GAME ON (21)

POSTCARDS FROM STOCKHOLM



I thought it would be good idea to go to Stockholm. That's where On Kawara was on a six-week residency when he stopped giving subtitles to his Date Paintings in the winter of 1972/73. It's also where he was when he gave up sending out 'I GOT UP' postcards because his briefcase, containing his rubber ink stamps, was stolen in September, 1979.

I knew it wouldn't be an easy trip as Kate and I are not getting on well at the moment. For both our sakes I don't want to go into that side of things, but suffice to say I knew I wouldn't get much tranquility in Stockholm to print out the cards. Below is the card that I made on the first day of the holiday not long after we'd settled into our airbnb room. What a joke! Of course, I would have tested the 4.38 business if I had been stress-free and thinking clearly. Kate accidentally spilled a glass of water over the table I was working on a bit later. Luckily my passport was unaffected.


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We survived our week in Stockholm together. I can say that now, on July 11, 2023, as I begin to write this up with the first two posted cards to hand. But it wasn't easy. Kate is no Hiroko (Well, she is and she isn't.) On our first full day we stayed close to where we were staying on the island of Stora Essingen. We undertook a slow walk together, and admired a tree which Kate told me was a mock orange. It looked a bit like the blossoming almond branch in the second postcard I sent, whose picture is coming up soon.

Is it tears that have caused the smudging of certain letters in my home address on the message side? It could be either Kate's tears or my own. Let's leave it at that. And who has scribbled over the face of the Queen of Sweden? Not myself or Kate, I can safely say. I placed each of the cards in the yellow postal boxes myself. Somebody in the post office, then. But why do that if the stamp had been franked in the normal way as it had been, with its admirable 'AID FOR UKRAINE' message?

Note the lack of 'UK' at the end of my address. I had taken completed printing plates with me, with just a few extra numbers for variations on my getting up time. I'd forgotten that my home address had been put together when I'd been in Kenilworth, near Birmingham, and hadn't needed to specify the country I lived in when sending cards to myself in Blairgowrie. The postcode was enough. At the time of filling out this card, and the first one from Stockholm, I couldn't have cared less whether I ever saw them again. So I left out the 'UK' part without giving it a second thought.

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In the picture below, taken on our second full day in Stockholm - a Sunday - Kate had got off the bus and crossed the road to the opposite bus stop, because she had forgotten her purse. Or was it because she couldn't stand to be in my company for a minute longer? She was going to go back to our airbnb on Stora Essingen. Better that we spend the day apart, she said. I too had got off the bus. But, after hesitating, I waited for the next bus going in the same direction, towards Stockholm city centre. And I got on it.

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I carried on with the day though my heart wasn't in it. I decided to go to the Moderna Museet to see the original Date Paintings there. Though I wasn't sure that the sight of them would cheer me up. Dear and trusted reader - though for all I know your sympathies are with Kate, as to some extent mine were - that's how low I felt.

There is a glass pavilion constructed by On's friend, Dan Graham, outside
Moderna Museet. Did this gladden my heart? To be honest, no. Glass and mirrors are all very well, but you should have put a roof on it, Dan.

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Inside the museum, I paid my entrance fee and went straight to the Date Paintings. The first actual Date Paintings I'd seen for twenty-odd years. Did they do anything for my mood? Unfortunately not. I was going through the motions. What a fine collection though. Two had been painted during On Kawara's six-week residency in 1972/73. One was painted in 1979 on Kawara's return to Stockholm. And one was from 1966, which the painter must have given to Pontus Hulten - or the museum - as a gift.

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Can I bear to look up the facts? Well I can now, when I'm back home in Blairgowrie. But I couldn't then, even though it might have distracted me from my misery.

On Kawara gave the small, December 1972 painting to Pontus Hulten during his 1972/73 residency. When he came again in 1979, the museum bought the January 1973 Date and the June 1979 Date. And at that point On Kawara donated the May 1966 painting, presumably so the gallery would have an excellent collection of Dates: an informal triptych. Then shortly before Pontus Hulten died, he donated the December 1972 Date to the museum. All that makes perfect sense, and speaks of a sane, calm relationship between artist and director, artist and institution.

For a while I watched the public engaging with the Date Paintings…

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Then I turned the camera on myself.

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I look so tired. I felt so depressed. I had approximately 1% of my usual capacity to enjoy art. Was there anything I could do about such a disastrous state of affairs? I decided that I must return to the airbnb and see how Kate was doing. See if we could get things onto a better footing and enjoy our holiday together in the so-called Swedish summer.

The next day I had no card to send. I'd already used the two Van Gogh cards that I'd brought from home. I was so out of it during my visit to the
Moderna Museet that I hadn't even remembered to go into the shop and load up with as many On Kawara postcards as to last me the length of the holiday. Jesus! On Kawara managed to send out 4000 cards in a row. I managed to cobble together a string of two fucked-up cards. All I could ever have hoped for and more.

