During the period of one and a half years when I was planning to start 370 DAY PROJECT, I collected about 30 species of the better-known kinds of wood in South Africa. After I had begun the project on 12 September 1982, I undertook a diligent search in all South Africa's wooded regions to find 340 more species.
I compiled a list of names of the species, the persons from whom the wood was obtained and the places where it was found. I also recorded the date on which the wood was processed, not only on the list but on the block of wood concerned. Other important information on the list of woods used is classified as follows:
- Each entry takes up two lines.
- The key numbers appear before each entry and correspond with the alphabetical list.
- The botanical name of each species consists of two or three references: the name of the genus under which the plant is classified, and the specific name of the plant, which can be divided into subspecies (subs.) and variety (var.).
- Commonly-used synonyms appear after the botanical name, and I frequently add English and Afrikaans local names.
- The origin of the species is mentioned at the end of the first line, and in the case of South African species the abbreviation 'S.A.' is followed by the national tree number.
- Problems and queries are marked with a question mark.
- The general information in the second line ends with the date on which the wood was processed.
The dimensions of each wooden display box are a replica of the surface measurements of a coffin. The dimensions of a coffin are derived from those of a six-foot man. By implication the man is 'buried under all the work'.
The surfaces of the blocks are divided in two, and I repeated this division on the surface of the coffin. In this way it becomes a book within a book. There are 365 days in a year. The figure closest to 365 which is divisible into a square is 370 (37 x 10), which is why there are 37 blocks in each of the ten rows across. The 3 and the 7 of 37 add up to ten. The ten rows down and the 37 rows across are therefore numerically related.
For the portable storage files, I used seven rows of seven blocks each, which could be easily stored in the files. I used these to help with the weekly and daily checking and counting of all the blocks. A 'workshop file' of the same size as the others fitted comfortably into a shoulder bag that could be taken along on any journey or outing.
To prepare for the daily routine required to manufacture the artwork (which involved specific tasks to be completed according to a set schedule every day), I gathered different kinds of wood from forests and gardens all over South Africa. Although I cut dried wood, I did not cut any wet wood, but sometimes I collected wet wood from municipal skips and dried it. I spent a great deal of time on correspondence, travelling, field work, packing and dispatching pieces of wood.
I cut the dry wood into blocks, filled cracks, and in some instances glued pieces on.
The blades most suitable for the special carving instruments I used came from Italy. As these were not available in South Africa, I had to make do with locally-bought blades, which had to be sharpened regularly on a grinding-stone. This meant that I had to carry a grinding-stone and a bottle of grinding oil with me in my portable toolbag.
After the 370-day span committed to the work had begun, I often had to work under difficult circumstances. For example, I had to do the first day's carving in a toilet in Venice, so as not to annoy my travelling companions. I worked on trains, on aeroplanes, in parks and in every conceivable type of building. At times I would continue through the night, as the work undertaken for each day had to be completed that same day. It never happened that work had to be carried over.
The daily routine I followed is outlined below.
I would start the day at any time from 3 a.m. onwards by writing the date in a diary from China, using reddish-brown ink.
I would select a kind of wood for the day according to the kind of day I was expecting. For example, on quiet days I would start with hardwood. I would write the name of the wood species below the date in my diary.
Then I would mark out and trace 12 blocks in the diary to represent the six resolutions and six evaluations I had to accomplish that day.
I would consult the key to all the symbols and, in anticipation of what could happen that day, make six routine-breaking resolutions.
I would then mark out 12 smaller blocks with their margins on the square wooden block, using a measuring block made in advance for the purpose. I took it everywhere I went, to ensure that all blocks were the same size.
I would transfer the symbol design onto to the block.
After spreading a dust cloth over my lap and knees to collect all the chips, I would carve the relief design to the left or the 'morning' side of the block to a depth of 2mm.
I would use an awl to punch holes into the relief background to form a texture. I did not use a hammer with the awl, as it would have been too noisy and too slow. However, as I had to exert a great deal of pressure, the awl slipped on 35 occasions, causing hand or leg wounds.
