OPALKA 1965/1 – ∞, as a memento mori in the digital age

Roman Opalka wrote the numbers from 1 to 5,607,249. By painting numbers for 40 years, this artist has taken time out of his busy schedule. Surprised, he met the time of science.

L’un des Détails de Roman Oplaka, dont chacun constitue une partie de l’oeuvre OPALKA 1965 / 1 – ∞ Archiver le présent

The numbers from 1 to 5,607,249 painted by Roman Opalka in more than 40 years appear between 1965 and 2011, and follow each other in close rows, in a long series of paintings. In 1965, the artist was 35 years old when this project became obvious to him. He knew immediately that it would end with his death. OPALKA 1965 / 1 – ∞ Detail 1-35327 is the first painting of the work OPALKA 1965/1 – ∞. At his death in 2011, it finally was 233 Details.  

Writing 5,607,249 numbers, i.e. 38,139,612 digits, requires something like 80 million seconds if it takes two seconds to paint each digit. Two and three years are needed to achieve it, if working every second of those years.  This obviously senseless calculation underlines the magnitude of the task. 

In an article entitled “The seven sevens horizon 7,777,777”, the painter points out that entering this project first sent him to the hospital for a few weeks, as his heart began to show significant rhythm disorders. One does not wonder why: he was horrified by his own choice that he knew was an irreversible commitment to his existence, the heart of his present and future life.

“Science manipulates things and renounces to inhabit them” wrote Maurice Merleau Ponty 

Scientists are often confronted with time in their research. They usually avoid Opalka intense stress. They have protected themselves by an approach that is ultimately impersonal and much more distant, on the one hand collective and on the other hand highly instrumentalized. As a result, the performance and efficiency of science and technology are increasingly impressive. It’s working really well. 

But in doing so, they attract Maurice Merleau Ponty’s harsh remark and Hannah Arendt’s even harder one in “What is the philosophy of existence? »: 

To put it in the same way as Kierkegaard, the objective truth of science is indifferent insofar as it is neutral on the question of existence. And subjective truth, the truth of the “existing”, is a paradox insofar as it can never become objective, that it can never be universally valid.”   

“What is time? »  

Roman Opalka is most certainly familiar with this question, and the key scientific, philosophical or historical concepts associated. But his work is not rooted in an approach of time that would enable one to position it or to objectively “understand” it. Probably the mark of a great piece of art, it is beyond these speeches and these representations. It is much more primal and disarmingly obvious although its existence becomes a complex and original construction of “what is time”. 

Relentlessly Roman Opalka figures after figures, disintegrates the times of life and meets the time of science.  

One may be surprised: by stubbornly counting, Roman Opalka meets the time of science.  He just does it by hand when he starts counting 5 years before computer science with UNIX time, which, on the other hand, does not foresee its end. Wikipedia: “Unix time or epoch Posix (also called Unix timestamp) is a measure of time based on the number of seconds elapsed since January 1, 1970 00:00:00:00 UTC. The Unix gigasecond refers to Unix 109time, which represents September 9, 2001.” This gigasecond highlights a time that orders events and operations, without itself being structured. 

The four seasons

A school year, one month of vacation, a minute of silence, some seconds of hesitation. Seconds, minutes, hours, weeks, months, seasons and years articulate the structure, granularity, rhythm of time in our lives. We thus inhabit the different moments of life. “Patience and length of time” wrote the French poet Jean de la Fontaine…. 

In the time of science as in the time of “Roman Opalka”, there are no seconds, minutes, hours, weeks, months, seasons and years. No human structure. This is of no use in having operational time, which makes it possible to spot events, actions and track movements, movements. 

When he paints figures, Roman Opalka deliberately leaves this humanization of time behind. He becomes a living metronome that gathers and records to its own end, the seconds at the speed of his brush.

He knows this and comes to reinstall his own humanity at the heart of his work by playing with numbers, then by photography and painting. 

1, 22, 333, 4444, 55555, 666666, not 7777777 and even less so  88888888 ! 

The operational structuring of time in science is built from the powers of 10. It is very efficient and enables one to quickly identify the relevant time scale. The durations in seconds are written as follows… 10-6, 10-5, 10-4, 10-3, 10-2, 10-1, 100, 101, 100, 101, 10, 103, 104, … Human perception is efficient for time larger than about 0.1 second, or 10-1 second. With death, it stops after several billion seconds i.e. more than 109 seconds. In his life, Roman Opalka saw the decades of human time passing. He died at 79 years. He then lived 2.5×109 seconds. He could not limit himself to a series of 5,607,249 numbers in 233 paintings, which creates vertigo. His article “The seven sevens horizon 777777777”, organizes our vision of this ocean vastness, where we are lost. He creates a representation of numbers that puts his work in perspective.