Still, Kate and I were getting through the pain. We were beginning to be civil to each other. We had swum at the local wild swimming spot and found, to our surprise, that the Baltic Sea is warmer than the Atlantic around Scotland, Gulf Stream or not.

On the Monday we visited
Photographica, a building that had four superbly curated exhibitions of very different photographers. And on Tuesday we were going into the centre of Stockholm to enjoy what Kulturhuset had to offer. We both wanted to see the show of Frida Kahlo photographs.

There is a line from Frida Kahlo that was writ large as an exhibit, a quote from her diaries, I think, stating that she had suffered two accidents in her life, the second being Diego (Rivera). We both noted the irony in this. Kate in her striking, high quality, Andy Warhol t-shirt.

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Kate not looking too happy. But definitely coming round to something approaching being able to get on with life.

We ate at a nearby lunch spot, lunch being the main meal of the Swedish day. Then I suggested we go back to the Kulturhuset for the other show that they had on, photographs of David Bowie by a Japanese photographer, Masoyoshi Sukita. Kate said she was content to miss that, so our arrangement was to meet in an hour's time.

Masoyoshi Sukita first took photographs of Bowie in 1972, after having seen him on stage in London. They formed a rapport, and whenever they found themselves in the same city, whether it be London, New York or Tokyo, amongst other super-cool spots, they would hook up for a shoot.

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Reproduced with the forbearance of the copyright holder, Masoyoshi Sokita, I hope.

Back in the early 70s, if a Japanese artist of On Kawara's generation was passing though New York, On was likely to meet him or her. So I must keep an eye out for the name Masoyoshi Sukita on the 'I MET' lists.

As for the show, it is a little thin for the huge space allotted to it. I'm aware that two contact sheets from 1976/77 - when On Kawara and David Bowie were both in Berlin, though I don't think they met - have been blown up so that the images fill two rooms.

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Masoyoshi Sokita is responsible for just about the most iconic image of Bowie. That's the one that was used for the cover of Heroes in 1977, then used again, though partially obliterated, for the cover of The Next Day in 2016.

Here is a photo of both artists sitting together. Or is the one on the left On Kawara? It seems my quest to find an actual, physical link between On Kawara and David Bowie has not been abandoned.


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Reproduced with the forbearance of the copyright holder, I hope.

As I'm leaving the gallery I get a text from Kate. She has gone on an hour-long guided tour around the Swedish parliament building. I immediately calculate that this would give me enough time to get to the Moderna Museet and buy a few Date Painting postcards.

As I walk south and a bit east, I realise that this was quite a common route for On Kawara to take doing his 1972/73 residency as he returned to base. He was staying in a building close to the Modernat Museet and most days he would walk over the causeway to the downtown area which I'm just walking out of. A twenty-minute walk for him then, and the same for me now. This part of the city is beautiful. All calm water, parked-up sailing boats and serene Swedish faces.

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Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

I spend a little longer with Dan Graham's glass pavilion. Is it sculpture or architecture? That is question one for anyone engaging with the work. It's a little unwieldy, truth be told, in that you have to exit the whole cube in order to pass from one half of it into the other. In other words, I'm not convinced of its functionality. Not that it has a function. Or maybe the function is to act as a gatekeeper to the Date Paintings that are only a few yards away.

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Inside the museum I'm not allowed to see the Date Paintings because I'm not willing to buy another admission ticket, given how little time I've got this afternoon. So I content myself with my scheduled trip to the shop. But what's this? Thousands of postcards but none featuring On Kawara's work. No Date Paintings. Not even reproductions of the 100-odd postcards that On Kawara sent to Pontus Hulten back in 1972. A pack consisting of one postcard featuring a message side, another postcard featuring the same card's picture side and a third featuring both sides of an On Kawara 'I GOT UP' card would surely find buyers aplenty.

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I check at the till. I have to spell On Kawara's name for the member of staff so that he can look it up on the system. But he can confirm that there are no On Kawara cards in stock because there are none available. Additional information: there are three books which have been stocked in the past, but none are in stock right now. That's all a bit odd as the Date Paintings are given a prominent place in room one of the permanent collection.

Later, when it comes to sending myself a postcard, I do have a Masoyoshi Sukita image to call upon, so all is not lost. As you can see, dear reader, the portrait format had ramifications that I couldn't cope with for the message side.

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Oh, and look closely at the 'UK'. Hand-written!

