2010 Essay

Time in the Art of Roman Opalka, Tatsuo Miyajima, and Rene Rietmeyer

In: Kronoscope: Journal for the Research of Time 10, Canada, 2010

By Karlyn De Jongh


In the history of art, time has seldom been taken as the artistic topic itself. It has been sporadically present for single artists, such as Claude Monet with his series of the Cathedral in Rouen, France, where he painted the façade on different times of the day, or within movements like Futurism, where speed and change were highlighted. Only since several decades, time has become more explicit as a topic in art. In this article, time is addressed by discussing the work and thoughts of three contemporary artists who have taken this concept as a motive in their work: Roman Opalka, Tatsuo Miyajima and Rene Rietmeyer. It becomes clear that time in art is strongly related to life-time and is concerned with creating an awareness about our own existence within time as an ongoing, continuing entity.


As a curator for the project Personal Structures: Time Space Existence I organize exhibitions and symposia and publish texts about the concepts time, space and existence together with my colleague Sarah Gold. The project was initiated in 2002 by the Dutch artist Rene Rietmeyer, who defined these concepts as essential themes for his own art. He initiated the project to have influence on the developments in contemporary art, by creating something that is larger than the artist himself. Personal Structures became a platform for artists to communicate and develop themselves and takes shape in the form of exhibitions, symposia and publications. Specifically on the concept ‘time’, was our symposium in Amsterdam in June 2007 – the first out of an ongoing series. In organizing these events, it is our goal to present different artists, from various generations and parts of the world. Each of these artists deals with these concepts in his or her own way, and demonstrates different ways to think about them. To present these opinions together shows the differences and allows the viewer to compare their stances and create an opinion of his own.

Even though the concepts time, space and existence have been a point of discussion for many years in philosophy, physics and other fields of study, art seems to have stayed ‘behind’. It seems that there have been artists’ movements for which time and space were an issue, such as in Futurism or Cubism, but they do not seem to have been the primary concern. Within artists’ movements there have been single artists who seem to have been concerned with time. The impressionist artist Claude Monet for example, painted a series of works with the façade of the Cathedral in Rouen, France. Each of these paintings shows this façade at a different hour of a day and at different times of the year. But also hear seems to count: time was an element in these paintings, but it does not seem to have been the specific topic of the work. By these artists the thoughts about time and space are assumptions. Because of the further knowledge we gained over the years about a concept as time, it is likely that we see these paintings of Monet differently now than they may have been seen at the moment they were painted. Through the developed knowledge of the viewer, concepts that may have been unconsciously brought in by the artist, are now recognized as being present. And still: working with this Personal Structures project, I meet artists who do not seem to have ‘thoughts’ about what they have been doing: they ‘simply’ made the work. The ‘thoughts’ are assumptions and read into the work by others, Art Historians for example. There are, however, artists who do have time as their main topic, Roman Opalka for example, whose work and thoughts will be discussed in this article. It is almost impossible not to notice that the work he has made for the past 45 years has been about time passing.

That it is not so easy to formulate a stance towards these concepts and to present philosophical thoughts in an artwork also becomes clear when looking at the age at which artists who do work with such thematic in their work, have developed their practice and thoughts. For all three concepts addressed in the Personal Structures project, it seems that many artists go through a period of search to come to a point where they can discuss these concepts in their work. The thoughts about these concepts take time to develop; they are not easy to discuss nor to form a personal opinion and present it in a 2- or 3-dimensional object. One needs life-experience, one needs time to develop one’s thoughts about time.

In this article it is my goal to explore the subject of time in art today. Within contemporary art there are many artists who have sincerely thought about time or refer to it in their art practice. However, it seems that only very few have taken this concept as the main focus or motive in their work. The subject is so complex and personal that no artist approaches time in the same manner. I will highlight a few. An artist who seems to have been occupied with time is the Japanese artist On Kawara. On Kawara’s series of work manifest his existence, marking a day in his life. His Today Series – also called Date paintings – is probably the most well known: a monochrome ground on which month, day and year are painted in letters and figures. On Kawara started this series in 1966 and continues to paint such works until the present time. To say something about On Kawara’s concept of time is, however, problematic: the artist himself seems to have never published any personal written statements. The only statements he has given are his artworks. Therefore, I prefer to not further discuss his work here, everything I say remains a ‘guess’.

Another artist who has been dealing with time is the Taiwanese performance artist Tehching Hsieh. After growing up in Taiwan, he came to the USA in 1974, where he stayed as an illegal immigrant for fourteen years, until he was granted amnesty in 1988. During this period, Hsieh made five One Year Performances in and around his studio in New York City, and started hisThirteen Year Plan. His performances were based on giving himself restrictions, such as not allowing himself to look for shelter and therefore living outside in New York for one year, or staying one year in a cage, not allowing himself to read or talk to anyone. Using long durations, Tehching Hsieh’s performances centralize time as the main theme of his work, making art and life simultaneous. Time is understood by him as a life sentence: life is passing time. Since the millennium, released from the restrictions of the Thirteen Year Plan, Hsieh is no longer doing art. His performances were so extreme, that for him it became too much on his life, it took too much power and he stopped actively making art performances. As he told me, now he is “doing life.”

