‘Tatsuo Miyajima: Count of Life’ Catalogue of Artsonje Center, Seoul, 2002, (Essay by Kim Sun Jung )

7 Sep 2002

Tatsuo Miyajima:

Kim Sun Jung

My first encounter with Tatsuo Miyajima’s work was at ‘Special Exhibition of Recycling through Art’ at 1993 Daejeon Expo. Sine then, more encounters took place in various locals – group exhibition such as Taipei and Shanghai Biennales, the one-person show at Hayward Gallery, London, and in the collection of Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Perhaps I can say that his work is to be seen and found practically all over, for he is a rare case of artist hailing from Asia whose area of activity encompasses the larger world.

Miyajima’s work concerns ‘time’. We are cognizant of the fact that time flows, but unable to see it. Time changes, objectively and precisely, but it is difficult (if not possible) to see and confirm the flow. Though we cannot be conscious of every second and every minute of time flow, we can feel the time that is past. We use and feel time – seemingly exact, exacting, and never off-course – in different ways. Even a duration of time that is precisely measurable, e.g., ‘a day’, may be felt slow or fast by different persons. Like this, time is subjective.

In this exhibition, Miyajima asks us a question – until when do you wish to live? (Death Clock, 2002) Through the act of deciding when to die, the viewer may think about ‘death’, the future that doesn’t concern him/her in the everyday life, or may also look back upon his/her past. Or, it may be the life at the present moment that s/he would think about. If Death Clock contemplates death on the personal level, Mega Death (1999) deals with death in a collective sense. Fro Miyajima, ‘death’ is not the end, but the moment of a new beginning – an idea derived from the Buddhist philosophy. His work consists of changing numbers – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, without stopping (and not in that order) – and with the numbers, he shows us flows of time. The numbers seen in his works are from 1 to 9. 0 is absent. For Miyajima, 0 represents the concept of ‘gong’ (emptiness) rather than that of ‘mu’ (absent or negation). In the Buddhist terminology, gong connotes a number of things: 1) space, air, void, vacuum, and even phantom; 2) beings (forms, matters) exist not as noumenal entity, but rather as phenomenon that repeats the karma – driven cycle of appearance and disappearance (this is why it is distinct from mu); 3) ‘yu’ (presence, existence, the opposite of mu) takes place in gong, and it is in gong that you ceases (that is, the state of mu emerges). To put it differently, gong is the vessel which contains you and mu and also may be emptied of them. Gong is different than ‘bi-yu’ (not you).

Miyajima applies three basic (operative) concepts to his body of work: first, to keep changing; second, to connect with everything; third, to continue forever. The medium that links these three is the LED (Light Emitting Diode). Though he uses the technology of LED, the spirit of his work is connected to Buddhism, or the larger body of Eastern thought.

From Performance to LED

Miyajima is known as a technologically oriented artist because of his use of the LED. It was around 1986 that he started using the device. In his earlier works, he sought encounter with audience via the medium of performance, rather than painting or sculpture. In the 1981 performance work NA.AR. (Voice), for instance he screams “ara!” in busy, crowded streets. In the following year, he performed NA.AR. (Rain), in which he lies on the street in a rainy day, leaving the trace of his own body, and NA.AR. (Human Stone), in which he assumes the fetal position and turns his body into a ‘human stone’. The title shared by these public actions is Miyajima’s own neologism – the combination of ‘NA’ (nature) and ‘AR’ (artifice). For him, his performance actions correspond to artifice, while the social space in which people lives in nature. Studying at Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music at the time, Miyajima was less interested in works by individual artists than in the philosophical issues of the relationship between the artist and society and the former’s position in the later.

This philosophical interest of his expressed itself through the medium of performance, rather than in the form of concrete works. None of his performances was repeated, however, and because of that, it was difficult for audience to encounter his work. It was precisely due to this transitory nature of performance that he abandoned the medium in 1984. For artistic influences of his student days, Miyajima cites: the 1950s action painters who placed more emphasis upon the act of painting rather than painting per se, such as Jackson Pollock or Japanese Gutai artists; various ‘Happening’ artist in the U.S. and Europe of the 1960s, and the 1970s artists, such as Joseph Beuys and Bruce Nauman, who stressed the temporary charter of art.1) In Human Stone of 1983, Miyajima replaces the impermanence of performance with the material elements of a recording device and cassette tapes (there are two works with the title Human Stone – the above mentioned performance and sculpture, and here it refers to the latter.) The fleeting temporal moment of the performance Human Stone transforms into the concrete sculptural object of Human Stone.