At the end of the morning's routine, which lasted between an hour and a half and three and a half hours, I would pack all tools and work pieces into the work file and shoulder bag, which I carried around everywhere, in case it might not be convenient to return home.
I would carry out the resolutions I had made and codified on the block in the morning during the remainder of the day.
Once I had implemented the resolutions, I could begin my evaluation. This session would usually take place at night, when everybody else was asleep.
I would once more enter symbols into the diary and transfer them onto the wooden block, using a German two-pfennig coin and an English penny instead of a pair of bulky and heavy compasses.
Again I would carve out the design and collect the chips for inclusion in the final storage box of the project. I would also punch in texture-holes, as before. This work would be done on the right-hand or 'evening' side of the block.
I would finish each completed sculpture block carefully, use a hammer to punch in the date of that particular day on the reverse side, and polish the work with a cotton cloth I kept in a plastic bag.
After I had put away the work file with everything inside, I would perform a mental exercise reflecting on the experiences of the day. I would think of a summarising slogan, saying or appropriate thought, and write it in the diary below the planning notes I had made in the morning.
The work on the evaluation session would also take from one and a half hours to three and a half hours, which meant an average work day of three to seven hours. To calculate the total time the project took to complete, I would have to include the time spent on searching for and preparing resolutions, and for the carving of each block.
The work of making 370 DAY PROJECT was mentally and physically demanding, because it progressed slowly and required a great deal of thought. To counter the mental exhaustion and also to make myself sufficiently fit to keep up the pace of the project while coping with my normal duties, I would jog 32 kilometres daily, running early in the morning and late in the afternoon. This exercise regime, coupled with the discipline required for 370 DAY PROJECT, enabled me to win a silver medal in the 87-kilometre Comrades Marathon that year.
The 370 DAY PROJECT is an autobiographical survey of an introspective, meditative lifestyle. In earlier meditative projects like BANGBOEK and STOKKIESDRAAI I followed a strict ascetic manufacturing routine, making sure that the materials from which those works were made were ready for processing beforehand. I created them in an easily accessible, yet quiet and enclosed work space. Although these works make indirect references to society and nature, I carried them out in an exclusive, self-referring manner, in strict isolation.
Orthodox versions of meditative practice go hand in hand with a certain idea of space and time. Medieval saints, for instance, regarded lengthy abstinence from contact with 'this world' as ideal for spiritual growth. Antonius (251--356AD), was a Greek orthodox patriarch whose sayings were regarded with much respect in the fifth century, and continue to enjoy a prominent place in the patriarchal pronouncements of the orthodox churches. He recommended a reclusive life in the wild, together with the strengthening of the inner life through prayer and meditation, as a way to triumph over the weakness of the flesh.
While I was working on 370 DAY PROJECT I too compiled 'sayings'. However I followed a routine of self-reclusion that was very different from that of the medieval hermit priests. I heeded the Sermon on the Mount, in which the listeners are advised to pray in an inner room, behind closed doors, and the idea that the word 'meditation' means to retire to the middle or 'medi' of oneself, but I also reasoned that the inner room is a space within a person to which he or she can retire anywhere, not only in the wild or behind closed doors. I thought of the project as a kind of key to lock or unlock the doors of that inner room.
I recorded the central ideas that the project stimulated in me at the end of each inner room session (that is, at the end of each day's work). Although I took care not to change the nature of the medieval idea of internal contemplation, I enlarged the conceptual context by proposing that the fullest strengthening of the inner life can be achieved through meditation.
As I have already explained, 370 is the figure closest to 365 that makes a square into which the blocks of the project can fit. However, 370 days are five days more than the length of an ordinary year. The first block was started on my birthday, and the last was completed a few days after the birthday that succeeded it a year later. There is a five-day difference between my birthday and my sister's. During this short period I exhibit the boxes and all the blocks, making sure that they are all visible at the same time. They are like a book with all the pages opened simultaneously. The blocks are placed on the boxes in pairs next to each other, because the pages of books open in a similar way.