Two artists who, although less specific, address time in their work are the Americans Max Cole, whose line paintings are concerned with infinity, and Joseph Kosuth whose work is about meaning, but for example made a work called 1 and 5 Clocks. Their work addresses time only from a specific angle, but they did speak about it. In the panel discussion of our Personal StructuresTIME symposium in Amsterdam, for instance, Kosuth stated the following: “On first thought I would assume 'time' to be, intrinsically, devoid of meaning. At best it would be a flow which provides the dynamic within which meanings are formed for individuals or society. But for itself, it has no 'meaning' per se.” Not only more established artists, but also amongst young artists the concept of time is represented in art: examples are the Belgian artist Kris Martin who addresses time using found objects and the Japanese performance artist Heartbeat-Sasaki who draws life-time on the beat of the heart. Each of these artists is so specific, that their work does not overlap, but approaches time in a very personal manner. They cannot be linked directly to each other. I have chosen not to focus on these artists in this essay, but rather on three other artists who have extensively spoken about time and have also discussed several aspects of the ‘matter’, who have extensively proven for many years that for them their work specifically addresses time.

What the work of the previously mentioned artists does make clear, is the following: In art, time seems to be discussed mainly in its relation to life, to human life and in particular our own personal existence. It is the creation of an awareness of time and of our lifetime within time that seems important to many artists. This is not only something they want for the viewer of their work, but also for themselves. And this means: you have to live your thoughts, you have to realize them in reality, in a realistic manner. To be able to make an object, whether it is a painting or a 3-dimensional installation, that contains your thoughts, you have to live them: Thoughts and life are integrated; they are the same. A good artist lives his thoughts and lives his art. Like the Austrian artist Arnulf Rainer said: “For 24 hours a day, my principal occupation consists of working as an artist, discussing with myself, and thinking about money that is to be spent. Earlier on I also did what others consider to be living.” And he adds in an interview with me: “Life, as it appears, is a pale reflection of art, of artistic creation.” Rainer’s words show an awareness that one only has 24 hours a day and that you have to set your priorities towards what you do with these 24 hours: he does with his time what he considers to be most important. It is an awareness of the limited amount of life-time.

It is this desire to demonstrate time, the passing of time, and to create an awareness about time, that is present in the works by three contemporary artists: Roman Opalka, Tatsuo Miyajima and Rene Rietmeyer. All three have been sincerely occupied with time for a number of years. In this article, I will show their perspectives on time. I will do this by discussing their work. I have chosen these three artists, because of their differences: they are from different parts of the world and different generations. On the other hand, there are similarities that may show a general tendency in thinking about time in art. In this article, I will describe their work, their thoughts about time and how they realize these thoughts in their lives. The thoughts presented here are based on the personal contact I had with them or what they said in the symposia I organized. The three artists represent their thoughts in any of their works. That is why the images selected, are mainly to show how each artist chose to represent time in their art; each work may highlight a certain aspect, but the overall meaning is the same. The artworks referred to are examples for the general body of work.

1. Roman Opalka: A monument to nonsense

Roman Opalka (* 1931, France) is a Polish artist, who has spent the past 45 years painting the progression of numbers from 1 to infinity. Painting these numbers, Opalka realizes a program with which he portrays time passing. There is only one date: the beginning, 1965. In this year the artist started painting numbers 1, 2, 3… on a canvas, using white paint. In the symposiumPersonal Structures: TIME in Amsterdam in 2007, Opalka says the following: “All the machines we know of, the clocks, “tell” the time, but I “show” time, and that is something entirely different. This is the painterly solution to the question concerning what a visualization of time might be. In this sense numbers accomplish best what we up to this day may show of time in the sense of progression, in the sense of dynamics, in the sense of the unity and the expansion of time.”1 Opalka starts each picture from the top left corner and paints from left to right, ending at the bottom right. So far, it has resulted in approximately 230 paintings, which he calls Details.2 Opalka’s paintings are, however, not solely a progression of numbers on a canvas. There are several aspects of Opalka’s work that are important in order to understand his interpretation of time.

First of all, there is the background color of the canvas. While the numbers from 1 to infinity are painted in white, the background color changed gradually over time. This change was part of the concept: Opalka started with a black background, adding 1% white for each background in the years to come. The adding of 1% white was based on an estimate: at that time, men who were born in his region were estimated to become 75 years of age. Adding 1% of white with each painting meant that Opalka would paint white numbers on a white background by the time of his 75th birthday. Now it is 2010. Opalka turned 79 this year and will be painting white on white until the day he dies.

While painting his numbers, Opalka simultaneously records the numbers on a tape recorder in a monotonous voice. He speaks the numbers in the Polish language, which is his mother tongue. Similar to English, the pronunciation of numbers in Polish is “logical”: the numbers come in order of appearance; 85 is eighty-five and not, like in German funf-und-achtzig or in French quatre-vingt-cinq. When displaying his paintings in an exhibition, the sound of his voice fills the room and allows for a contemplative atmosphere. The audio used for exhibitions, is a mix between different recordings of spoken numbers; you hear numbers in a random order, referring to what happens in your head when reflecting. The artist chose this combination of an audio and visual display of time, because it manifests two different times simultaneously: the linear time of the painting and the not-linear time that is going back and forth in your head, reflecting – for example while looking at the painting.