But at least this meant that I now cared about the postcard getting through to me at home. Indeed, sitting here in Blairgowrie a week or so later, I treasure not just the card I sent on July 4 (two days after the second and final Van Gogh card), but the following one I sent on July 5, 2023:


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Note the yellow strip placed along the bottom of the message side. I didn't do that. It wasn't there when the postcard entered the postal system. I can only imagine that some postal employee, either in the UK or Sweden, had to register his or her (dis)approval of the aesthetics going on. It has been put in place with what I judge to be extreme precision.

The situation reminds me of something Bob Dylan sang, one of innumerable, sharp verses from 'Up To Me':

"The only decent thing I did
When I worked as a postal clerk
Was to haul your poster down off the wall
Near the cage that I used to work.
Was I a fool or not to protect your real identity?
You looked a little burned out, my friend
I thought it might be up to me


The strip of tape does not obliterate any of my own stampings, so I am happy about that. Also, I think the intervention has been by a Bowie fan, not necessarily a Sukita admirer, but that is pointless speculation.

Meanwhile, back in Stockholm, by the middle of the week, Kate and I were swimming together for the second time at the outdoor swimming spot and Kate had decided to put her pearls on. Silver Swimmer is one of Kate's art personas.

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I photographed her three months ago doing a lone protest, holding a 'SILVER SWIMMER SAYS NO FISH FARMS' placard outside a dinner sponsored by MOWI (the world's biggest fish farm conglomerate) in Glasgow's merchant city. And a few weeks ago, I photographed her with fellow artist Zoe Walker, holding the same placard but in a much more light-hearted way, as they frolicked in currently fish-farm-free waters near the pier at Kilchattan Bay. I must update Kate's website for both those very different actions shortly. But for now let's just see if we can keep our heads above water.

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I've persuaded Kate to come along to the Moderna Museet. First, to engage with Dan Graham's pavilion…

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But what's really brought Kate to the museum is my report about Laurie Anderson's show. Which was the only thing that could hold my interest on my first visit here. It's immersive, and it shows various sides of the New York artist's talents. I didn't know she was a student of Sol Lewitt. I must look out for her name on On Kawara's 'I MET' list anytime from 1972 onwards. I didn't know she was married to Lou Reed. He died a few years ago and Laurie Anderson has inherited his estate, which partly explains why her recent work is so totally achieved. She has been able to fully commit/invest in it from its inception to its multi-media installation.

As well as being a musician (I well recall her iconic hit, 'O, Superman', from 1981) she is a storyteller, and one isn't quite sure whether the fragments of autobiography displayed are actually fiction. According to a wall-mounted text, attention-seeking Laurie - when she was a 13-year-old, one of six siblings - had the spontaneous idea of doing a backward somersault from a diving board above a swimming pool. She landed on her back on the pool edge. As a result she was hospitalised for months with a broken back (very Frida Kahlo), left in traction, and the text puts across the strength of character that is required to survive such a disabling process, and the misery and terror that must be thoroughly pushed to the back of the mind and forgotten about (nearly).

The show ends with an hour-long film that Kate and I watch from bean-bags on the floor. Kate is deeply moved by it. Me too, I suppose, but I was thinking of what we were going to do next. Yes, I wanted photographs of myself looking at a genuine On Kawara. And I'd got Kate's agreement that she would take three or four photographs of such a scenario before we left the
Moderna Museet.

So these photos are posed then? I'm afraid so. I'm looking at the Dates, no thoughts in my head.

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Then I began to get into it.

I shoved my glasses up my head all the better to look at the painting up close.

"I've seen so many of these already," said Kate from behind. Which I took to be a compliment of sorts. Though there is no way that the finish on my Dates can match the finish on On Kawara's.


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"Aren't you going to look at the others?" asked Kate.

Meaning the Dates from 1972, 1973 and 1979. "Not right now," I replied. Too much would be too much.

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Yes, I just wanted to focus on MAY 18, 1966. From On Kawara's first year of Date Painting. When he'd been on the cusp of achieving so much.

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I look and I look. In other words, I rest my mind and feast my eyes. Oh God, I am going to have to invest in a finer, sable brush. Though I can still note the odd imperfection.

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The comma is too wide at the top. That is by far the most obvious 'mistake'.The circular white part of the first six is wider than the straight white part. The white at the top of the second six fades slightly right at the edge. Not that it matters. Not that it matters either that my Dates are not as finely finished as On's. The fact is they were painted on the day in question, just as his were. That's what matters. The historical record. The conceptual art.

It's a crazy thing to do, but Kate tries to compare the simplicity of On Kawara's work to the total immersion in - and emotional impact of - the Laurie Anderson film we've just seen.

