Tatsuo Miyajima is a veteran of the international exhibition circuit whose work has twice been included in the Venice Biennale (1988 and 1999). The artist believes that every human life is unique and important. To this end and over the last three decades, Miyajima has become known for his large-scale, immersive installations, which use LED-lit numbers, counting from one through to nine, backwards and forwards at different speeds, while never hitting zero.
“Zero would represent an end, or annihilation,” says curator Rachel Kent, who is organising a major upcoming survey of the artist’s work—simply titled Tatsuo Miyajima—at the Museum of Contemporary Art (the MCA) in Sydney, Australia. “His work is very much about cycles of life.”
Life, death, time and renewal are indeed at the core of Miyajima’s practice. The focus of the exhibition will be Mega Death, a key work first presented in the Japanese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1999 and that is being reconfigured for a double-height space at the MCA. Mega Death uses blue LED lights, which came into the artist’s practice following technological developments led by a team of Japanese scientists in the mid-1990s (incidentally, this research was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 2014). Prior to this, Miyajima’s LED environments were exclusively red and green—the only colours available at the time.
The technological expression of such themes—through LED-lit installations, projections and video works—belies the Buddhist underpinnings of the artist’s practice. Miyajima’s work operates around three concepts he describes as: ‘Keep Changing’, ‘Connect with Everything’, and ‘Continue Forever’, both elusive but admirable endeavours that convey the artist’s wish that art provide human beings with hope and a sense of connection to a broader, and immeasurable universe.
Not everyone is convinced. Critic Roberta Smith of The New York Times described one installation, presented at Luhring Augustine, as “an extra-large screen saver”. Indeed, reflection on the passing of time can risk banality. For Kent, however, the depth of the forthcoming MCA show lies in the exposure of the artistic process, with the exhibition presenting not only the large installation work, but also the first prototypes of the ‘counter-gadgets’ that Miyajima made in his Tokyo studio in the late 1980s—wiring and soldering them himself. Also on display will be the artist’s sketch books, never before shown to a curator. Kent explains, “I asked him, ‘Do you keep sketchbooks?’ and he said ‘Well, yes’, and I said ‘Have you ever let anyone look at them?’ And he said, ‘No’. I asked if there was any chance of seeing them, and he thought about it and brought them all out. So they’ll be in the exhibition too, and you’ll see the entire process unfolding, throwing quite a different light on his practice, taking you through the entire creative process.” The exhibition will also explore other manifestations of Miyajima’s practice, including video works and performance.
At art school, Miyajima was influenced by American and European conceptual art, particularly Bruce Nauman, as well as the Japanese gutai tradition of expressive vocal performances. Early works include NA. AR. The Voice (1981), which involved Miyajima walking into a busy Tokyo intersection and screaming. Echoes of this scream can be found in the Counter Voice video works, which involve a person—sometimes an actor, sometimes the artist—counting from one through to nine, and plunging their face into a bowl of various liquids, including water, wine and milk. The MCA survey will present a recent performance video titled Counter Voice in the Water at Fukushima, for which Miyajima sat on the Fukushima shoreline, plunging his face into radiated water, with the Fukushima plant damaged by the Tsunami that struck in 2011, visible across the bay behind him.
Does his work function to memorialise disasters? For Kent, that is an aspect to them, but not their ultimate purpose. “In Mega Death, you have all of these lights counting numbers at different speeds, and each one essentially represents a human life. It’s a work about death on an industrial scale, in this case in reference to the atomic bomb. Then everything goes black, and slowly, surely, one by one they light up and start again. Some count slowly, some count fast, but life begins again.”
Tatsuo Miyajima will exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, from 3 November 2016 to 5 March 2017.
Image 01. Mega Death, 1999. installation view, Japan Pavilion, 48th Venice Biennale LED, IC, electric wire, light sensor, Rosy Wu Collection, image courtesy the artist and SCAI THE BATHHOUS, Copyright the artist. Photo by Shigeo Anzai.
Image 02. Counter Void, 2003. white neon, film glass, aluminium, electric wire, IC, time control program, Collection of TV Asahi Corporation, Tokyo image courtesy the artist and SCAI THE BATHHOUSE, copyright the artist. Photo by Kunihiko Katsumata.
Image 03. Warp Time with Warp Self No. 2, 2010. LED, IC, eirror glass, electric wire, steel, Taguchi Art Collection, image courtesy the artist and SCAI THE BATHHOUSE, copyright the artist. Photo by Nobutada Omote.