Opalka not only shows ‘time passing’, but also portrays himself: the passing of his life-time. A camera installation stands in front of the canvas he is painting. After each day of working in his studio, the artist takes his own picture. The photos show the artist’s face, frontal, wearing the same type of white shirt and the same haircut. On the background is his painting, showing the numbers he just added. Keeping the visual aspects of the photographs the same, the effects of time in his face become clearer. When hanging the photographs, Opalka takes his own height as a reference, keeping in mind the change of his height over time – from 177 to 170 cm. The photographs show the stages in the artist’s life. Even though these photographs are called Auto-portraits, they are, however, not only self-portraits: “I do not tell about my life, I make life manifest.”

Roman Opalka came to his concept in 1964, at the age of 33, when he was waiting for his wife in Café Bristol in Warsaw, Poland. She was two hours late and he had time to think about his future. The artist was already quite well-known at that time, but was struggling with his work. He wondered how time could be painted. From 1959 to 1963, he was painting his ‘hourglass paintings’ called Chronomes: white dots on a black background. The problem for him about these paintings was, that it was difficult to determine where the beginning is and where the end: he says that it could not be measured or determined. For theseChronomes, there was no direction, while time for Opalka does have a direction. To that came the question of ‘what is left to do?’, which was the basis of a popular discussion concerning the end of art. At that point in the 1960s, painting seemed to have dealt with all possible topics. Opalka, however, realized no artist had dedicated his work to time. In this way, he found a way out of the impasse that painting seemed to be in – and, as he claims, he would be the last Avant Garde artist.3 The moment he was waiting for his wife, the idea occurred to him that each dot could be a number. With this new concept, using numbers to show time, his problems were solved: it was possible to point a beginning, his number 1, there would be a direction, and there would be no end.

From 1 to infinity

Opalka’s notion of time developed like the work. The artist said he understands time as well as life better, although even today he admits he doesn’t really understand it. But Opalka adds the question: “How can you understand a thing as stupid as our existence? Maybe that sounds too brutal, but this existence makes no sense, it is nonsense. And this nonsense is my work.” For Opalka, time makes no sense and, although we keep trying, we cannot understand it.

After the moment in Café Bristol, it took Opalka 7 months to start with the realization of his concept and paint the first number, number 1. It may seem such a simple movement, just a small line, but this small line had far reaching consequences: painting numbers from 1 to infinity for the rest of his life, doing nothing other artistically than painting these numbers. This awareness that this would be his life, was very strong: “I already knew what this concept was the beginning of. I knew it would continue throughout my entire life.” After a few weeks, the artist developed a heart problem because the tension was so unbelievably strong. He adds that this tension was “not only because it was so good, but because of the sacrifice it meant I would have to make a life long for this work.” He spent one month in hospital because of it. And even today, recalling this experience, it affects Opalka.

But Opalka chose to start living out his program. The awareness of painting numbers for the rest of his life, without purpose, did not keep him from continuing. He didn’t want to leave it. For him, the sense of his program lies in its nonsense: not only the nonsense of art, but the nonsense of existence and time. His work is as he says “a monument to nonsense.” As he told Sarah Gold and me when we visited him in France for our Art Project Roman Opalka: TIME PASSING: “Our life has no meaning. My work is the nonsense that manifests this. It is comparable with the German drinking a glass of liquor, or the Frenchman having a glass of wine: life has no meaning. The German and the Frenchman are right. They are also philosophers, but then they have to show it. That is almost hypocritical, but I think they should show it. The consequences are very different when you very seriously have these thoughts that our existence has no sense.”4 The wish to make this ‘nonsense’ manifest, may come from the Polish mentality of that time. Poland was a socialist country. “It was a Marxist world back then. To work was the goal. Work was like a certain religion; it was something positive for the economy and for the people. This example, that is my work, is such a big nonsense… I can tell to no worker that what he does, makes no sense at all. He needs to earn money. The nonsense of my work has never been so strong with regard to production, it is a productive mentality: I had to create something. But I made something that has no sense: I could not eat or sell it.”5 This socialist climate in which Poland found itself during that time was important in the development of Opalka’s concept. Opalka said that there were good galleries in Poland, galleries that were not influenced by the idea that “time is money”; there was total freedom without commerce. The artist sees this as his chance. Because of the lack of a commercial atmosphere, Opalka claims to have been freer than artists living in other parts of the world, and names On Kawara who started his Today series around the same moment as Opalka started his program as an example. The ‘nonsense’ of living out a program for showing time, has much to do with Opalka’s interpretation of time.

Time, for Opalka, moves continuously in a linear way. There is no repetition. As Opalka told me in a meeting in Venice in April 2010, he cannot even repeat the numbers on his tape recorder. Wishing to remake a tape he lost in which he spoke 1,000,000, it appeared impossible because his voice had changed so much over time. Opalka compares it to a river: “With my work it is something like a river, but the river has only one direction.” This continuous movement goes on into infinity.