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The film ends with Laurie Anderson's thoughts about the death of her mother. Kate's mother died not so long ago, so it doesn't surprise me that this has made an impact on her. Laurie Anderson didn't love her mother, but was advised that she should find some way of saying that she'd always cared for her, and that one way to do this was to focus on a single time when she had loved her mother. A single time when her mother had seemed like the ideal mother. But Laurie couldn't achieve that in the upset of the hospital environment, and her mother died before she could compose any such memory never mind come up with suitable parting words.

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It was only later that Laurie Anderson recalled the time when she'd been in charge of her two younger brothers and had taken them out over the frozen lake all the better to see the moon. The ice broke and the small boys went under the water. Laurie's first reaction was "Mom's gonna kill me!" But her second was to dive into the freezing water and to pull out first one boy and then the other and place them on top of the ice. They were little more than babies, and with one traumatised child under each arm she ran home. She explained what had happened to her mother who looked amazed, and said: "I didn't know you were such a wonderful swimmer. I didn't know that you could dive." That was it! That was the moment that Laurie had needed to remember. The time when her mother hadn't let her down, but in fact said just the right - wholly generous - thing.

OK, I get it. I was moved as well. But Kate is using the depth of her response to the climax of the Laurie Anderson film to rubbish On Kawara's Date Painting. And I can't accept that.


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Does that mean we are going to have another argument? No, it does not. We are done with arguing. It is enough that we both were touched to the core by the vulnerable humanity of Laurie Anderson's work. It doesn't matter if Kate can't see the universal, heroic humanity of On Kawara's work for now. She has before and she will again.

Frida Kahlo, Laurie Anderson, Silver Swimmer; Van Gogh, David Bowie, Masoyoshi Sukita, Dan Graham and On Kawara. What an art-inspired time I had in Stockholm! Oh, and let's not forget Andy Warhol. In the absence of On Kawara or Laurie Anderson postcards at the
Moderna Museet shop, I had to choose something else. So I went for good old Andy (though I actually think that one of the images is self-consciously posed and the other is what On Kawara might have called morbid). And I assumed that the post office would do the rest. Though as I write these remaining words on Friday, July 14, 2023, I'm still awaiting the delivery of those two symbol-soaked cards.

Watch this space….

It's now Wednesday, July 26 and the two Warhol cards have still not arrived. If I was living in a totalitarian state I might expect such censorship, but I am living in a liberal democracy. Does this mean I have to expect an employee of a private corporation or public institution to take for his or her own anything that takes their fancy? Such as those gorgeous Warhol-Kawara postcards. (I'd even got my Stockholm address correct by this stage, being Badstrandsvagen 22 rather than Bandstrandsvagen 22.)

Still, consolation has arrived this morning in the form of another postcard from Stockholm in the style of On Kawara.

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Posted on the 18th, presumably after Anders Delbom had read this essay. Dealt with at the Sverige Postnord end a day later, and with me as of 9AM-ish today.

That is the first time I have ever seen my name written as 'Doncan'. I like it. Such tiny cultural shifts can be rewarding. So let's turn over the card…

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A Swedish man has taken off his hat in tribute to On Kawara, a gesture I fully understand. I'm sure Anders Delbom won't mind if I think of the male represented as Pontus Hulten or Bjorn Springfeldt, employees of Moderna Museet who did so much for On Kawara's art career, inviting him to Stockholm and organising major showings of his work in Stockholm, Bern and Paris.

The truth is, I've been expecting something from Anders for a few days, as he emailed me on July 18 (the day he executed the postcard) to thank me for this website and for the Stockholm essay in particular. He had been in Stockholm with his daughter in 2022 and I presume she took the photo from which the postcard has been made.

I hope Anders Delbom doesn't mind his address being 'splashed all over the internet'. But if he does, he can let me know and I will very precisely place a delicate yellow strip to cover the relevant two lines.




POSTSCRIPT

A month has passed and Anders Delbom has finally got his act together re the postcard format:

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However, something has clearly gone wrong re the getting up time. Presumably, P.M. had first been stamped, and the 'P' has had to be replaced by an 'A'. Because no-one in the history of the planet ever got up at 9.31 P.M.. Not even On.

Or is this a double-bluff? Because how did Anders get the 'A' to superimpose on the 'P' so precisely? Never once did On Kawara do this sort of thing in 8000 postcards (though I haven't seen them all). Possibly the 'A' became too ordinary and predictable in Anders's mind, and he decided he would complicate his getting up time. And what is that floating dot to the top right of the A/P all about?

Anyway, the picture side:

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It is just possible that Anders has sent me this reconstruction of a Viking house because he thinks it represents the ideal venue in which to show Date Paintings. And he may be right. Anyway, the postcard has reached me just as I've posted my latest On Kawara essay, which ends with a lesson, I suspect, on how not to exhibit Date Paintings, courtesy of 142 Greene Street, New York, circa 1976. Though the conclusion to that essay too is a work-in-progress.