Tatsuo MiyajimaJanuary 27, 2017
Tatsuo Miyajima is the kind of artist who stands out, even in the largest of exhibitions. My first glimpse of his work came at the 1988 Venice Biennale where his Sea of Time was the most talked-about piece on display. Amidst all the derivative and nondescript stuff that inhabits the specially curated component of the Biennale, Miyajima had created a literally luminous installation.
Entering a darkened room one was confronted with a ‘sea’ of tiny red digital counters at floor level. In the pitch-black chamber only the numbers were visible as they clicked on to infinity. It was like looking into the night sky and seeing the stars counting down the seconds to their own extinction. It was beautiful but also apocalyptic, making one conscious of the way each passing second brought both us – and the galaxies – closer to death.
There are few artists willing to embrace such huge themes, and Miyajima soon found himself in demand all over the world. In 1999 he was back in Venice, this time in the Japanese pavilion, with an imposing installation called Mega Death, which has been reconstructed for the survey, Tatsuo Miyajima: Connect with Everything, at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
As the title suggests, Mega Death was even more directly focused on mortality than Sea of Time. A vast, blue room lined with thousands of digital counters suggested an anonymous procession of individual human lives. When all the counters switch off simultaneously it seems that death’s triumph is complete: there is only the void.
Curator, Rachel Kent, describes the installation as “a memorial to death on an industrial scale during the Second World War – recalling Hiroshima, Auschwitz…”
But does death need a memorial? Surely it’s life that is commemorated in this eerie, blue, room-sized work – those fleeting, insignificant lives of the victims of war who have become statistics in history books.
If this sounds excessively morbid it has to be emphasised that Miyajima’s chief preoccupation is time, of which mortality is only a consequence. Mega Death deals with those who were not allowed to live out their natural life span, but this humanistic indignation is offset by a philosophical belief in the Buddhist idea of reincarnation. Rebooting after a temporary shut-down, Miyajima’s installation suggests that death is not the end. As the artist puts it: “Death comes after the process of wakefulness during the day as a kind of rest; but once you have rested well, you wake up again and come back to life.”
Instead of death per se, Miyajima posits an alternation between existence and non-existence that Kent compares to a computer’s binary code with its 1-0-1-0 pattern. By relying on the abstraction of numbers and the emotional resonances of saturated colour, he expresses compassion in an utterly unsentimental manner.
Although he may have developed a philosophical response that robs death of its terrors, Miyajima is still moved by suffering and injustice. He has produced performance pieces in which he repeatedly plunges his face into a bowl of water, allegedly the radioactive waters off the coast of Fukashima.
In another gigantic installation, Counter Coal, he has used nine tonnes of coal to create a black mountain studded with twinkling red diodes. At the MCA he has combined this piece with companion work, Time Train to the Holocaust, which takes the form of a model train looping around the coal mountain. We usually think of model trains as playful, but this piece feels sombre and sinister. The reference is to the trains that transported prisoners to the Nazi concentration camps.
It’s amazing to learn Miyajima created the installation for the German town of Recklinghausen. It reveals the Germans’ extraordinary commitment to confronting the crimes of World War Two, as seen in the Documentation Centres that have appeared in cities such as Nuremberg, Munich and Berlin. The irony for Miyajima is that Japan has been far less willing to look back openly and honestly on the war years.
The same holds true with the Fukashima disaster, which has become a major theme for Japanese artists even if the general public would prefer not to talk about it or deal with the ongoing consequences.
With his powerful sense of right and wrong one could view Miyajima as a political artist, but his protests are couched in oblique, metaphysical terms. His Over Economy series finds him painting over banknotes as a way of erasing the value we assign to money. He is aware, however, that in his case the overpainting actually transforms the bills into valuable works of art.
Most of Miyajima’s works are not so obvious in their intentions, instilling a feeling of wonder that may or may not lead viewers to look for a deeper meaning. His Pile Up Life sculptures take the form of stupas covered in red or blue counters. Kent tells us that “each conical structure pays tribute to the many lives lost across Asia in recent years to natural disaster, including earthquakes, typhoons and mudslides.”
None of this is immediately obvious as we stand in front of these works, watching the tiny counters ticking away. One assumes that the stupas signify Buddhist resignation to the power of nature which we foolishly believe we can control.
There is a high degree of theatricality in those installations that are immersive in nature. Floating Time uses video projections of numbers that invite us to catch them like insects. In Arrow of Time we lie on the ground staring at a firmament of twinkling red diodes. With this work some viewers are in and out within seconds, while others settle down in anticipation of an altered state.
Presentation is everything with such pieces. The Art Gallery of NSW owns a large installation by Miyajima called Region No 126701-127000 (1991), which is habitually placed above the escalators that descend to the contemporary galleries. Stuck on the wall in broad daylight it resembled an arrivals and departures board at the airport. To be displayed to best advantage Miyajima’s digital counters require the cover of darkness.
The artist may be known for his engagement with hi tech devices, but – unless you’re an electrical engineer – there is nothing especially attractive about a lot of counters and wires. It is not the technology itself that makes Miyajima’s work so compelling, it is the way he uses technology to express a range of ideas and emotions that would take very different forms in more conventional media.
What this survey reveals is the depth of Miyajima’s commitment to a humanist politics. Even as he aligns himself with Buddhist quietism he comes across as surprisingly passionate and committed.
The show also tracks his growing willingness to sacrifice complete control over his works, inviting various groups to contribute to the final form of a project. For instance, in the second incarnation of Sea of Time (1998) on the island of Naoshima, Miyajima set his tiny counters in a pool of water inside a traditional house. More than a hundred villagers were invited to choose a counter and determine its speed.
In recent years, whether it be a matter of planting trees or installing counters within separate shells, he has treated his works as collective endeavours in which the details are decided by a range of collaborators. To willingly cede control of his or her own creation may be one of the hardest things for an artist. For many the great joy of art is that it enables one to play God, crafting a world of one’s own imagining. Yet as Miyajima has learned it can be even more satisfying to stand back and surrender to chance – not imposing one’s will on the world but letting the world speak through the medium one has created.
In Miyajima’s evolving career one can imagine the technology becoming increasingly intelligent and autonomous, able to create its own patterns and sequences. The artist’s role will be to provide the moral and spiritual dimension that distinguishes us from the machines. In an ideal world technology would only ever be a means to an end – the problems arise when we forget what that end might be.
Tatsuo Miyajima: Connect with Everything
Museum of Contemporary Art, until 5 March
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 28th January, 2017.