But although time is infinite, Opalka does seem to point out a beginning. Time does not seem to be something that has always been there; it is something that continues to exist. Maybe this idea of a beginning is Opalka’s religious residue. He does, however, speak about a Big Bang and even remarks that there may have been other Big Bangs: where the beginning lies, is unclear. In reference to this the artist has described himself as an agnostic and admitted that he ‘just’ doesn’t know. With respect to his paintings has he described his number 1 as a Big Bang. But 1 is not only the beginning: according to Opalka, the 1 is everything, a unit. The artist mentions that he could have stopped painting after marking the 1, because it contains all the other numbers, just like each Detail contains his entire concept. It is here where all the dynamics exert their power, like the number of a birth date. Opalka adds that the actual birth is administrative information and that we have to keep in mind that the real beginning is in the concept, which date is difficult to determine.

Time may be going infinitely in one direction, but the experience of time can go in all sorts of direction. This is what he manifests with his spoken numbers. To explain this, Opalka takes the example from his favorite philosopher Martin Heidegger in his book Feldweg [Pathway] from 1949, and compares this aspect of time with going for a walk. Influenced by this book, the artist is of the opinion that: “If you go for a walk, you go in one direction, but your head goes all directions.” What happens in the interim time, the relativity of how long an hour or two hours can last, cannot be measured. The mind goes in all directions. “What has happened in his head during his walk, that is time. The steps are already there, but in between the steps that we take, is our life, our thoughts.” Opalka describes this as being an entirely phenomenal emotion. This way of thinking about time is part of Opalka’s program. With this example of going for a stroll, Opalka shows a different understanding of time, one that is not programmed, but has a rhythm of its own. As he says, this aspect of time is both demonstrated by the spoken Polish numbers, but also of concern for his paintings: “The works are not all the same, they are different. This is also the rhythm of my existence: sometimes I do not sleep, at other times I do sleep, sometimes I sleep more, or less. This is the best: not to program yourself like that. In my work I have created a program, but this program has a lot to do with this imprecise time span.”6

Being toward death

Time for Opalka is ongoing, linear and separate from life itself. His work shows the progression of numbers from 1 to infinity. Even though his paintings portray time as an independently moving entity, on the other hand the work addresses the time we find ourselves in. They are intertwined with the artist’s life. Opalka has stated that he paints his existence: “I have chosen my life as the time period, as the emotion facing what would be time. This is the work of someone freer than any man in history has ever been before. He reflects upon his existence and thus, it is also an echo of philosophy, for example, Heidegger, the ‘existence’ is in my work.” As Opalka sees a direction of time, he sees a direction of life as well. In this quote, he refers to Heidegger’s Being-toward-death [Sein zum Tode]. Opalka seems to understand himself as well as his work as a Being-toward-death. “Heidegger’s Feldweg, his walk on the path through the field, that is like my work. I walk further into the landscape, the horizon goes on, with me… This is almost like what I do in my work. Being-toward-death means that life is determined by the awareness of death.” Opalka remarks that without knowing that we will die, we cannot live a real life. With this he means that only by knowing that we will die, there is an emotion towards life. Without it, life would be monotony without a goal. This does not mean that death is the goal of life; it means that Opalka considers life to be without purpose, but that we at the same time should enjoy it, because it is the only life we do have.

Even though Opalka describes himself as an agnostic, he admits that he ‘almost’ sees an element of Christianity in his work. This element lies in Opalka’s sacrifice. Living out his program, the artist sees as a sacrifice, a sacrifice to mankind and to art to show the passing of time. He has been painting his numbers for 45 years, every day. Now he is older, he is not physically strong enough to paint more than one hour a day. Not being able to do very much anymore, to spend the time that he can do something on continuing his program, he sees as sacrifice and he compares it with doing impositions. Opalka sacrificed his life-time to portray time. This also means that Opalka’s life is so intertwined with his work, that he has compared this to the story of Jesus Christ and how He sacrificed his body: “this is my body.” His body is always being there in the work; each painting is like a mirror, a reflection of himself. Opalka’s paintings are his life; the work of Opalka is finished, when he himself is dead. The artist mentioned this several times: “In the work the concern […] is for the completion of existence. This is a very special situation inherent to its construction. The work is always sufficiently there.” This means that Opalka does not have to complete a canvas in order for a work to be ‘finished’. Being 79 years old, he now paints approximately 1 hour a day, but the work is as it is. One could even say that when Opalka painted the first number, the one, the l’unité, everything was there already. About this beginning, the artist remarks: “Of course, this was only in the sense of a concept. In order for it to be a work I had to make this sacrifice, otherwise it would only have had a logical basis, but would not be a work. My work simply contains all aspects of existence. My work is always virtually complete. It is no problem, not to finish a picture. I have always completed the work. Like my life, it is always complete.”

As humans, we live only a short moment in time. But also with regard to life, Opalka speaks about infinity. The artist mentioned that: “I cannot know when I will die. I know that I will die, but the moment when it happens is so infinite because no one will know that he has died. […] In this sense we are eternal.” The knowledge of the moment of death is important here. We know that we will die, but we can never know that we have died: the artist makes a combination between his Being-toward-death and his idea that life, like time, is infinite. Death seems to be a difficult subject for Opalka: on the one hand he sees it as a liberation of living out his program, on the other hand he fears it like anyone else.

