FIRST CODE


Coming up is the last text that needs to be decoded, and it's not going to be easy. This is for several reasons that will be made clear as this text unfolds. I feel I can't embark on the biography I intend to write about On Kawara until I have this information. Exciting, isn't it, when one feels that something's at stake?

Code is reproduced in On KAWARA: Silence. It covers six pages at 13-lines per page (as Love Letters does) and looks like this:

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Anne Wheeler tells us that Code was made in 1965 and was also known as Coloured Cryptogram or Love Letter. Hmmm… I'm not sure about the Love Letter title in particular. This is despite what Hiroko says in her 1969 letter to Kasper Konig: 'The Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo has one code in colour whose title was 'Love Letters' or something similar to that.' Indeed, that sentence may be the source of where Ann Wheeler got the idea that the piece was called Love Letter(s), mistaking it for Love Letters. But surely not.

On Kawara included this code in Whole and Parts. Here is the first of its six pages:

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Above this repro, the caption reads:

Code, 1965
Collection, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.

Which is also what it says on the contents page of
On Kawara: Whole and Parts. So let's just bear in mind that the title might be Love Letter, but not rely on that information.

Anders Delbom and I have been discussing this code. He told me in an email:

We are thinking, or rather Tommy came to think, it might be Code as in computer code. Hiroko writes in a letter to someone that On wanted to challenge the computers with his ciphers, so “Code” just might be code. A portion of it looks a bit like code:

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_10c66

All four lines start with the same word, in English it would be “the” or “and” perhaps. But in code, it is much harder to guess.

We have very strange words too, like:

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_10c67

And:

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_10c68

These don’t make much sense

Those examples illustrated by Anders all come from the third page of
Code. The first two-and-a-bit pages seem to be a dialogue. Then there is an inset portion of text, say a poem, for the rest of page three (see the first illustration in this essay). Then there are three pages of text with little or no dialogue, the occasional double-quotes just being a form of punctuation, such as "emphasis".

The reason that Anders reckons that the two four-letter words he illustrates are strange, is that the first two letters and the third and fourth letters of each word are the same. There are no such words in English. Though they could be acronyms. Or they could be numbers or dates. Like 1199 and 2200. The difference between those dates equals 1000 years, and On Kawara occasionally expressed himself in terms of 100, 1000 or a million years.

Also, Anders drawing attention to the similar three-letter words that began those four inset lines made me realise something. Their upper strokes are olive, dark brown and brown. I thought some of these might be the same colour, but the same word comes up at the beginning of four consecutive lines and each time you can consistently differentiate the colours.

How many colours do I think are in
Code? I think 7. I think the black has faded to dark blue (the punctuation marks are also dark blue). There is also light blue. So that gives altogether red, yellow, black (faded to dark blue), blue (faded to light blue), olive, dark brown and brown.

This is confirmed (to some extent) by the squiggles top right of each page, which are a sort of key, I suspect. These are red, dark blue, brown, olive, light blue, yellow. There are only six pages so On Kawara didn’t have a chance to do a seventh page with the seventh colour, dark brown.

I began to think we were getting somewhere. Two things made me think this was the first code that On Kawara created. The fact that the strokes are more messy than in
Love Letters or Traveler's Song. And the fact that the colours are less distinguishable from each other. Oh, for the no-nonsense colour scheme of Love Letters (1965): black, blue, yellow, red, green. Or of Traveler’s Song (1965): black, blue, orange, red, green.

Of course, the five colours of the codes used in Traveler's Song and Love Letters gave 5x5 possible colour combinations. And 25 is very nearly ideal for coding up the 26 letters of the alphabet. (The 26th letter was got by putting two of another letter together. That is, V + V = W.)

Seven colours gave 7x7 possible colour combinations. What were all these options needed for?

I'd already done an analysis of the final page of
Code. I chose this page because there were only seven lines of text to cope with, as opposed to 13:


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I'd looked at it line by line, attacking it from the obvious angles. What were the words which had one or two letters in them? Which combinations of colour came up most often? Where did the same letters crop up beside each other? I hoped that I might get started on working out what the vowels were, plus the other most common letters such as R and S. Anyway, this was my working for line one of the above page six.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_108b3

What I hadn't noticed when I produced this working was that in that single first line of text there were 24 different colour combinations used. Now you wouldn't expect almost every letter of the alphabet to crop up in just seven words or 42 letters.

And then I noticed that in the whole page there occurred 46 different colour combinations. So what were the characters over and above the 20-26 letters of the Roman alphabet that one might expect to crop up in such a space? Numbers? That wouldn't get you from 20-odd to 46.

Wikipedia tells us that traditional Japanese has 46 characters: 'In modern Japanese, the hiragana and katakana syllabaries each contain 46 basic characters, or 71 including diacritics.'

One wouldn’t expect all the basic characters to come up in such a short space, so maybe some ‘diacritics' crop up, whatever they are.

So maybe
Code is a Japanese text (love letter, or whatever). In the course of the six pages there are six single-letter words. Two of which cropped up three times (brown over yellow and red over yellow). Now in English there are only two single-letter words, 'A' and 'I'. Though I suppose you could have X and Y in some circumstances.

Now the text uses lots of double quotation marks, question marks and exclamation marks. From my quick look, you do get these in Japanese writing as well. And the odd looking circular full-stops are supposedly the way full-stops are written in a Japanese script.

If it is Japanese, that might explain why the original 1965 work was given to the Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. The gallery might have been less interested in a text that was in English. Though I don't for one minute think that On Kawara would have decoded the message for the museum. On might not have thought it appropriate to give them a text that translated from coloured lines into English.

And it might interest On Kawara to have made these various coloured cryptograms that translated into different languages, English for
Love Letters, Japanese for this one, Romanised Japanese and English for Traveler’s Song.

But I must remember the order that On Kawara may have done them in. First, the Japanese text. Second or third, the Japanese and English text. Second or third, the English text. All an exploration of how pairings of coloured lines could represent either one language or another completely different language.

All of which may be true. But I need confirmation from a Japanese speaker/writer. And in particular I need
Code translated from coloured lines to Japanese characters (if that really is the solution) to an English that I can read. Because the factual meaning is simply bound to be of biographical interest.

To be continued…