Interview: by “transcript”

24 Jun 1997

transcript : How does your previous work, including the performance work, connect to your current preoccupations?

Tatsuo Miyajima : My performance work has its origins in 1980, when I was a student at art school. I was interested in performance art for five years and then stopped for ten years, during which time I turned to the idea that objects might be perpetually transforming, not solid state. And then I began making objects with this in mind. I started making objects which I wanted to be essentially unstable. I became involved in the potential of light and movement. Eventually I realised that, in a different way from live performance, these new objects involving movement and involving light were performing.
For these object-based performance pieces I wanted a larger, and more international, audience than had been possible for the live performances, although I had been attracted to the temporality of live performance, and still am. With the object-based performance pieces I became reconciled to a certain degree of temporality, because the audience would need to visit a specific venue, often a gallery, to encounter the work. The audience was a further agent of change. The audience was never, or perhaps rarely, of the same composition twice. I then started to consider my work as a performance installation. I wanted the object to be as active as possible, so that the performance installation would be a ‘live performance’. This would then create a different relationship between art and its audience.

t : Numbers in your art work are part of a figural, literal, physical and therefore associative set of experiences, and at the same time abstract…

M : [In English] Difficult question.
I think that numbers register with us and we connect with them because they are both of these states to which you refer, the figural and the abstract.

t : We think about numbers, and some of us think of them as quantified and quantifiable. We imagine they relate to sizes, amounts, weights, ratios and so on. We often think of them as gains and losses. It is difficult not to attach a personal meaning to them. They calibrate the rituals of our individual and collective lives. But we do not really understand much about numbers. Most of us could not define the term “pure mathsç, for” instance. At such times we realise that we cannot firmly attach a number to something and sustain a logical argument. So numbers are caught between the meanings we attach to them and no meaning…

M : This raises a serious philosophical issue because with numbers we do veer between the figural and the abstract. We do the same with language. We oscillate and drift between the two with a frequency we do not care, or remember, to analyse.

t : Digital number LED (Light Emitting Diode) technology can be used to create the digit 0-9 (and therefore all numbers ad infinitum) together with a limited number f European alphabet based letterforms Πupper case A, lower case B, and so on. How, in terms of what it is and what it can do, does LED technology have a bearing on your work?

M : I discovered LED in Tokyo, in relation to both its more complex technical aspects and its conceptual potential. LED helped me formulate my core concept which has been quoted elsewhere: keep changing, connect with everything, continue for ever.

There were these numbers which, if they were randomly processed, would set up all sorts of mental associations which varied according to the audience. And they would just keep going, creating changing associations.

When I thought about LED, I realised it was a technology working parallel with my concerns and ambitions. Of all technological developments, it epitomises my thinking about numbers: and it has light and movement which produces a sense of life – almost.

As you say, digital number LED has all the numbers from 0 to 9 infinity, in every direction. All the numbers can be found in LED. Digital numbers have all ten numbers contained in one. This number has everything. Number is everything.
I make digital number LED a metaphor for human beings because everyone has ten words connected to their lives.
When I think of all numbers in one, it follows that the whole is made up of all of its parts. Heisenberg said as much about the universe and about time, and I was immediately struck by his understanding of apparently complex but ultimately simple relationships between things. And the things that are perhaps as yet unknown.

t : If you know where an electron is, you are vague about its motion; If you know how it is moving, you cannot know where it is?

M : Yes. That is an important point about the object, movement, space and time principle. LED devices can be interconnected, and this works well with what I am trying to do in relation to connecting things, or in trying to suggest a connectivity.
transcript : Are your sequences of numbers calculated mathematically?
M : No. No mathematical logic is involved, beyond the infinite play within one to nine and the idea of one people. Time is inside. There are two senses to this. One is to count up from one to nine. The other is to count down in the opposite direction. Neither includes zero. Both repeat.

t : What other forms of logic generate the numbers?

M : The logic of random selection, IC (Integrated Circuit) chips produce the numbers in randomly selected sequences. I choose the timing and I specify how many LED devices are linked together. They appear to be calculated logically because ‘surely’, we think, ‘there must be a logic’. But they are calculated illogically. And so we might try not to impose a logic on them.

t : Do you think, as quantum cosmologists Hawking, Hartle and Gell-Mann seem to do(3), that chaos is calculable?

