Tatsuo Miyajima: Connect with everything. Museum of Contemporary Art, 140 George Street, Sydney. Closes March 5, 2017.
At 59, Tatsuo Miyajima has had a very distinguished career, representing Japan at the Venice Biennale in 1999, and he has been the subject of major exhibitions throughout the world. This is his biggest exhibition in Australasia to date and represents something of a survey of his art over the past three decades.
Have you ever known a person who could be mesmerised by digital counters for hours: be it a display on a CD player or simply a digital clock? Tatsuo Miyajima, after training as a painter and then working as an impromptu performance artist, was drawn to the simple LED digital counter gadget – one that would light up in red, green, blue or white – and count down numbers from nine to one and then momentarily extinguish itself, only to endlessly repeat the cycle.
Tatsuo Miyajima explains his attraction for these gadgets in that numbers are universally accessible and intelligible across cultures and that through them you can explore a whole philosophy of being. In Western thought, there is a linear progression from the cradle to the grave, with sometimes the promise of resurrection, while in Buddhist thought there is a cyclical progression, where following death there is reincarnation and the whole process recommences. The digital counters, which the artist describes variously as ''light and motors'' or ''performing objects'', epitomise this Buddhist philosophy, where once the counter reaches one, the whole cycle will repeat itself.
On top of this rather basic structure of ideas are endless refinements and levels of sophistication, for example, the cultural significance and symbolism of colours, or associations with specific number, such as the number eight within whose outlines all of the other numbers can be placed. In Buddhist thought eight has a particular significance through its visual association with the infinity symbol, when seen on its side. Using the LED digital counter as the basic element, Tatsuo Miyajima builds up complex installations, some of which may be termed as immersive chambers.
One of the most memorable installations in the exhibition, called Mega Death, was commissioned for the 1999 Venice Biennale. The concept is simple, yet brutally effective. The brief was to create a work that would sum up the 20th century and what stood out in the artist's mind was that it was a century of death that had been carried out on an industrial scale. Adorno's aphorism "Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric" springs to mind. Mega Death is a vast chamber with banks of twinkling blue LED digital counters, each counting down from nine to one. From time to time, all of the counters turn completely blank, symbolic of periods when huge numbers of people suddenly and unexpectedly perished. Then the counters slowly spring back to life. Although the artist initially programmed the digital counters, once launched, they develop a mind of their own and converse with each other at varying speeds, creating a society of flashing counters that unexpectedly can all suddenly cease to exist. In this sense chance plays a significant role in both society and in life and death. The colour blue may also be symbolic and can be associated with life, which gives the work an additional sense of poignancy.
Another major installation is the Arrow of time (2016) that is still in the process of development, and is designed to make people look up at the space above them and contemplate the passing of time and what this means to each person individually. As in much of his art, Tatsuo Miyajima plays with three interconnected concepts: that everything is in a state of change; everything is related to everything else and everything is ultimately part of an eternal cycle. The pieces are designed for complete engagement and contemplation and are built around the artist's thinking that there is art in every person and that a successful work of art is the one that speaks to the art that each person already carries within.
There is a certain tension in the exhibition, between a didactic content, clearly spelt out in the excellent catalogue essay by the exhibition's curator, Rachel Kent, and the much more intuitive and even lyrical lure of many of the pieces with lit domes, reflective mirrors and pools of contemplation. The whole exhibition appears as a profound meditation on the shape of time and our eternal cycle of reincarnation within this envelope of existence.