I just saw the On Kawara exhibit that’s running at the Guggenheim here in New York. For people not familiar with Kawara, he’s a Japanese artist best known for his long-running projects of repeated work – like painting the current date on a small canvas each day (the Today series), or sending a daily postcard that records the exact time he got out of bed (the I Got Up series). You could think of the work as a kind of meditative practice, both for the person who creates it as well as the person who views it.
It made me think of taxonomy.
Taxonomic work is also quite repetitive. Each day, the taxonomist catalogues specimens, carefully examining and describing them in a consistent way. Does this spider have a round abdomen or an oblong one? Is it partially covered in a shell, or completely soft? Does it have a color pattern? A texture? Any spines or hairs? It’s true that every spider is different, but the questions are the same – just as every date is different, but the act of painting them is (essentially) the same.
At the exhibit, my friend and I talked about what would make someone to commit to this sort of practice. I know that taxonomists are big picture people – they want to know everything that lives on this earth because that’s the way to understand the nature of life itself. The devil is in the details. I think On Kawara sees this too.