Using colour, light and numbers, Tatsuo Miyajima explores the nature of continual change in the world.
Art Radar takes a look at some of the key themes driving Tatsuo Miyajima’s creative practice, on the occasion of his major museum solo exhibition “Connect with Everything” in Sydney.
From 3 November 2016 to 5 March 2017, Japanese new media artist Tatsuo Miyajima presents a solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) in Sydney, Australia. “Tatsuo Miyajima: Connect With Everything” is the artist’s first exhibition in the Southern Hemisphere and includes his sculptural works, rooms and environments, and performance videos.
Born in Tokyo in 1957 and based in Ibaraki, Japan, Tatsuo Miyajima is well-known for his sculptures and room-scale installations, which have as their centre point the use of light and numbers. He often incorporated contemporary technological materials such as electric circuits, video and computers. Since the late 1980s he has focused on LED counters, or what he calls “gadgets”, that flash in continual though not necessarily sequential repetitions of numbers from one to nine. The numbers characterise the journey from life to death. Zero, which symbolises the finality of death, does not appear in his work. Miyajima’s LED counters have been presented in a number of ways throughout his works, which have included grids, towers, complex integrated groupings or circuits.
As MCA Chief Curator Rachel Kent explains,
Tatsuo Miyajima embraces the materials and substance of life in order to explore the nature of being. Numbers and counting sequences are central to this process, revealing time’s relentless, cyclical nature…They also serve to remind us that whilst our time on this planet is brief, our lives have beauty and purpose, for we are one with the cosmos that exists within and outside us.
Miyajima is influenced by humanist ideas and the teachings of Buddhism and explores the flow of time and space. He explains the role of Buddhism in his art, stating that
Buddhism allowed me to clarify my vision and direction, and helped me to understand why I was creating art and had become an artist. In other words, it clarified for me that I was making art for people, not for art. That was an important moment for me and gave me a new perspective.
Miyajima outlines three key principles in his work: ‘keep changing’, ‘connect with everything’ and ‘continue forever’. Talking with MCA, he explained that change is a constant part of life, a concept he connects with Buddhist philosophy:
A constant is the fact that we are always changing…In Western thought, permanency refers to a sense of constancy, without change. In Eastern and Buddhist philosophy, change is natural and consistently happening.
This state of constant change and interaction with others is reflected in the cyclical nature of much of his work.
Numbers and life cycles
The numbers from one to nine are repeating patterns that drive Miyajima’s work, appearing as counters in LED, repeating throughout his practice. For him the numbers reflect the connection between the individual person and the wider, shared experience. The numbers represent how we each fit into the life cycle. In an interview with curator Rachel Kent, Miyajima explains how he uses numbers in his work:
Basically the count goes from nine to one. And then this repeats. It forms a circle […]. From nine onwards, 9-8-7, these numbers shine. In other words, this represents life. The count continues, and as it does so, this symbolises “change”. Then we reach zero, in other words emptiness or nothingness. This represents what in Buddhism, in Japan, we call Kū, “the void”. It is death. The pattern of life and death then repeats to form a “life cycle”. That’s what life is. I express this using numbers and the reason there is no zero is because it would signify death. So instead of a zero, it goes black.
The zero is a pause before life begins again. This pause, or breath, is not necessarily a big change from the cycle of life, but rather it is a similar state that is simply not visible to us. In the interview he delves further into the meaning and dynamics of zero:
What does this mean? It indicates this zero or void is invisible, yet packed with energy…And this repeating cycle of life and death can be taken as the boundary of what is visible. This part [death] is zero, Kū, the void. It’s invisible; then it flows back into being visible.
Zero then is not a static state or the end of life. For Miyajima it is a dynamic moment that we are not able to see, but that is full of energy. In reflecting on this, he traces back the meaning of the word zero to sixth-century India and its Sanskrit form sūnya, which also translates into “the void”. He describes the meaning of sūnya to simultaneously describe emptiness and swollenness or explosion. The two contradicting states create a dynamic force of energy, as he explains:
So when someone dies, it’s like going to sleep: you can’t see anything, but there’s plenty of power there, and if you rest for a while, life reverts as though you were waking up the next morning.
Use of colour
In addition to working with numbers, colour is a pivotal aspect of Miyajima’s practice. In part, the colours he uses are a result of the development of LED technology. In 1988, when he made his first LED artworks, only red and green were available. It was it 1994 when blue became available after Nagoya University in Japan developed the technology and electronic engineer Shuji Nakamura of Nichia Corporation increased the luminosity so that blue LEDs could be used in everyday life in an efficient and energy-saving way. As the technology became more readily available, Miyajima soon opened up his practice to incorporate the new colours, including white.
However, his work is not motivated by technological developments. In an in interview with Ocula, Miyajima explains that technology is neutral for him:
It doesn’t really carry any values of beauty within it. What is interesting to me is what’s behind technology and the philosophical aspects of that… technology allows me to explore that vague feeling or awareness—that momentary flash when something ticks over and a quantum leap is made. That’s what I’m interested in.