M : Chaos is capable of so much…
Some physicists try to calculate chaos only to find that it is impossible to reach or to imagine.

t : Language is difficult when thinking about time. It seems even more imprecise and slippery than usual…

M : Time. It is simple, really. It is like air. If we try to grasp air, there is nothing.
Some images, some particular works of art, helps us to think about time.
We do not need to understand time, although we think that we do. But we are living it.

t : We are doing time?

M : Yes, doing time by living it.

t : You spoke earlier about the whole being made up of all its parts. Does your interest in Buddhism include the way in which different bodies of knowledge seem to converge at different points in time and space? I am thinking here, in relation to your work, of cosmology, optoelectronics, mathematics, meteorology, quantum physics – art.

M : The timescale in Buddhism is infinite. Things come together and then divide. New things come into being.
One of the Buddhist texts, Lotus Sutra, offers an important example of time and space imagining.
There is one story about 500 jntengo. What is referred to in this story is past measuring and no-one can fully imagine it because it is unthinkable. One jntengo is a crashed universe. It crashes and what is left is a countless number of grains of dust. From each grain of dust a new universe forms. This is the story on one jntengo and there are five hundred jntengo. And history repeats itself over time.
There is also a way of thinking within Buddhism which has a time meaning without a tense. It does not acknowledge a time of the present or the future or the past. It then becomes easier to accept that incalculable numbers might exist in such a definition of time.
If you can imagine Buddhist time…it connects with everything which is at the heart of your question.

t : Can you expand on your recent adoption of Marie-Louise von Franz’s symbolic allusion(4) that time is expressed in Western Europe as a snake, in East Asia as a dragon, in America as a twin-headed serpent?

M : When I made the spiral work I was aware that in western culture time is linear, but in Eastern culture the emphasis is on a spiral form as a way of representing time. The spiral work makes reference to the twin-headed serpent. I kept in mind the idea of a ‘time father’ who has a serpent entwisted around his body – time here is not linear but flows backwards as well as forwards., the spiral is also suggestive of a chain formation. To me there is a connection with other life chains, such as DNA, the dragon, in a way, symbolises the time of the universe – god of the whole.

t : Your audience needs to work at these associations?

M : Yes, I prefer to articulate visually, rather than explain verbally. This has always been the case. A painting by Giotto, for example, worked according to this principle – and still does.

t : Does your work reflect the idea that time is a regulating principle of the human condition, and also an organising principle within the human corporeal being? This is a question about the relationship between inside and outside for people…for objects.

M : There is no outside or inside time. Everyone has their own condition, their own motion, their own time. That means that time cannot exist without human intelligence and art cannot exist without an audience. Art and time come from people.

t : Could you say something about your Mondrian pieces?
Mondrian linked abstraction, beyond Modernist formalism, to spiritual values. Why did you connect your work with Mondrian’s?

M : I was interested in Mondrian’s preoccupation with dynamism, and struck by the static quality of his chosen medium. I wanted to bring movement to bear, in the form of a connected piece, to some of Mondrian’s works.
transcript : How is a Mondrian changed by the addition of your connected piece?

Tatsuo Miyajima : The Mondrian changed and keeps changing as a consequence.

t : What would happen if you removed the Mondrian?

M : [In English] Good question.
The Mondrian and the connected piece are bringing together of the two cultures, East and West, so the Mondrian is essential to the Mondrian pieces.
t : Have any other artists prompted you to respond to their work?

M : I am in the process of responding to a particular dancer’s art in a new collaboration. I want to create a time- dance. This is at an early stage, but this might possibly be an extension of this idea.

t : Why do you avoid using zero?

M : Zero is discovered in the sixth century in India. It meant nothingness, and at the same time, it had associations of plenitude, of increase, of expansion. Avoiding zero is a deliberate inclusion of a void – a rejection of the idea of nothingness, a recognition that the duality in the original meaning had been lost. Taking out zero focuses attention on zero.
Zero is very important whether we like it or not. One reason for this is that it is a symbol for death. But this view has been modified, ameliorated. For example, one Japanese philosopher, Daisaku Ikeda, suggests that zero is not ‘nothingness’ but rather ‘the rest of life’. And like the ‘rest of life’ it prepares for the next part of life, like sleep at night is a restorative for the day ahead. And like sleep every night, zero keeps repeating itself.

t : What about zero space, of the kind you have previously described in terms of some of your exhibition environments?