2. Tatsuo Miyajima: time is life

Also in other parts of the world and by the next generation of artists there are serious and sincere attempts being made to address time in art, such as in the work of the Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima (* 1957, Japan). For Miyajima, time is life. His goal is to raise an awareness of what he calls ‘The Life’, an umbrella concept for time and existence. Although he addresses ‘The Life’, Miyajima focuses on time as the primary motive to explain it. Miyajima clarifies: “Why I did not explain ‘The Life’ directly is because at the beginning of my performance period, I just did not have a clear mind for it, and until 1995 I was just too immature to use words and also too inexperienced to explain it. Like many others before me have also done, it means that it is easier to explain ‘Time’ as a concept than ‘The Life’.” Miyajima’s ‘The Life’ is an English translation of the Japanese ‘Inochi’, which does not only refer to each person’s life, but to that of animals, stones and plants as well. Miyajima explains that in the Eastern world ‘The Life’ is taken as a totality; it refers to everything that has life. In the past few years, he has started to try explaining ‘The Life’ directly, while holding on to his notion of time.

Tatsuo Miyajima has been making works that address time since the 1980s. Just like Opalka, Miyajima uses numbers to express movement and change. According to him, the counting numbers are universally understandable and that’s why he uses them. Miyajima’s understanding of ‘The Life’ is represented by the numbers on his LEDs. He says that counting gives you the feeling of ‘the passage of time’, a ‘rhythm by counting speed’. Each LED in Miyajima’s installations has its predetermined speed. The combination of LEDs in an installation – sometimes 1000 different lights – show different speeds. Each countdown or enumeration of numbers seems to stand for one life, for the life of the individual. The variations simulate the differences between individual lives: some people’s lives can last 100 years; others die young.

Miyajima’s body of work is divers: he started out with performances, continued to making sculptural installations, public projects and 2- and 3-dimentsional wall installations. Despite the variations, now his work is often easily recognizable as being made by Miyajima. They have in common that they involve counting numbers. Most works are made with LEDs of numbers that count from 1 to 9 or from 9 to 1; zero is not shown. Instead of showing the zero, there is a moment of darkness on the moment zero is ‘expected’ to appear. It is Miyajima’s way to emphasize this moment of zero. “One other thing […] is to emphasize the deleting of the zero. For example, 9, 8, 7,… the numbers go down in order. Zero will arrive naturally by prediction. At the moment the zero should come, it gets dark (no number). So, you can come up with the thought why there are no zeros. There, you can think about zero. So, the numbers go down in order and go up in order, that is very important and, in fact, that is my expression to let the audience consciously experience ’Ku’.” In particular towards his work Counter Void from 2003 that was installed in Tokyo’s Roppongi area, Miyajima explains the absence of zero, ‘Ku’ as death: “Originally, Roppongi is town of night and filled with desire even more than daytime. I dare to bring 'Death' to such night in Roppongi, bring 'Darkness' to the center of mass media. The artwork will create the black hole of 'Death' and 'Darkness', and offers opportunity to think of 'Deeper Life'.”

The counting numbers represent ‘The Life’. All moments in the counting are included: the numbers 1 to 9 as well as the zero. The numbers 1 to 9, the visible part, stand for life. Zero is the counterpart of ‘The Life’. For Miyajima, zero is the moment of death; death is ‘not’ visible: there is a moment of darkness when zero is expected to appear. Nothingness is only one of zero’s meanings in Miyajima’s work. The other meaning is vast quantity. With ‘vast quantity’ the artist indicates the possibility of something in the future, that there is a potential. This means that the moment of darkness is also the possibility of a new beginning, the possibility for a new life to be born. Or: that there is a tremendous mass we cannot see but is there, we cannot see but there are many. Zero meaning both the nothing and the plus, Miyajima says to go back to its original meaning. In a talk at TATE Modern in London on 24 April 2010, Miyajima explains death as a state of sleep: it is a preparation for the next birth. ‘The Life’ includes both life and death. In his work this is portrayed as the visible and the not visible; it includes the numbers from 0 to 9. But it does not stop after zero. Zero means potential; ‘The Life’ continues after death and keeps repeating. ‘The Life’ is like a waved line, the recurrence again and again.

That ‘time is life’ means that we should not deal with it as a concept, but that it has to be taken realistically. As he indicated in an interview with me: “My work […] does not indicate ‘Time’, ‘Space’ and ‘The Life’; my works try to live with ‘Time’, ‘Space’ and ‘The Life’.” For Miyajima, time and life are not concepts, but they exist and are real. This means that Miyajima does not proclaim a theory about time. The work is made to give people the opportunity to think about how to live their life. He leaves it open, to give everyone the opportunity to fill it in for themselves. He does, however, have his personal interpretation of time. In 1987, the artist created three central concepts, which he does not seem to question: 1. keep changing; 2. continue forever; 3. connect with everything. Even though the first two may seem inseparable for a Western person, Miyajima explicitly remarks that in Eastern theory ‘Continue forever’ and ‘Keep changing’ are not the same. Together, the three concepts indicate ‘The Life’.

Three concepts

Each LED in Miyajima’s works keeps changing. Miyajima remarks: “Everything keeps changing, life keeps changing… […] Even ‘keep changing’ is constantly changing.” The LEDs count in order 1, 2, 3,… or 9, 8, 7,… The next number in the sequence is predictable. When the numbers change in another sequence, for example like this 1, 5, 10,…, Miyajima feels they are ‘jumping’ rather than changing. When counting backward 9, 8, 7,… the numbers go down in order and zero will arrive naturally by prediction. At the moment the zero should come, it gets dark, there is no number. This is different than expected; in this way, the moment of the zero is emphasized and the viewer is triggered to think about this moment and the meaning of zero. After this dark moment of zero, the counting starts all over again. It keeps on going and continues forever.

