The Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) presents Tatsuo Miyajima ‘s Connect with Everything as part of the Sydney International Art Series 2016–17. One of Japan’s leading contemporary artists, Tatsuo Miyajima is known for his immersive and technologically driven sculptures and installations. Curated by MCA Chief Curator Rachel Kent, this is the artist’s first retrospective exhibition in the Southern Hemisphere and is exclusive to Sydney. Tatsuo Miyajima represented Japan at the 1999 Venice Biennale with the vast installation Mega Death. A highlight of this survey, Mega Death is a room-scale installation of brilliant, blinking blue LEDs, each representative of human life or energy. A silent, twinkling memorial to death during the Second World War recalling Hiroshima and Auschwitz, the lights are programmed to switch off at intervals, plunging viewers into complete darkness momentarily, before lighting up and counting once more. Another highlight of the MCA exhibition is a new installation, Arrow of Time (Unfinished Life), recently presented at The Met Breuer, New York.
Central to Tatsuo Miyajima’s practice are numerical counters that count from one to nine repeatedly using light-emitting diodes (LEDs), which then go dark momentarily. The repetition of numbers, along with the shift from light to dark, reflects the importance of time. The artist draws inspiration from Buddhist philosophy, exploring mortality and human cycles of life, death and renewal. Other works in the exhibition immerse visitors in a different way. They bathe viewers in coloured light, surround them from above and below, and reflect them through the use of polished, reflective surfaces including mirror and glass.
Despite his use of high-end technology, Tatsuo Miyajima has also harnessed elemental materials—water, earth and coal. Counter Coal (2008/2016) for example comprises a vast black mound of coal in the gallery, punctuated by red LEDs. In the MCA exhibition, a second work wraps around its perimeter. Entitled Time Train to the Holocaust (2008/2016), it features a model train that hauls tiny blue counter gadgets in its wagons. Connect with Everything also includes the artist’s paintings, works on paper and performance videos. In the 1990s, Tatsuo Miyajima commenced a series of live works where actors or the artist himself repeatedly counted down from nine to one, and back up again. At each interval the performers would submerge their face into a bowl of liquid (water, milk or red wine) suggesting the fluids of life. Two of these works will be presented at the MCA — Counter Voice in the Water at Fukushima (2014) and Counter Voice in Wine (2000).
Three guiding principles represent the foundation of Miyajima’s art, which he outlines as keep changing, connect with everything, and continue forever. “A constant is the fact that we are always changing,” he observes. “In Western thought, permanency refers to a sense of constancy, without change. In Eastern and Buddhist philosophy, change is natural and consistently happening.” Explaining the importance of connection, he expands: “As humans and living beings, we cannot and do not exist independently. We are only able to live within relationships in this world.” The third principle – expressed through the perpetual cycle of birth, death and regeneration – refers back to the first two, for “that is the structure of life and of truth.”
For Miyajima, the numbers 9-1 reflect a human scale, showing life on a singular level as well as a wider, communal one. The gap between counting cycles – the zero – represents a pause or breath, the “space of death” before life begins once more. Within this cycle, death is simply a state like life: “it is just a question of if it is visible or not.” From the singularity of a human life to the entirety of humankind, reinventing itself generation after generation, this cycle is manifested at a micro and macrocosmic scale. Extending beyond the human scale, one might think of the cosmos in all of its vastness – endlessly expanding and contracting, collapsing notions of past, present and future into one co-existent state. Miyajima concludes, “On the macro level, you have not just one human but all living things. The conglomerate has a life cycle of its own, whether it is a country, or a planet, or a universe.”
Speaking about the “zero” in his practice, Miyajima recalls the number’s origins in 6th century India and its Sanskrit word, sūnya, which in Japanese translates as Kū or “the void.” Interestingly, he observes that the original meaning of sūnya was two-fold, describing both a state of emptiness and swollenness – “an explosion.” He asks: “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.”
