Included in the 2016-2017 Sydney International Art Series, MCA Australia launches the artist’s first major life survey within the Southern Hemisphere.
In Buddhist philosophy the human life cycle is interpreted as a perpetual repetition of life and death, with death not an end point but a deep sleep between one life and the next – a short period of darkness. The length of these resting periods is unique to the individual – each of us possessing our own innate rhythm. As every life is different, so is every death.
One of Japan’s leading contemporary artists, Tatsuo Miyajima is fascinated by this infinite pattern, or in his words a “solemn drama performed for hundreds and thousands of years by each and every man,” which he represents through one of the most ordinary objects in contemporary life: the digital LED counter. He refers to these numerical displays as “counter gadgets” – the very same as are used in digital watches, microwave oven timers, train or bus station timetable displays, a multitude of everyday objects – and he has used them consistently in his work since the late 1980s.
However, where each individual digit on your watch will flash through 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 0, Miyajima’s stop short at 9 and return to 1, avoiding the finality of the number zero, which for Miyajima represents a final death. Over the past 30 years, his “counter gadgets” have been presented in grids, towers and complex circuits, even projected across the entire façade of the iconic 490-metre-high ICC building on Hong Kong’s Kowloon harbour-front, broadcasting Miyajima’s own three over-riding concepts across the whole of the cityscape: Keep Changing; Connect with Everything; Continue Forever.
Opening this year at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Miyajima’s first major retrospective takes the second of these major themes as its namesake, Connect with Everything, with the artist explaining: “Everything interacts with each other. Nothing is independent. Therefore, art should be positively engaged with anything, and represent this in its own ways. Art has long been isolated from the real world, and spoiled within its own framework of the art world.
“That was a survival guide for art. It created a tiny paradise, and protected itself from any danger by dissociating itself from the real world. However, such a closed environment would terminate art eventually, as intermarriage tends to have a less competitive result in the reproduction process. Art should interact with any kind of things. Only then can it obtain the power that is needed to give people courage.”
Used in sculptural pieces, room-sized environments, drawings and paintings, performance, artist sketchbooks, LED sample models and documentary film, Miyajima’s electronic counter gadgets draw together a single conversation about the nature of time, renewal and questions of mortality. Still, he has not always communicated through this medium. MCA Chief Curator Rachel Kent has followed the artist since his survey exhibition, Big Time, at London’s Hayward Gallery in 1996 – an exhibition that she can “still visualise” – and notes that today Miyajima’s light-based pieces “perform in lieu of him” – the artist originally specialised in performance.
Graduating from Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in 1986, his early work was particularly influenced by the practices of seminal European artists Joseph Beuys and Allan Kaprow, with Miyajima naming his own performance pieces “actions for society” inspired by the Happenings popularised throughout the 1960s. The “Happening” continues to persist in the contemporary scene as a planned multidisciplinary action which allows room for improvisation and audience reaction. The term was first coined in 1957 by Allan Kaprow, an American painter and performance art pioneer, as “a game, an adventure, a number of activities engaged in by participants for the sake of playing.” The audience can be knowing or unknowing, with passers-by finding themselves drawn into the “game” as the Happening erases the presence of a divide between artwork and viewer.
Although Kaprow first announced the concept of the Happening to key players in the American avant-garde during an art picnic at George Segal’s farm in New Jersey, several years earlier Happenings were already in full swing on the other side of the world, in Miyajima’s native Japan.
With its three traditional theatrical genres – Kabuki, Noh and Bunraku – Japan has a long history of dramatic, musical performance, which entered the political arena after the Second World War as Butoh or “dance of utter darkness”, devised to theatrically come to terms with Japan’s post-war devastation. This was then taken on by the Gutai – Japan’s first radical post-war artistic group – whose members performed acts such as painting with their bare feet, flailing in heaps of building clay and running through layers of paper. The Gutai’s first true Happening could be seen as their Experimental Outdoor Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Midsummer Burning Sun of 1955, whereby a site-specific installation was set up in a rural pine grove in Osaka, with the reactions of visitors forming part of the work.