With Time and It of the Future (both 1986), Miyajima’s work transitions from three-dimensional sculpture to installation. These installation works, in which devices of transitory time – TV monitors, videotapes, and timers – are connected through digital codes and exchange signals to one another, deal with ‘time-ness’. In It Goes on Changing 2) of the following year, he creates a series of works that link photographic reproductions of Barnett Newman’s and Piet Mondrian’s paintings to TV monitors. Also in the same year, he re-presents Clock for 300 Thousand Years (1987) that uses the LED full-scale. Following on the heels of this work, he creates a group of works that express flows of time through the LED – some examples include Sea of Time (1988) and Counter Line (1989), in which the viewer can spatially express new senses of time, and Lattice (1990), which has various orientations and arbitrariness of time.

Miyajima continues to develop variations on the quite common notion of ‘time’ in his work. More than any other device or medium, LED can effectively give form to the artist’s basic thoughts on ‘time’ – constantly changing, connecting to everything and anything, and permanently prolonging. Miyajima’s LED numbers change at different speeds. Furthermore, the image of contemporary Japanese society finds much resonance with the technology of LED and the Eastern thoughts embodies in his work – specially, the concept of gong. In U-Cars (1993–1994), he combines moving toy automobiles and LEDs to suggest the chaos and uncertainty of the universe. Due to the inherent technical limit at the time, the LED could emit only two colors of red and green. More recently, the advancement in the field has allowed Miyajima to use blue LEDs. Blue is the hue of the sky and the ocean, and also symbolizes permanence.

Miyajima is also a kind of artist who seeks to make social contribution through art. The 1995 work Revive Time, also called Kaki Tree Project (‘kaki is the Japanese word for persimmon) is a public project, in which participants plant the offspring of a persimmon tree that survived the atomic bombing in Hiroshima. The project seeks a way of finding hope through participation.

In the current one-person shows at Artsonje Museum, then at Artsonje Center are included Mega Death (1999), shown at the 48th Venice Biennale, Counter Voice in the Water (2002) recreated through a performance by Korean artists, Floating Time (1999), Death Clock (2002) and Counter Window (2002).

Mega Death

Presented at the 1999 Venice Biennale, the work contains the artist’s thoughts on numerous tragic incidents the humanity has inflicted upon itself in history. One interesting aspect about Miyajima’s art is that it deals with meta-discourses, e.g., ‘history’. In general, one can say that it is more difficult for those works that engages a meta-discourse or or a social situation to exist as art than those that are felt more personally. Despite of its consistent orientation towards meta-discourse, Miyajima’s work always allows visual experience and motive response to the viewer. Good works of art require no verbal explanation. Words may help viewer to appreciate Miyajima’s work but are far from necessary. For in the presence of his work, the viewer unmistakably feels something coming over to him/her.

Mega Death consists of 2,400 LED numbers fixed on the wall in an expansive room. All 2,400 LED’s change without stopping at different rates. At one (unexpected) moment, the room goes dark; at that moment, the viewer feels simultaneously a certain death and a longing for life. Miyajima encapsulates the totality of human incidents – wars, invasions, and other numerous atrocities – into the ‘collective death of the 20th century’. Each and every number, continuously and relentlessly changing, may be seen as an individual inhabitant of the planet earth. Or, one LED can represent each of our historical errors.

Mega Death is shown in two different formats in the current exhibition; in a large square room in Gyeongju, and in a quarter-circle enclosure in Seoul. The audience experience the work – which consists of blue LED’s – differently through the two distinct installations.

Death Clock

Death Clock poses a provocative question to viewer – “Until when do you wish to live?” When the viewer enters in the computer terminal the time when s/he wishes to die, it calculates the time left in the person’s life into seconds and starts the countdown. At the same time, the viewer-participant’s image is photographically recorded and input into the computer as a digital image. As the countdown proceeds, the image grows progressively thinner until it completely vanishes. But for someone whose lifespan is still long, a clearer image of him/her surfaces on the computer monitor. All human beings realize that they will die someday but do not like to think of ‘death’ itself. Through the participation of audience members, who are given a chance to determine their own lifespan, Death Clock compels us to think of death more actively. In the process, each of them looks back upon his/her own life and thoughts, and in the meantime, can plan for the future. It is no easy task to think about death in everyday life. If one assumes, in gazing into the future, the attitude of reminding oneself of the moment of death to come and preparing for it, s/he may be afforded an opportunity to reflect on how to prepare for his/her death, or the life after death, even. Life as we know it comes to us too fast, or too slowly. Perhaps, the work reminds us how necessary it is to be prepared for death and to (constantly) think about how to better live the remainder of life.

Counter Voice in the Water

Several Korean artists participate at Miyajima’s request in this work, in which which each participant’s thought on ‘death’ is revealed. Those invited artists – Kim Sora, Yook Keunbyung, Lee Bul, Lee U-Fan, Cho Duk-Hyun, Choi Jae Eun, and Choi Jeong Hwa – face the camera and count down from 9 to 1. Instead of counting 0, they dunk their heads in the water.