Colour is also significant within the artist’s practice. Treated equally in his work, despite their different meanings or associations, each colour reflects the growth and development of commercial LED technology since its inception in the late 1960s. In 1987 Miyajima developed the concept of his first LED counter gadget, making a diagram for it and creating a prototype, with the help of a local electronics company. When he made his initial LED art works in 1988, only red and green LEDs were available commercially. In 1994 Nagoya University in Japan developed the technology for blue LEDs. The following year, the electronic engineer Shuji Nakamura of Nichia Corporation developed a stronger luminosity, enough for blue LEDs to be used in daily life. He subsequently received the Nobel Prize for Physics for his invention of this efficient, energy-saving technology. Commercially available blue LEDs were soon followed by white (a combination of red, green and blue electroluminescence). Miyajima immediately began to incorporate them within his practice, opening up a whole new dimension to his art. Blue in particular has meaning across many cultures, suggesting the sky, the universe and infinity. It also has cultural and religious associations, as the colour of divinity and the Star of David in Judaism. White too opens up a range of spiritual associations, among them the lotus, the Buddhist flower that represents pure life and knowledge or wisdom leading to enlightenment. Red and green have their meanings as well: fire, life, nature and new growth among them. The idea of a colour without boundary, depthless, is explored by Miyajima’s own room-scale installation Mega Death (1999), a vast, twinkling enclosure of blue counter gadgets that periodically switch off in unison, plunging viewers into temporary stasis or “death” before the counting cycle begins again.
The idea of colour without limits is explored in the artist’s room-scale installation Mega Death (1999/2016). Wrapping around three walls, it is a vast, glittering enclosure of blue counter gadgets that periodically switch off in unison, plunging viewers into temporary darkness before the counting cycle begins again. It is impossible to predict when, or for exactly how many seconds, the counter gadgets will switch off. This element of unpredictability is central to the artist’s work and serves as a metaphor for life itself. Mega Death represents a memorial to death on an industrial scale over the past century, recalling the Second World War, Hiroshima and Auschwitz. It is also a powerful statement about humanity’s capacity to heal and begin again.
Arrow of Time, which was first installed at the Met Breuer in New York earlier in 2016, refers to the astronomical concept of time’s irreversibility – that it cannot rewind itself and ‘come back’ again. For Miyajima, this is reflective of life itself and the fact that a particular moment in time cannot be re-made. “In everyday life, we tend to forget this reality so I would like to communicate that we live in moments that cannot be recovered.” Creating a situation where “those moments are raining from the universe,” he chose red LEDs to express caution and urgency in relation to our brief but significant moment on this planet.
Having created a series of performance works during his student years in the early 1980s, Miyajima returned once more to performance in the 1990s. He created a series of live works that feature actors – or the artist himself – voicing a repeated counting sequence, 1 through to 9, and back down again. At each interval, the performers plunge their faces into a bowl of liquid (water, milk or red wine) suggesting the fluids of life. The liquid cascades down their torsos and stains their clothes, and the counting becomes increasingly laboured as the cycles repeat. Unlike the one-off events of his youth, Miyajima’s Counter Voice works continue to exist as performance videos for public display. Building upon Mega Death, with its memorial to Hiroshima, he began the series in response to French nuclear weapons testing in the Moruroa Atoll, in the Pacific Ocean, during the mid-1990s. Clear Zero in the Water (1996) is an 11-minute performance staged at the Cartier Foundation, Paris, featuring six French performers who plunge their faces into bowls of de-radiated seawater from the Moruroa Strait. Miyajima describes Clear Zero in the Water as “a manifesto” and has since followed it with a related performance video, Counter Voice in the Water at Fukushima (2014), which is included in the MCA exhibition. This work features the artist dressed as a Japanese ‘everyman’ in a grey suit and tie, with the contaminated sea and damaged nuclear power plant visible behind him. He says: “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.”
In contrast to Miyajima’s large scale public artworks, which give an idea of the immersive nature of his work but are not on display during the exhibition in Sydney, his exhibited Pile Up Life sculptures (2009) are small ‘stupas’ moulded from dried earth and studded with blue or red LEDs. Each conical structure pays tribute to the many lives lost across Asia in recent years to natural disaster, including earthquakes, typhoons and mudslides.
