‘Time as we live it and as we create it embodies our progressive disappearance; we are at the same time alive and in the face of death–that is the mystery of all living beings. The consciousness of this inevitable disappearance broadens our experiences without diminishing our joy’
‘Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire’
JORGE LUIS BORGES, OTRAS INQUISICIONES, 1952
‘I took my body, my length, my existence as I have often said, as a sort of pictorial sacrifice and the essence, the embodiment of this procedure, creates a work much the same as we all create works with our lives. Every time that I add a number, everything changes. It is a sort of journey, if you will, where the steps are conscious each and every time, each step adds to the others, the weight of the duration of all these steps that you have lived’
In 1965, in a small studio in Warsaw, Roman Opalka committed his life to painting, by hand, the numbers from one to infinity. In doing so, he aspired to create a vehicle through which we might begin to comprehend the vast complexities of human existence. Across successive ‘details’, the artist charted – in numerical terms – the temporal evolution of his own lifespan. Starting in the top left hand corner, and finishing in the bottom right hand corner, he painstakingly inscribed his digits in left-to-right horizontal rows. From a distance, his works appear as shimmering abstract compositions; only up close is the obsessive rigor of their narrative revealed. Driven by a frustration towards contemporary artistic trends grounded in chance, automatism and experimentation, Opalka imposed strict creative limits upon his work with the hope of laying himself bare to the natural intervention of chaos. He believed that it was only by reducing our activity to a singular process – such as counting – that we might truly begin to glimpse something of the external forces that dictate our being. The present example belongs to the series of works on paper, or Cartes de voyages, that allowed Opalka to continue his project whilst away from his studio. With increasing opportunities for travel – a result of his growing international recognition – the artist would aim to complete his current canvas ‘detail’ in advance of any planned trip. Whilst abroad, he then continued the numerical sequence on sheets of A4 paper, working in black ink on a white ground – thus inverting the chromatic properties of his canvases.