The idea that everything keeps changing is an important element of Miyajima’s idea that ‘The Life’ continues forever. “What continues forever changes ‘The Life’, which is, to be born and to die. Those changes and the process of changing, continue forever. ’The Life’ is forever, changing all the time, also death and come again, to be reborn. But to the world, ‘The Life’ appears the same. They have different faces, but ‘The Life’ is the same.” This ‘forever’ has nothing to do with the permanency, which to the artist is the case in Western theory. There may be a permanency in ‘continue forever’, as it does continue forever, but it does not remain unchanged. In the Eastern world the thought is that a ‘shape keeps changing by movement and that continues forever’. The movement is eternal. Miyajima adds: “‘Permanent‘, we use it, but one day we humans, or life, will die out. ‘Changing by movement’ does not die out.”

The third of Miyajima’s concepts ‘connect with everything’ is often visualized in the combination of LEDs as well as in the use of technical and natural materials in one artwork, such as in his Pile Up Life project where LEDs are connected by mud.7 In Miyajima’s installations there is hardly ever just one counting LED. But even this one LED shows the unity of numbers: the number 8 is digitally constructed out of seven parts, lines. By putting these seven parts on and off, all numbers can be created: 8 without its left two lines creates 3, without the top right corner it is 6. Miyajima explains: “In fact, the number 8 contains all numbers. It shows one is many and many is one. One human is the same person, but the human character changes many times (many). But it is just one human life (one). ‘The Life’ is one form (one). That one life changes many times (many). The number 8 contains all these images.” In this way, a counting LED is a unity or whole that contains everything: life, the passing of life-time through the counting numbers and death.

The awareness of time: Art in You

Although the three concepts are general, Miyajima describes another concept that is specific and aims to address each viewer: ‘Art in You’. With ‘Art in You’ the artist tries to raise an awareness about ‘The Life’ by confronting the viewer with himself. Miyajima explains: “My concept ‘Art in You’ is that the work uses a mirror, which projects the inside of the body of the audience and they, the audience, discover the art inside of themselves. They notice ‘the Art’ which they had already in them. My artwork is the device for the audience to take notice of ‘their Art’. Otherwise, without having any background knowledge of it, we will not be moved by seeing artwork coming from a completely different culture, language or religion.” Miyajima seems to present this mirror mainly by reacting on events that happen in the world: Pile Up Life, for example, addresses natural disasters and allowed the viewer to participate by selecting a counting speed for one LED. This focus on each viewer and allowing him to select this speed seems to connect with what Miyajima calls “personal time”. This personal time is the experience of time: an event feels long or short depending on your situation. This to Miyajima is the main understanding of time. He says that: “‘Time’ is definitely a personal thing. The Time concept [which] began in Greenwich in 1884 [was] the conceptual interpretation of a new modernism. It is based on the universe and an impersonal general theory. Essentially, ‘Time’ is the same as an individual’s death. It should be very personal. Individual death exists in an infinite variety of distinctions. One is not the same as others.”

3. Rene Rietmeyer: proof of existence

Rene Rietmeyer (* 1957, Netherlands) creates 3-dimensional wall objects. His so-called Boxes can be presented single, but more often they are hung in installations of various numbers of items. With his Boxes, the artist expresses himself in relation to his surroundings, in a specific time and space. The work is abstract: Rietmeyer presents his relationship to a certain experience in his life in color, material, texture, form, composition, size etc. Visual beauty is not an issue for him. Important is whether these visual elements fit to the experience; it’s about the atmosphere they create. Bold, large, firm and powerful is Rietmeyer’s impression of Joseph Kosuth when he met him in Rome, Italy, in 2008 and his Boxes are consequential. “Whether my works will be attractive or not, depends solely upon the atmosphere they should create. […] My objects are supposed to mirror my thoughts concerning the subject and thereby, at the same time, also say something about me, regardless whether the result is aesthetically attractive or not.”8That viewers might consider a work beautiful, when it is possibly not seen as such by Rietmeyer – or the other way around – demonstrates the subjective, personal character of the work. “The emotionality and subjectivity of my concept are an expression of my own existence and personality. I create an atmosphere that mirrors my very personal subjective thoughts about the subject.” The Boxes ‘contain’ Rietmeyer’s thoughts and express the experience of a specific region or – like in his portrait of Joseph Kosuth – a person he met at a certain place and time. The artist adds: “That ‘same’ experience at another moment in time, the creation and execution of the series shortly after or much later, would unavoidably lead to a different result.”