M : I am interested in the idea of voids and solids.

t : How do you tune your installation work to its intended space?

M : Space responds to my work.

I also collaborate with space.

t : Your work is silent, but some people tell you that they are sure that they can hear sound. What do you think the ears might be doing when the audience encounters your work?

M : There are going to be sounds in any work despite the apparent silence, it is because of the way sound works in void-like situations but where there are also visual stimuli. Also, numbers form a rhythm. We hear them.Rhythm, in turn, has an influence on what we see.

t : Do we hear, as individual members of an audience, different things? Of course we must…

M : I don’t know because I am not you. But I think art is like a mirror. We discover ourselves through art.

t : Do we listen differently in the West and in the East?

M : To think that we listen differently is easy and to work in response to that assumption is also easy. Difference is obvious and it is on the surface.
A deeper idea and a broader view of listening is to think in terms of what can be universally grasped and to make art that can be universally grasped.
transcript : One of the things I like best about your work is what I take to be the meeting of imaginative vision and physical vision.
Sometimes, when I look at your numbers, I imagine other numbers.

Tatsuo Miyajima : I want the audience to bring whatever they can or whatever they must to the work. Then it is not what we can do with numbers, it is what numbers can do for us. In our consciousness. [Takes up a pen, writes: ART IN YOU.]

t : What significance does colour have for your work? You have worked with red and green, and now the technology has allowed you to use blue in your new piece…

M : Kandinsky ‘s theory was that yellow is a triangle, red is a square and blue is a circle.
Blue is crucial, and it is connected to the circular form, because blue is unformed. It escapes, and in a sense is not there. We must put the ultimate form around it.

t : An archetypal form?

M : Yes, an ultimate form around it. A circle. The symbol of the universe and infinity.

t : The sky. The sky is inextricably linked in imagist thinking with blue. We say sky blue, but the is sky difficult to talk about in terms of colour. We cannot hold colour for long without form. Where and what is the sky?

M : Sky is invisible. It is not a solid. When I lie down in a field I look at the sky.
I cannot begin to think about measuring it. I think of sky both as very close and at a distance…
I think of the sky as the first clock. I also think of the sky as a potent source of creative imagination, Yves Klein made ‘international klein Blue’ out of the sky.
But the sky is invisible.
Yes, where is the sky?

t : Moving from a blue circle to the framing devices in your work, could you comment on the frame?

M : That which is in a frame always seems to be on the point of escaping. Even with the frame there is instability.
My piece Time in Blue has a panel frame. Normally I want the frame to be invisible or not there at all. But in this case, the frame is literally a framing device, because Time in Blue refers to the sky.
The numbers are arranged in chaos positions but the frame provides logic. It is like the window frame which seems to contain the (invisible) sky.

t : And do you connect foaming with naming?

M : I use names to tell things apart, and also to connect things together.

Tatsuo miyajima’s awareness of the premillenium counting down metaphor was evidenced by his counting conference performance, staged at the Hayward Gallery on 24th June 1997.
Twelve people counted in twelve languages from nine to one.
They were positioned at a round conference table like twelve markers on a clock face. They counted down in their own time.

1. Saint Augustine, Confessions Book XI. Time and Eternity, xxlli.
2. From notes taken doing first meeting.
3. Following the dissemination of Albert Einstein’s ideas about Brownian motion (the erratic zigzagging of a particle suspended in fluid resulting from molecular bombardment) and Werner Heisenberg’s theories, which became popularly known as the ‘uncertainty principle’, quantum cosmology moved into a new phase of reasoning associated with Stephen Hawkin, James Hartle and Murray Gell-Mann.
4. Marie-Louise von Franz, Number and Time, Northwestern University Press, 1974.
5. Kasimir Malevich in a letter to Mikhail Matiushin, May 15, 1915. Malevich’s exhibition 0-10 opened in Petrograd on December 15, 1915. Cited in Chariotte Douglas, Swans of Other Worlds: Kasimir Malevich and the Origins of Abstraction in Russia, Ann Arbor, IJMI, 1980. p54.
6. Saint Augustine, op. cit, Book XI, xxIII.
7. ‘Kansas City’, Little Richard.