For the rest of the year the work is kept in a 'chest of drawers', into the rectangular spaces of which I slide the blocks. This cabinet looks like a city building made of wood. It represents the transition of knowledge from the earthly type (the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil) to the heavenly type (the Tree of Life in the new Jerusalem). TAFELBOEK contains a similar analogy. The tree metaphor is very fully embodied in 370 DAY PROJECT, because all the blocks are made of different kinds of wood, the names of which have been recorded meticulously. This responds to the part in Genesis when the first humans were instructed to give names to all living things. As a result of the research I did to identify tree species in nature and in gardens, I acquired a great deal of information on all natural botanical species in the Witwatersrand--Pretoria area, and also a reasonable knowledge of all indigenous South African species and exotics. In this respect 370 DAY PROJECT can be compared with BLOKKIESRAAISEL, wwhich focuses on the acquisition of the English language.
The cryptic nature of the codes carved on the wooden blocks and my annual 'burying' of these blocks in a botanical name vault is a reference to what happens on a large scale in nature. The codes are also linked to specific signs, which in turn represent all the possible types of human resolutions and evaluations. The three groups of resolutions are: duties (everything that has to be done in the daily course of events); recreation (whatever is done to give personal pleasure); and sacrifices (worthwhile things which have to be given up, or things of little or no value which have to be tolerated).
I made all the signs for duties fairly static in relation to their frames. Study obligations, for example, are shown by an evolutionistic triangle, sturdily anchored with regard to the square around it. Visits that have to be made as in duty bound are directional signs looking like wings. Garden work is a sign with a sharp point near the ground line of the square.
Signs denoting recreation are more decorative: there is greater repetition of lines. A simple pattern is formed every time. The duty signs consist predominantly of oblique lines balanced against horizontal and vertical lines. The recreation lines, in contrast, are all oblique. Light conversation.
The sacrifice codes consist of straight horizontal and vertical lines with no oblique lines. Sacrifices are ascetic and vertical, with diligence indicated by a horizontal. Declining a drink, for example, is rendered as a square looking like a glass, with a vertical straw line in the centre of the top half. The glass is empty.
My making the meaning of the signs known is not in conflict with my keeping the resolutions secret, as no insight into the actual nature of the duties, recreation and sacrifices involved can be gleaned from a mere key list. However, I recorded every detail in a private diary.
In this work, wood, which possesses the volume and density of the inner tree, is made available to sense perception in the blocks. The cryptic signs penetrate the wood surface of the blocks to give a 'first-hand' experience to the sculptor of the texture, mass, hardness, density, porosity, moisture content, colour and grain. I 'evaluated' every kind of wood in this way before starting to carve it, to build a type of relationship with it in advance. I carved out six resolutions on the left side of each block to relate to the six creation stages in Genesis, and also retained the diurnal sequence: 'And there was evening and there was morning, the first day'. The awareness of time goes hand in hand with evaluation pronouncements. The end of a day's creation is marked in the Bible by: 'And God saw that it was good'. This too I complied with faithfully. I applied the morning-evening pattern for 370 consecutive days.
The left-hand signs all consist of straight lines, as mankind's way of building, writing and using tools is predominantly linear. A centre line divides the left from the right side like the centre that separates the left pages from the right pages of a book. Another similarity (at least for people from the Western world) is that the signs are also 'read' from left to right and from top to bottom.
The signs on the right consist of circles. I used a circle because it looks like a sun or a target. Sunrise and sunset are important objectives in the existence of the project, like a target to an archer, as an indication of the successful completion of an undertaking (the resolutions). Straight lines also go with most circle signs, as an arrow goes with a target. The straight lines imply direction, and the circle suggests a destination.
I wrote down slogans or appropriate thoughts at the end of each day's work. These belong to the overriding goal of 370 DAY PROJECT -- to induce a particular mental state. As these sayings and thoughts belong to the privacy of a prayer and meditation practice I have held them, like the details of the resolutions and evaluations, in abeyance. All of them are buried in the drawers of the botanical cabinet in which the blocks are kept for 360 days a year, under those that hold the carving chips of all the blocks used for the project.