As the initiator of the project Personal Structures: Time Space Existence, Rietmeyer’s work is concerned with time, space and existence and does not address time in a direct way. Time is mainly present in his work as (the creation of) an awareness of the passing of time. Like Opalka, Rietmeyer emphasizes the subjective character of his work: it is about his thoughts, his emotions, his awareness, the passing of his time and the space that is surrounding him. In the work, Rietmeyer is most concerned with the passing of his own life-time: “Ultimately, my work is nothing other than the proof of my existence.” Rietmeyer seems similar to Opalka in this idea that the work is equal to his body, his life. And also for Rietmeyer it is important to create this awareness that time is passing in others. The artist initiated the Personal Structures project to widen his reach of creating this awareness, and show diversity by giving the spectator the opportunity to not only look at his work, but to that of artists such as Opalka and Miyajima and many others, too. A dialogue with the work is supposed to heighten the spectator’s own awareness of his own existence as part of this world, and this counts for the artist himself as well: you have to keep encountering yourself in a fresh way. “[The work] is an encounter with myself, with me as a person, with my past and my reflections.”

This awareness about ourselves within time is described by the artist as follows: “In general, awareness seems to be a combination of observation and the conscious reflection upon the observation, with the capability of handling language and language itself, as tools. The capability to be aware seems to be dependent on the development stage of each specific human brain. Partly I educated my brain, but mainly I am just lucky that I am able to be aware of, to observe my own, at least for me, precious existence.” Communication with others is very important to Rietmeyer in this respect. According to the artist, it was communication which mainly helped us to develop. He says: “We communicate not only through spoken language and writing, music and gestures, but also through our paintings and objects. Humans express their thoughts in the paintings and objects they make. These thoughts and the knowledge expressed create an awareness about us as human beings, and the way in which we are able to communicate.” In the decisions about the visual appearance of his work, the artist’s own emotional and intellectual choices are influenced by knowledge of the past; Rietmeyer let's himself be influenced by an awareness of what others have said about color or shape, for example. Because his work is about the creation of an atmosphere and triggers a dialogue, it is important to know how others respond to certain colors. Although it remains a subjective feeling, most people would pair red with passion and grey with quietness, rather than the other way around. At the symposium TIME, Rietmeyer explains this along his work Life: “For these Boxes I choose the color red because it is human and has a strong presence. I chose the size, compact; and I chose the material, ceramic, because ceramic lasts a long time, longer than wood. Within all their formal elements, with all their subjectivity, these ceramic Boxes represent all my thoughts, me as a total entity. These Boxes, Life, are proof of my existence. They capture my awareness of the time I could not witness myself as well as my personally experienced Life-Time. And, after I myself have died, each Life Box will continue to exist and communicate.” Not only the response to color, also the knowledge about how these elements have been used in the past is important. It is also the historical connotation that plays a role. “So when I choose a color, the choice is always a combination of my momentary emotional condition and of the knowledge I gained about human thoughts made in the past. […] With my consciously taken choices, I express myself and my awareness about human history and the history before humans, my awareness about Time.”

Expressing the present

Rietmeyer’s work is the expression of a moment in time. He says that before making the work, before the actual execution, many decisions regarding the visual appearance have already been made. This is mainly due to the fact that the artist makes the work sometimes months after the experience: there is always a moment between the experience and the visualization of the experience into an object. Because the Boxes depend on emotions and thoughts, the situation in which they were painted is of great influence. This situation is an accumulation of all the aspects that were present at the specific time and location where the work is made: whether it was hot or cold, his financial situation, or physical state. Rietmeyer says that this situation is momentary: “There is a combination of predetermined choices and the situation during the actual making of the work. This combination is an expression of the present.” Rietmeyer reacts in a certain way upon what happens in life. Series, such as the Boxes titled Miami Beach, have been made for several years while he had his studio there. Learning new things and knowing more about the area during the passage of time, affected the experience of Miami Beach resulting each time in a new visualization. Rietmeyer’s work is a reflection of his experiences. “My knowledge is created by influences, input, from the world around me, in combination with my own intellectual capabilities and is therefore a very personal knowledge. I am aware that my so-called knowledge is very subjective and limited, but it is all I have as a tool in order to act and to create. Staying open and being open, to and for other people, makes sure that I stay flexible, keep learning and have a chance to communicate honest and sincere.” Rather than responding to what is happening generally in the world, Rietmeyer focuses on their effects on his own life. Rietmeyer is straightforward about this: “My objects become what they become. Always. Each Box I make is a honest result of me, my existence at that moment in time and space, an object from that specific time in my life.”

The focus on his life-time, for Rietmeyer, means an awareness of his position within time. “With this position within time, I mean: knowledge about the thoughts of other artists I communicate with, but also the know­ledge about thoughts and works of artists who are already dead. Knowledge about us, mankind, about the world and the space and time we live in. The thoughts standing at the origin of the intellectual decision about how to construct my work come from somewhere. That origin is to be found in the time that has passed.” Expressing all these thoughts, means that Rietmeyer not only expresses the time he experienced himself, but also the time he has not witnessed: it is a combination of what he calls “self-experienced” and “non self-experienced time”. “All the know­ledge I gained from such people who lived before my personal, consciously experienced time, have helped me in creating my own thoughts about all the formal elements I use to make my works.” Referring to others with his work, is not an expression of something romantic or sentimental. Rather Rietmeyer describes it as a realistic awareness of ‘time’ and the progression of his experiences. That the artist expresses also the time before he was born, demonstrates an awareness of his position in time that seems similar to that of Opalka: Rietmeyer sees his human life as a miniscule part of this ongoing, continuous, linear time line. But unlike Opalka, this infinite time is without a beginning: there is no end, nor is there a beginning of time; time has always been there and will continue to exist.

