purpose. There’s too much at stake.

A final thought—if, when reflecting on One Million Years, we try to ponder eternity, it will be impossible, too abstract for us to grasp. Kawara, unintentionally, may cause us to consider God, who exists outside of time. This incomprehensibility may be what makes this piece so interesting, because pursuit of God and His mystery draws us into His awe-inducing presence. I see God in Kawara’s work, and fortunately so because God’s Being produces in us hope and purpose, not cynicism and despair.

CultureAdrienne Scrima