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Counting Down, Counting Across: Roman Opalka and Robert Breer

Robert Breer and Roman Opalka died within a week of each other. Both artists broke time into discrete pieces and then put it together again. One number per unit of time, Opalka’s increments slip from one to the next almost imperceptibly, using the notation of numbers to differentiate and link one to another. Breer’s fragments were originally drawn on index cards. Sometimes the images skip across the screen erratically but sometimes, as in conventional animation, they are adjusted so close to one an another that an illusion of steady movement is created.

Opalka ____/1 — ∞.
“Opalka ____/1 — ∞.”

Opalka started counting in 1965 and never stopped until he died. Like another of his contemporaries, On Kawara, his work, once the premise had been established, made itself , all the artist had to do was to execute. No small measure of dedication and commitment was needed to do this. A day could not be missed. Wherever the artist was and whatever he might be doing the count of days or numbers had to be enacted. When Opalka could not make paintings, for instance when he was travelling, he made drawings.

Robert Breer. Floats Slice Tank. 1966.

Breer, in addition to the animations he is most known for, made sculptures that move with imperceptible slowness. Box or pillar-like, the sculptures, called “Floats”, sit on the ground or floor and, powered by tiny motors, move and turn steadily across the surface really really slowly. About six years ago he was seen accompanied by one of these sculptures, presenting some of his films. He gave a short talk before the screening. The box was on the floor close to him. Breer did not tell the audience what to expect. After the screening, about an hour, he came back on stage to talk a little more. The box had visibly shifted about two feet and had rotated about 30 degrees.

The stills or ‘frames’ that make up the films do, in a sense, count down at 24 frames per second

Ingenuity has something to do with the way both artists went about their work. Not all artists are ingenious, some are simply crazy or loud or persistent. Opalka devised a devilishly simple method of generating meaning and beauty, and once he’d laid claim to this method, no-one else use it. His body of work is a self-portrait, that by definition, can only be made by himself. If someone else were to employ this method of making art then the result would be another ‘portrait’ of Opalka with someone else modelling as a stand in for him.

If someone else were to employ this method of making art then the result would be another ‘portrait’ of Opalka with someone else modelling as a stand in for him.

I’m not sure there is a clear beginning and end to Breer’s pieces, at least there doesn’t seem to be a definite end other than the boundary of the reel or the power in the battery of the sculpture, both of which are kind of necessary but arbitrary limits. The animations often loop back to something from the beginning. The sculptures wander with no destination in mind. The stills or ‘frames’ that make up the films do, in a sense, count down at 24 frames per second, from the first image to the last, but don’t they also count ‘across’ time in a lateral sense? Opalka’s numbers have a well defined beginning and end. Seen as a posthumous whole, the series of paintings from the most recent number to the first, counts down from his departure. But visually, where Breer’s images count down (vertically through the projector), looking at Opalka’s numbers the eye moves across from the left to the right as it counts and then at the edge, in the strange movement unique to reading, suddenly veers in the opposite direction from right to left. And as if you weren’t supposed to notice, the eye catches the next number on the left of the next line.

Category: Art

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