For the Gutai’s 1955 Happening, participation was voluntary and wilful; however, 25 years later Miyajima pushed performance art in Japan to another level, drawing an unknowing audience into the avant-garde in a series of works which took the Happening to the streets, interrogating innocent bystanders. Between 1981 and 1983 Miyajima enacted a series titled NA.AR. (Voice), NA.AR (Human Stone) and NA.AR (Rain) across Japan. The first of these works saw the artist emit a scream as he walked through the crowded scramble of Tokyo’s famous Shibuya crossing; for the second, Miyajima squatted motionless in the midst of the flow of city pedestrians; and for (Rain) Miyajima would lie in the middle of a road during a downpour to leave a dry human trace.
These works demonstrated the beginning of a preoccupation with human relationships at a time before the artist’s discovery of the technological counter gadget. Now, as the exhibition at the MCA portrays, Miyajima has come full circle and returned to performance, with his most recent works combining the symbolism of the counter with a new expression of his prevailing interest in human action.
Exhibited at the MCA is a video recording of Miyajima’s most recent performance work Counter Voice in the Water at Fukushima (2014). Suited, with the shoreline Fukushima nuclear plant behind him and standing in front of a clear bowl filled with seawater, Miyajima aggressively counts down from 9 to 1. When he reaches 0, he inhales, holds his breath and plunges his face into the bowl. The artist repeats this time and time again until he is drenched in seawater taken directly from the site of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster; although Miyajima avoids mouthing the death number, zero, his repetitive ducking is an even more distressing sight.
As MCA curator, Kent explains “death and mourning are central to the work of Miyajima”, best expressed in this new exhibition with works that include “a series of floor-based sculptures studded with tiny LEDs to memorialise the natural disasters which have hit Asia over the last 20 years”, a 2008 work titled Counter Coal and Miyajima’s best-known work, Mega Death (1999). The former of these works was commissioned by the Kunsthalle Recklinghausen – a gallery set in one of Germany’s coalmining regions – and appears as a huge mound of black coal, interspersed with red diodes, which is encircled by another part of the commission – Time Train to the Holocaust (2008). Here a toy train hauls carts of tiny blue counter gadgets as it moves around the installation, which, according to Kent, serves to remind the viewer of Germany’s enormous “railway system, which was built for coal but also took a vast number of humans to their death.”
This work follows a very similar thought process as Mega Death, an enormous room-scale installation of twinkling blue LEDs, each representative of one human life and set to blink at intervals, momentarily immersing the audience in complete darkness. The work was first exhibited to represent Japan at the 1999 Venice Biennale, the title deriving from Miyajima’s consideration of the 21st century as “an era of artificial Mega Death” in which he explains that “167 million human lives [have been] lost in events caused by human acts such as war, revolution and conflict.” For the artist this is an act of theft, robbing time of its role as the decider of natural events, and stealing the unique life and death rhythm of each victim. Mega Death is the only one of Miyajima’s works that sets viewers in complete darkness, portraying the “terror of suspension” between life and passing over to the next stage when the fundamental patterns are disrupted.
Still, Miyajima’s LED works equally celebrate the precious potential of the human lifetime and the innate beauty of natural expectancy and death-time. Connect with Everything is an entirely immersive exhibition which has transformed an area of over 140,000 square feet of the MCA into a twinkling cosmos of blue, green, white and red diodes: projected onto the floor, spinning and flickering. Some galleries see children try to catch the numbers, whilst elsewhere, mirrors punctured with diodes reflect the viewer as if they have an entire solar system within their own body. Rippled like funfair mirrors or broken into shards and re-set to protrude outwards, as with Diamond In You (2013), the mirrors create symbolic associations of intricate origami or budding lotus blossoms.
Kent, who has worked with Miyajima since 2012 when the artist was included in the group exhibition devised to inaugurate Sydney’s new MCA building, Marking Time, notes that “white lotus flowers are a very important ower in Buddhism, associated with wisdom and the path to enlightenment.” One of the largest pieces in the current exhibition is 100 Time Lotus (2008): a 20-metre-long pool of water containing a hundred white underwater diodes, upon the surface of which oat a hundred white lotus flowers. For the curator, this piece is positioned as a moment of meditative reflection, an “antidote or calming response to the melancholic memorial works” with the significant incorporation of the lotus – a pure white flower that grows in muddy water, rising and blooming above the murk.
Miyajima’s work is a fascinating coupling between technology and spirituality, making full use of the circuits that connect all of us and commenting on the natural cycles of time and human action, the minute counter gadget serving as a constant reminder that each of us is only one tiny glimmering light amongst a vast universe of others.
Tatsuo Miyajima: Connect with Everything. MCA Australia, 3 November – 5 March.