Although he understands time as being infinite, Rietmeyer focuses mainly on the past: his work is the result of his experience that have happened. According to him, the conscious experiencing of something in the future is utopian and therefore unthinkable as a subject. Rietmeyer states: “We humans perceive time only as a result of memory. If we had no conscious memory, we would not be aware of time at all, we would only see the Now. The result of having memory and the creation of our way of measuring time causes our perception of time to appear as a line.”

The passing of life-time

For Rietmeyer, it is not only important to be aware of one’s position within time, but also about the passing of our own life-time. The awareness of one’s position within time, the awareness that we live only a short moment, is a very important part of Rietmeyer’s art. The artist states: “An intense consciousness about Time, Space and Existence puts your own existence in a larger perspective, shows you how small you are, makes you realize the importance and beauty of being alive and makes you aware and accept the ‘finalness’ of death.” Rietmeyer told me about this awareness when we were standing together in front of the house of the American artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) in Captiva Florida, just a few days after his death. Rietmeyer said that when he once met Rauschenberg, the American told him something that left an impression: when he was younger, Rauschenberg believed that there was not enough world for him to discover. During this conversation with Rietmeyer, conscious of the fact that he would soon die, Rauschenberg said; “I am running out of time.”

For Rietmeyer the awareness of time is an important factor, which to him is also an awareness of the passing of time. He says that his Boxes not solely transport his emotional and intellectual relationship with the subject. Their message and meaning go beyond that. In short, his message is: “encounter your surroundings as aware, conscious and open-minded as possible. Taking the maximum out of each day.” It is this awareness of our own expected life-time, that made Rietmeyer decide “to create the best possible balance between a professional life that is as challenging as possible, experiencing as much as possible in this world, and enjoying a sexual life that is as interesting as possible.” He adds: “Time itself does not stop. We just cease to exist.”

“Being alive, sensing Life itself, is a fantastic feeling and stimulates many possibilities for activities. Being aware that there actually is no reason for our existence does not exclude that we could, or even should, do something beautiful, something good, with our existence. Life is precious and should not be taken for granted; having encounters with the world, with other living beings can be fantastic, if you are capable of seeing the beauty in the ‘otherness’. There is so much to see, so much to experience, life is much, much too short; it is a pity that I will have to die.” When I asked Rietmeyer about the difference between him and Opalka, he replied with the following: “[…] everybody’s understanding of Time will at least slightly differ. I relate to Time naturally mainly in relation to my own life-time, and my thoughts do not differ with Roman’s thoughts when it is about the ongoingness of time, and both Roman and I are very aware that our personal life-time will come to an end, but I will die and my life-time really comes to an end, my life-time stops, Roman however, he will die and go into infinity, because he will not hear anybody, including himself, saying, “Roman, you are dead”.”


In this article I have discussed three artists who deal with the question of time in their art practice: Roman Opalka, Tatsuo Miyajima and Rene Rietmeyer. I have not searched for an answer to the question of time as such, but showed aspects of it that appear, at least for these three artists, important in their personal interpretation of time. The differences in focus, however, makes it difficult to draw conclusions regarding the differences and similarities between the three interpretations of time. It would require a lot of time and effort from all parties to discuss each aspect in detail in order to compare. And: because of a lack of life-time in combination with a language barrier and cultural differences, it is also impossible to discuss time together with Opalka, Miyajima and Rietmeyer in a satisfying way. That is why I prefer to leave the interpretations open here and let them speak for themselves. If I must conclude, however, it is clear that for all three counts that there is no goal, no focus in time: time is something infinite that continues to exist – regardless of how this ‘infinity’ presents itself. It seems that in contemporary art, time is taken in its relation to life: the awareness of the limited time of our life in relation to the infinity of time in general. Our death is the reason to enjoy life and make the most out of it – whatever this ‘most’ means for each individual. Raising this awareness of time and a wish to leave a trace after they themselves have died, is important and even seems one of the main reasons for actually making the work.

1 If not otherwise noted, all quotations referred to in this article come from the following publication: Peter Lodermeyer, Karlyn De Jongh & Sarah Gold, Personal Structures: Time Space Existence, DuMont, Germany, 2009

2 This is the number of paintings Opalka mentioned in the Summer of 2008.

3 The discussion about the end of art, seems to be mainly a discussion about the end of painting. The sixties was the start of several new movements as a reaction to this. The Concept Art movement, of which Joseph Kosuth was one of the founders, or the Radical Painters, such as the American Marcia Hafif and Joseph Marioni, are examples. As far as I am concerned, Opalka is outside of these movements and found his own ‘place’ in the history of art by living out his program.

4 Karlyn De Jongh & Sarah Gold, Roman Opalka. TIME PASSING, GlobalArtAffairs Foundation, the Netherlands, 2010, p. 58.

5 TIME PASSING, p. 61.

6 TIME PASSING, p. 57.

7 Exhibition “Tatsuo Miyajima. Pile Up Life” at Lisson Gallery in London, UK, 25 November 2009 – 16 January 2010.

8 Peter Lodermeyer, Personal Structures: Works and Dialogues, GlobalArtAffairs Publishing, 2003, p. 137.