Miyajima explores this quantum leap through the form of colour. Colours have come to symbolise different things in his work and he explains that he uses colour to evoke certain meanings. He describes this process in his interview with MCA, as well as his particular interest in the colour blue:
Blue is quite a special colour: I see it very much as representing the “infinite”. People who paint always study chromatics, colour theory. I’ve been influenced by it too…the idea that certain colours embody specific meanings is pretty common around the world. In keeping with that, I too think of colours’ meaning when I use them. Let’s take blue as an example: it can be a colour of space, the universal, as in Yves Klein’s International Klein Blue. Just as the sky has no sense of depth, people say blue is a colour with no distance and represents the universe. That’s one reason I often make particular use of blue myself.
The installation Mega Death (1999/2016) is one example that makes use of blue LEDs. It is a room-sized installation made up of blue counter gadgets across three walls that periodically switch off in unison, making the space dark for a moment before the cycle begins again. This turning off is unexpected and unpredictable, much like the suddenness of death. The installation reflects the numerical cycle and the void represented by the zero that Miyajima brings into his work.
The work was first made for the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999 when he was commissioned by Shiota Jun’ichi to make something that reflected the 20th century. He chose to sum it up as a period that had seen more violent death than ever before in human history. The work was a memorial to large-scale deaths in places such as Hiroshima and Auschwitz. The work symbolically counts out lives through the numbers ticking over on the walls. It is a monument not only to violence, but the way people are able to begin again, which can be seen in the continual circular nature of the piece. It is a reminder of how important life is.
Passage of time
Another theme that Miyajima approaches in his work is the concept of time. In his piece Arrow of Time (2016), he considers the irreversibility of time. He remarks in an interview with MCA, that “in everyday life, we tend to forget this reality so I would like to communicate that we live in moments that cannot be recovered.”
Human experiences cannot be remade and we cannot wind back the clock and try again. He uses red in this instance to convey a warning, to warn viewers that we need to take advantage of the moments we have in this time we are on earth. The flashing numbers are hung from the ceiling and give the impression that time is raining down upon the viewer from the larger context of the universe. They are like stars, but the counting numbers and the red LEDs give a sense of urgency.
Through his works, Miyajima appears to live by his belief in making the most of his own time on this earth. His works often critique world events. The Pile Up Life sculptures (2009) for example is an homage to the fatalities caused by natural disasters in Asia in recent years. Made from small mounds of dried mud and scattered with blue or red LEDs, the works reflect on human interaction with nature and how the forces of nature in the guise of earthquakes, typhoons and mudslides can be uncontrollable.
Another group of works on display builds on the idea of creating a memorial by responding to French nuclear weapons testing in the Moruroa Atoll in the Pacific Ocean in the 1990s as well as the Fukushima disaster. The series evolved out of a number of performances, which he created when he was a student in the 1980s. The works involved actors and Miyajima counting from one to nine and back again before submerging their face in either water, milk or red wine. They repeat the cycle and the liquid, evoking the fluids of life, falls down their faces and bodies.
This more recent series Counter Voice extends beyond the impermanence of the once-off performance by videoing the performances for later display. The series includes Clear Zero in the Water (1996), which is an 11-minute performance that was staged at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris. It features six French performers who go through the process of submerging their faces into bowls of de-radiated seawater from the Mururoa Strait.
This work is a manifesto warning against the dangers of nuclear power. Miyajima has since followed this up with the work called Counter Voice in the Water at Fukushima (2014), in which he stands before the contaminated sea and damaged nuclear power in a grey suit and tie, dressed as a Japanese businessman.
He explains why he made this work, and why he wanted to include himself as the protagonist:
Because I had done [the earlier work] with French performers, it was imperative that I did this performance myself as a Japanese [citizen] when the Fukushima disaster happened. I wanted to make the performance right after the disaster but was prohibited; I did it one year later once the waters were accessible again.
It seems like Miyajima will live by his principles and will continue to explore ways to engage with the challenges and potentials of human nature.
- The thread of relationships: Chiharu Shiota at the Melbourne Arts Festival – in pictures – October 2016 – inspired by the body and concepts of home, Chiharu Shiota transforms spaces with her intricate webs
- Myth and the imagination: Japanese artist Ryuzo Satake – artist profile – August 2016 – Japanese artist blurs the divide between mythology, imagination and reality
- Art to provoke: Japan’s irreverent artist Tadasu Takamine – artist profile – August 2016 – Art Radar profiles provocative Japanese artist Tadasu Takamine
- Art Basel Hong Kong 2016 Conversations: artists Tatsuo Miyajima and Samson Young – summary – April 2016 – as part of its ‘Conversations’, Art Basel Hong Kong invited sound artist Samson Young and new media artist Tatsuo Miyajima to find the points of similarity and difference in their practices
- One decade of Art Fair Tokyo – March 2015 – the 10th edition of Art Fair Tokyo opens in late March and will present contemporary art, antiques and crafts, in addition to the “Artistic Practices” exhibition
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