1One minute10 – 101
22One half an hour 100 – 102
333One day1000 – 103
44442 weeks10 000 – 104
555556 months 100 000 – 105
6666667 years1000 000 – 106
7777777100 years10 000 000 – 107
888888881250 years 100 000 000 – 108

Column 1: Roman Opalka’s system for structuring the time presented in the article “The seven sevens horizon 777777777”

The first pyramid is the structuring of time, proposed by Roman Opalka. The second column shows the approximate times needed to paint these numbers. The third is the scientific representation in powers of 10 of the approximate number of digits to be written. 

Roman Opalka, science and everyday life

Certainly its time structure is more aesthetic than operational. It cannot be used in a calculation. On the other hand, it allows us to identify ourselves in time as the powers of ten. There, its simplicity and elegance make it fascinating. It’s child’s play. With it, the painter build equivalent of a logarithmic scale. In the same article, he explains that if his first table (OPALKA 1965 / 1 – ∞ Detail 1-35327) contains 1, 22, 333 and 4444, and the second 55555, it took him 7 years to exceed 66666666, and reach 1000000, beginning of the immense series of 7-digit numbers. To join 777777777, he would have had to paint for almost 100 years at this rate. In any case, 8888888888 is therefore well beyond the human limit. Centuries.

Time “Roman Opalka”, total white and irreversibility.

To explore this time that passes without possible return, Roman Opalka added a first essential element. In the initially black background of the table, he kept adding a little more white to each new painting.  In the last paintings, he painted figures written with one white on another white. The picture is gradually and irreversibly moving towards an apparent homogeneity that erases all spatial variations. When looking at these paintings, we are looking for the numbers in the white. 

[OPALKA, en travail sur 1965/1 – ∞], Acrylique sur toile. //www.diconodioggi.it/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/opalka.jpg

OPALKA, 1965, série / 1 – ∞ Détail 993460 – 10178751, Acrylic on canvas

Physics students are taught that progressive homogenization in space is a consequence of the spontaneous evolution over time of an isolated thermodynamic system towards its maximum disorder, its maximum entropy. Indeed, and this is surprising, Roman Opalka introduces what is often called “the arrow of time”, a symbol of irreversible transformations. At first, to count while painting, he introduced with white numbers on a black background, a clearly visible contrast, a clear inhomogeneity on the surface. He erased on purpose this inhomogeneity over time by gradually adding white in black. And so, obviously without seeking or recognizing this proximity, probably without seeing it, his representation questions the scientific description of irreversible evolutions. Amazing.

Time “Roman Opalka”, photos, irreversibility and life.

Unix time continues to count seconds since January 1, 1970 00:00:00:00 UTC. No reason to consider the end. Death is not included in the code and not part of the whole program.

*Série d’autoportraits numérotés – Détails 2075998, 2081397, 2083115, 4368225, 4513817, 4826550, 5135439 et 5341636. biographie-peintre-analyse.com

Every day Roman Opalka took pictures of himself. He was looking day after day, for identical conditions as much as possible, so that his aging appeared without being spoiled by changes in lighting, light, angle of view.

Associated with the paintings, these photos link the time generated by the numbers painted to the passing days, to the slow but real and inevitable continuous aging. We can count the springs, the human structuring of time has no control over this slow but inexorable escape of time. Roman Opalka establishes here an almost organic link between the times built in his paintings and that of his life, over which he has no more control than anyone else. This succession of portraits exposes the announced and inevitable end of the life and therefore of OPALKA 1965/1 – ∞  

Roman Opałka by Lothar Wolleh. //en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lothar_Wolleh

Published by JoelChevrier

a physics professor at the university passionate about contemporary art . Scientific curator of the Soulages Arts&Sciences exhibition « Noir, c’est noir ? » Lausanne Switzerland (2016-2017) . Collaboration with Giuseppe Penone for artwork Essere vento : we pushed sculpture on sand grain down the micrometer size. Exhibition Corps de Pierre 2017. . Collaboration with choreographer Yoann Bourgeois for exhibition at Pantheon Paris 2017 . Member of Strategic Council at ENSCI Les Ateliers Paris (2017-…). . PI of Descitech project (2014-2018): « Sciences, design and society: the factory of contemporary worlds » . Member of the Board at Ecole Supérieure d’Arts et de Design Grenoble/Valence (2015-...) . Member of Scientific Comity of Exhibition “Science Frugale” at science museum Espace Pierre Gilles de Gennes . Member of Scientific Comity of Exhibition “Luminopolis” at science museum Cap Sciences (Bordeaux 2017-2018).

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