Tatsuo Miyajima: the lightness of being
Financial Times March 18, 2016
To most of us, the seven-segment display — the flat, ubiquitous format able to generate all numbers from parts of an “8”, and the basis of every digital timepiece produced since the 1970s — must rank among the dullest images of the electronic age.To Tatsuo Miyajima, it’s a thrilling, powerful delivery mechanism: one of the few mediums, he rushes to inform me seconds into our interview, that allows an artist to express the universe-sized concepts of change, death, connection and eternity.
Sensing that he has startled, he settles back into an armchair, prods at a laptop and brings up pictures of his works over the past 30 years — a visually irresistible, often uncomfortable contribution to contemporary art that involves an awful lot of seven-segment displays.Some are vast, illuminated and wall-sized, others small and cut into mundane items such as banknotes. Conspicuously absent from all of them is zero, a number Miyajima sees as representing death. By avoiding it, his works hint at the birth-to-death cycle of human life but, in accordance with Buddhist belief, he does not view death as an end.Much of his work, with its fusions of electronics and nature, has the feel of futuristic art as imagined by the more optimistic science fiction writers of the 1970s. There are other typically Miyajima gimmicks, involving multiple beads of LED lighting or human heads being thrust into bowls of liquid, but often these, too, have enumeration somewhere at their heart.
It is not, Miyajima explains, that he is particularly obsessed with numbers. Nor that, at 59, he is in every sense part of the generation of Japanese who globalised the seven-segment display in the form of cheap Casio watches and Sharp calculators. The fact that so many of his works involve digital displays or verbal countdowns is merely testament to the ability of numbers to transcend cultures, he says. Although that does not, he admits, make his art automatically accessible.“Art is something very free in its interpretation. So two people looking at the same thing but from different generations or cultural backgrounds will have totally different impressions [ . . .] What is important is the existence of my hidden message, that people who see my work receive that message,” he says.
Miyajima’s gentleness is beguiling. His soft monologues are peppered with references to nature, fragility and the need to “connect with everything”. It makes his diatribes — abrupt, unexpected and harshly critical of Japan — all the more pungent. He mocks the state of Japanese education: when he was a student the great art academies placed no emphasis on contemporary art, and he feels that not much has changed. If Miyajima had not taken his own initiative to learn about it, “nobody else at the art academy would have taught me. It was all about very old art. They stuck me in the oil painting department.”He is even more scathing about the country’s corporate fascination with monozukuri, or “the art of making things” — a word used to encapsulate the precision and beauty with which so many Japanese manufactured goods are supposedly infused. But to view it as an art form, says Miyajima, is wrong.
“To change the world, you need innovation and new ideas. Those are the only things that are highly valued in the world of contemporary art. Japanese society is good at making things, but in terms of new ideas, we are a backward nation [ . . . ] That is the biggest reason that Japanese artists do not become globally famous: they are not good at creativity,” he says.He is especially proud of his early adoption of the blue LED, the invention that created low-energy white light and revolutionised the way the world and its gadgets are illuminated. Before all that happened, Miyajima spotted the technology’s potential for art and it has been central to most of his projects ever since.“The moment I read about it in the paper, I ran out and got one because I knew I had to have it. The LED light is different from normal lightbulbs. It is a very pure light, as if it came from the universe itself. It was important to me. I adored the idea of an abstract world — the kind that artists like Yves Klein were trying to create. The LED seemed to let me touch that concept,” he says.His latest work is on the grandest of scales: a permanently moving cascade of numbers in an LED lighting display that runs down the outer walls of Hong Kong’s tallest skyscraper. Other artists have attempted to use the ICC as their canvas, but Miyajima believes that his numbers will have more impact than any of their works.“Both the numbers themselves, their size and the speed they fall is completely random. It is very chaotic, very fragile. The numbers and speeds will always be different so the image you see one moment will never be seen again. If you see a pattern in a display like this, you get bored after three minutes. But when you see randomness, it is like seeing a real waterfall.”
And what is the Miyajima message hidden on these 484-metre walls of steel and glass? “I think that human life and death are viewed as decreasingly important as the world moves more quickly,” he says. “For me, the numbers are people’s lives. Birth to death is a countdown from nine to one. It is so very fragile. It must be cherished. That is why they fall straight down and never come back.”He returns to the question of undertaking work on such a large and ostentatious scale, and the artistic channels that brought him there. Again, the rights and wrongs of monozukuri as national ideal bubble into his train of thought. His early years as an artist in the 1980s, he says, were set against the background of the global success of Sony, whose products were ambassadors for the Japanese belief that “small is beautiful”. To Miyajima, working on small-scale projects in a small-scale studio, it did not feel unnatural at the time.“In that sense, I was very Japanese. But my idea was to connect with everything so if the space was small, the pieces of work must be small,” he says, noting how things have since changed. “My concept became one of expanding my art kaleidoscopically, connecting media, space and cultures. That means I can do it on a skyscraper in Hong Kong, or in a small Japanese teahouse.”
Tatsuo Miyajima’s light installation ‘Time Waterfall’ is on show at Art Basel Hong Kong, until March 26, intermittently between 7.20pm-10pmLeo Lewis is the FT’s Tokyo correspondent