"Reading One Million Years" Art In Trafalgar Square
Bruno Vincent  /  Getty Images file
 Onlookers marvel at the "Reading One Million Years" art installation by On Kawarain on Tuesday.
By Reporter
NBC News
updated 4/2/2004 3:26:24 PM ET 2004-04-02T20:26:24

Londoners passing through Trafalgar Square can be forgiven for continuing their journey in bemusement this week. To be confronted by two people reading aloud inside a glass box is not entirely usual.

As the two read off years from a book, their voices are amplified by speakers to a largely puzzled London audience.

"Reading One Million Years" is a work of conceptual art by the Japanese artist On Kawara, and is a reflection of his preoccupation with the passage and marking of time.

Sixteen live performers working eight-hour shifts, take it in turn reading off lists of years in sequence one hour at a time before resting.

The exhibition is due to run 24 hours a day until the end of the week.

Exhibit gives people pause
“In general, the reactions have been good,” said Margot Heller, the director of the South London Gallery, which has organized the event. “People have stopped and taken the time to think about it, which is what art is all about.”

But not all are convinced by the bold venture. 

“I keep looking at it and I can’t figure it out at all,” remarked Jeff Swift from Scotland.  “It’s a mystery to me.”

Others seem bored and look for comic relief.  “I was hoping one of them might lose their place and have to start again,” said Irene Grant from Spain. “At least then it would have made me laugh.”

London was host to another famous glass box last summer when the illusionist David Blaine hung above the Thames for forty days with no food. 

Not all of the British capital took to Blaine’s antics.  Whilst some branded him a madman, other revelers pelted his glass home with eggs and paint.

Reaction more staid than to other glass box exhibit
“No, no eggs have been thrown here,” laughed Owen Bullett, a security steward for the display.

“I’d like to think this is less of a provocative event than what David Blaine did.  Although I think we’ll be getting more security for the evenings at the weekends. I know it can get a bit rowdy round here once the pubs close.”

Just across the square, the National Gallery is just opening its doors. As home to Britain’s finest collection of classical art, Trafalgar Square is, for the moment, playing host to something from the old, and now something from the new. 

Whilst some walk off in bewilderment, some leave with a more open view.

“I think it’s great,” enthused one American tourist. “I mean, all art deserves representation.  I’m sure some people think it sucks, but then I’m sure some people think that a Raphael hanging in the gallery over there is garbage. It’s all about what you like.”

Henry Deedes is an assignment editor in the NBC News London bureau.

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