Lodged within the contours of daily life and hidden between its repetitive rhythms are moments of exaltation, potential conduits to transcendence rooted in the ordinary rather than the astounding. Our attention to the trivial proceedings of life, as Andrew Epstein observed in his 2016 study of everyday poetics, Attention Equals Life, constitutes an ethical move—one that gives meaning to the mundane and in so doing, makes artists of us all. When the German conceptual artist Hanne Darboven began a series of computational and notational experiments with the Gregorian calendar in 1968, marking variations and repetitions within its ordered grids, she recognized that the thrum of the quotidian held enormous potential. Initially trained as a musician, Darboven primarily considered herself a writer,1 and her daily writing regimen became a catalyst for her systemic inscriptions of numbers and text on gridded paper. Presented as books or in immersive, monumental installations, these works functioned as records of both historical and personal events, such as in Ein Jahrhundert (A Century) (1971-5), which catalogued the daily passage of 100 years beginning with the number 00 and ending in 99.
With its dedication to repetition, logic, and language, Darboven’s programmatic practice resonated with those of contemporaries such as Sol Lewitt and Joseph Kosuth, but its attention to the simultaneity, or confluence, of personal experience and collective history warrants closer comparison to the serialist works of On Kawara. Like Darboven, Kawara often used the calendar as the basis for minimalist gestures inflected by his own subjective experience, most notably in the “Today” series, which comprises nearly 3,000 works made daily throughout 112 cities between January 4, 1966 until the artist’s death in 2014. Kawara’s “date paintings,” as they have come to be known, are representative of the artist’s methodological approach to the quotidian, indexing the trajectory of his life without divulging personal detail—a practice he veered away from in later series such as I Got Up, I Met, and I Went, produced between 1968 and 1979. In stamping the exact time the artist left his bed (I Got Up); typing out the names of everyone he encountered that day (I Met); and recording his daily travel routes on photocopied maps (I Went), Kawara produced works outside the categories of the traditional art-object, in what Benjamin Buchloh termed Conceptual art’s “aesthetics of administration”—a term that also gestures to the banal and bureaucratic modes by which Kawara produced these works.2
While Darboven and Kawara’s projects represent a particular subset of conceptualist approaches to the quotidian rooted in abstraction, the frank realism of Bernadette Mayer’s 1970s conceptual practice offers another route to the everyday sublime. Her installation Memory, shown in 1972 at Holly Solomon’s 98 Green Street loft, presented the artist’s daily experience in a straightforward, documentary mode while still adhering to conceptualist constraints. Each day for the month of July 1971, Mayer shot a roll of 35mm slide film and kept a diary of her activities. The slides were then printed as color snapshots and arranged chronologically in a massive grid on one wall of the gallery space, accompanied by a recording of Mayer reading aloud an edited version of her journal. Taken in an offhand, casual style, the photographs—totaling over 1100, varying in quality and composition—depict Mayer and her friends making art in Manhattan and taking trips to the country, intimate moments between Mayer and her lover, and her self-portraits in mirrors. Here, the everyday is filtered both through Mayer’s vantage point both as she lived it and as she remembered it later; because Mayer edited her diary entries after the images were printed, the project is inflected by a double remembering by the artist of her own impressions, thoughts, and dreams.
Mayer’s exhaustive account of one month in her life through text and image, in a manner almost filmic, appears now to anticipate contemporary artistic practice as well as contemporary developments in digital and social media; reviewing the exhibition in the Village Voice in 1972, the critic A.D. Coleman referred to the work as an “enormous accumulation of data.” More recently, contemporary artists such as Banu Cennetoğlu have presented such accumulations of data as aesthetic objects in their own right in works that mediate between public record and personal archive. In her 2019 solo exhibition at SculptureCenter, Cennetoğlu presented an abridged narrative of her life in a 128 hour-long moving-image installation, culled from personal files, documentary footage, and recorded clips of newsreels stored in the artist’s various personal hard drives and devices over 12 years.
As with the monumental installation of Memory in its initial form, the film, 1 January 1970 – 21 March 2018…, was, like its full 53-word title, too much to take in at once, unspooling as a portrait of the artist vis-à-vis her network of social interactions. Viewing the work from beach chairs installed in the cavernous space, visitors could witness the joys, heartbreaks, and banalities of Cennetoğlu’s life over the last decade: the birth of her daughter, landscapes shot from a moving car, the end of a relationship and the beginning of another, all distinctly seen and collected into a single narrative. An adjoining gallery displayed the artist’s various newspaper projects, 20.08.2010 (2010), 02.11.2011 (2011) and 04.09.2014 (2014)—leather-bound volumes of Turkish, Arabic, and British dailies, respectively, that were organized chronologically and reflected the political and social upheavals of daily life as reported by the media. At first glance, the works bore resemblance to Kawara’s One Million Years (1999), a two-volume artist book divided into Past (998,031 BC to 1969 AD) and Future (1993AD to 1,001,992 AD). While Kawara’s work lists individual years in columns in rows to dizzying effect, Cennetoğlu eschews this accounting-ledger style for the collected daily reportage of newspapers, that, when gathered together and subjected to comparison, begin to reveal motivations, biases, and aims. Presenting chronicles of the everyday in excess allows Cennetoğlu to uncover sparks of spirited humanism within an age of information.
By imposing chronology upon 1 January 1970 – 21 March 2018… and Memory, respectively, and presenting these works at grand scale, Mayer and Cennetoğlu underscore the ephemerality and incalculability of value of life’s discrete moments. The impossibility of registering either work in a single glance or even a single sitting suggests that the events of a day and the specific impressions and memories of one’s experiences cannot be leveled to fit the constraints of a medium, structure, or institution. Though their works are not defined solely by such self-imposed constraints, Mayer and Cennetoğlu, like Darboven and Kawara, invite the viewer to attend to the evanescence latent in the everyday that, in the words of Maurice Blanchot, return us to “existence in its very spontaneity.”3
- “I see myself as a writer, which I am, regardless of what other visual materials I may use. I am a writer first and a visual artist second” http://www.artnet.com/artists/hanne-darboven/
- Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962–1969: From the Aesthetics of Administration to the Critique of Institutions,” October Vol. 55 (Winter 1990), 105-143
- Maurice Blanchot, “Everyday Speech,” trans. Susan Hanson, Yale French Studies, No. 73 (1987), p. 13