Tatsuo Miyajima was born in 1957 in Tokyo, and currently lives and works in Ibaraki, Japan. In 1984 he obtained his BA in Fine Arts: Oil Painting, followed in 1986 by his MA at Tokyo University of the Arts. In 1998 he was awarded Honorary Doctorate by the University of Arts London. He has been appointed Vice President of Tohoku University of Art and Design, Yamagata, Japan (2006-2016) and Vice President of Kyoto University of Art and Design, Japan (2012-2016). Some of his grants and residencies include the Visual Art Grant: United States (Asian Cultural Council, Japan, 1990), Artists in Berlin Program (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, Berlin, 1990-1991), and Artist in Residence (Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, 1993). Miyajima’s work is included in numerous public and private collections around the world, such as Benesse Art Site (Naoshima, Japan), Chiba City Museum of Art (Japan), Contemporary Art Museum (Kumamoto, Japan), Dallas Museum of Art (US), Dannheisser Foundation (New York, US), Denver Art Museum (US), DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art (Athens), Goetz Collection (Munich, Germany), Group Home Sala (Akita, Japan), FARET Tachikawa (Tokyo), Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain (Paris), Foundation Teseco per l’Arte (Pisa, Italy), Hara Museum of Contemporary Art (Tokyo), Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art (Japan), Iwaki City Art Museum (Fukushima, Japan), Izumi City Plaza (Osaka, Japan), Kunisaki City (Japan), Kunstmuseum Bern, Kunstmuseum Stuttgart (Germany), la Caixa Collection of Contemporary Art (Barcelona, Spain), Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago, US), Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (Texas, US), Museum of Modern Art (Saitama, Japan), Museum of Modern Art (Shiga, Japan), Nagoya City Art Museum (Japan), National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa), National Museum of Modern Art (Kyoto, Japan), Samsung Foundation for Culture (Seoul), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (US), Schweizerische Mobiliar Genossenschaft Collection (Bern), Staatsgalerie Moderne Kunst (Munich), Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Tate Collection (London), Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, Toyota Municipal Museum of Art (Aichi, Japan), TV Asahi Corporation (Tokyo), and Université de Genève (Switzerland).
Some of Tatsuo Miyajima’s most recent solo exhibitions include MEGA DEATH: shout! shout! count! (Tokyo Opera Art City Gallery, 2000), Counter Pieces (Galerie der Stadt Stuttgart, Germany, 2000), Count of Life (Art Sonje Center, Seoul and Art Sonje Museum, Gyeongju, Korea, 2002), Tatsuo Miyajima (Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Roma, Rome, 2004), Beyond the Death (Contemporary Art Museum, Kumamoto, Japan, 2005), Counter Voice (Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia, 2005), Art in You (Art Tower Mito, Japan, 2008), Time Train (Kunsthalle Recklinghausen, Germany, 2008), 38 (Mongin Art Center, Seoul, 2008), Time Train (Six, Osaka, Japan, 2010), Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust (Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, 2011), Three Time Train / Counter voice on the Wall (Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, Switzerland, 2011), House Lives with Time (Han Family’s House, Gahoe-dong, Seoul, 2012), LIFE I-model (SCAI THE BATHHOUSE, Tokyo, 2012), I-Model (Lisson Gallery, London, 2013), Life (Rhizome) (Buchmann Galerie, Berlin, 2013), KU (Lisson Gallery, Milan, Italy, 2014). His work has recently been included in comprehensive group shows, such as Aperto ’88 (43rd la Biennale di Venezia, Venice, 1988), Magiciens de la terre (Centre Georges Pompidou and Grande halle de la Villette, Paris, 1989), Prospect 89 (Frankfurter Kunstverein and Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, Germany, 1989), Zones of Love: Contemporary Art from Japan (Touko Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney; touring internationally; 1991), Art at the Armory: Occupied Territory (offsite project, Chicago Avenue Armory, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, US, 1992), Performing Objects (Institute of Contemporary Art< Boston, US, 1992), The Magic of Numbers in 20th Century Art (Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Germany, 1997), Site of Desire: 1998 Taipei Biennial (Taipei Fine Arts Museum, 1998), CHRONOS & KAIROS (Museum Fridericianum, Kassel, Germany, 1999), The 3rd Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia, 1999), Shanghai Spirit: 3rd Shanghai Biennale (Shanghai Art Museum, China, 2000), Black Box: Der Schwarzraum in der Kunst (Kunstmuseum Bern, 2001), Facts of Life (Hayward Gallery, London, 2001), Happiness: a survival guide for art and life (Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, 2003), A Grain of Dust. A Drop of Water (5th Gwangju Biennale, Korea, 2004), Artempo: Where Time Becomes Art (Palazzo Fortuny, Venice, 2007), Prospect.1 (New Orleans, US, 2008), In-Finitum (Palazzo Fortuny, Venice, 2009), Integration and Resistance in the Global Age: 10th Havana Biennial (Plaza de San Francisco de Asís, Havana, 2009), Marking Time (Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, Australia, 2012), Carpe diem. Seize the day (Toyota Municipal Museum of Art, Aichi, Japan, 2012), Kunisaki Art Festival (Bungotakada and Kunisaki, Japan, 2014), REAL DMZ PROJECT 2015 (Art Sonje Center, Seoul, 2015), Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible (The Met Breuer, New York, US, 2016).