In 1995 version Miyajima himself enacted, he performs the same action. In other versions of the work, milk or wine is used instead of water. Also in Counter Voice in the Air of the same year, the artist counted numbers while being suspended in the air. Some of his early works – conceptual happenings such as NA.AR. (Voice), NA.AR. (Human Stone), NA.AR. (Rain) and A Grain of the Sand (1982) – were attempts to divide performance and its audience in the shared space, while seeking to register immediately reactions from the given surrounding. Dissatisfied with the transitory nature of these works in the medium. The revival of the medium in his oeuvre was motivated by the six hydrogen bomb tests conducted by France that year; the performance consists of six performers counting down from 9 to 1, and submerging their faces in the water. Needless to say, the participation of those other than the artist himself, and their personal reactions are important elements in the performance. And specifically for Miyajima also important is the aspect of social engagement. Whether it is his own performance, a performance with participation of others, or public projects (such as one in which the artist invited townspeople to determine the speeds of change of LED’s), Miyajima’s work always requires the viewer/participant to think about the social roles of art.

The participating Korean artists repeated for 15 minutes the act of counting 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, then immersing their faces in the water. In the course of enactment, they could reach the state of un-thinking. Each of the artists responded to the instruction in different ways, and his/her enactment displays similarities to his/her own works. For instance, Lee U-Fan’s performance gives an impression that artist substitutes for rocks used in his own works; Choi Jeong Hwa’s rapid-fire countdown and his shifty glances are reminiscent of his beloved phrases “roughly, roughly” and “quick, quick”, – expressions that encapsulate his perspective on contemporary society. Each of the participants of this performance is subject to deeply personal responses, and the difference is contingent upon his/her own individual background, experience, and life.

Floating Time and Counter Window

Floating Time is exactly what the title suggests – numbers floating around. Using computer graphics for the first time, Miyajima creates changing numbers drifting and bouncing around in space. And through this new experimentation, Miyajima goes beyond, the conventional limits in size and mobility of the LED. Previously, he made a work titled Running Time (1995) by loading LED’s in another work U-Cars, so that the numbers can be not bound but on the move. In Floating Time, two new characteristics materialize: first, the numbers are not fixed in specific physical positions, but float around while changing their colors and sizes; second, the audience spatially participate in the work. That is, the audience can be part of the work in this space of numbers, and while doing so, become also part of an unconscious performance. Numbers, projected from the ceiling to the floor, are scattered around in space. At each moment, the spatial configuration of the numbers shifts, and the viewer experiences the constant transformation of the space. The work can be flexibly installed depending on the space of exhibition. At Artsonje Museum, Gyeongju, two separate projections – red and yellow – are shot onto corresponding low-lying pedestals; at Artsonje Center, Seoul, the work is shown in a traditional Korean house on the museum premises.

Counter Window, shown only in Seoul, is produced using new-material liquid crystal. It normally appears to be foggy glass window; when electrical current flows into the windows, numbers appear as transparency, through which the image beyond the windows become visible. With the continuing currency, numbers continue to change.


Miyajima’s work is known for its changing, flickering numbers. And his work, his numbers change at different speeds, just as people change at different rates. One may say thus that Miyajima’s work represents life in general. Time flows differently for each person – depending on how it is used, and on the frame of mind – and this fact is represented as numbers changing from 9 to 1, or from 1 to 9. In Miyajima’s numerical universe, there’s no 0. That does not mean that ‘0’ doesn’t exist for Miyajima, but that the number symbolizes the moment of new beginning. Miyajima encountered with his audience through performances rather than through individually discreet works. Performance has the advantages of audience participation and unpredictability, but also the disadvantage of one-time-only transitory nature. In order to prolong the temporariness of performance, Miyajima has been developing works that use light and LED.

Miyajima expresses the utterly ordinary theme of ‘time’ through the LED. In his thinking, there are three basic components – to continue to change, to connect with everything, and to keep changing – and the LED is the best medium to convey these notions. Due to the characteristic of the medium, in the beginning stage, red, and later, green and blue have been used. For this particular artist, the artist’s role in society and his/her social context are important. In Mega Death and Kaki Tree Project, he invites us to rethink the history of the humanity checkered with numerous violences – atomic bombing, war, etc. He puts us in the room that blacks out with no moment’s notice, thus compelling us to come face-to-face with fear. Encountering the persimmon tree that survived the atomic bomb, the audience also experiences death, on the individuals as well as collective levels. What intrigues us about Miyajima’s work is that though it consistently takes various meta-discourses, it transcends the limitations set by those contents to impart visual and motive impacts. At the same time, he casts questions on life each individual viewers of his work. Inversely (seemingly) but essentially in the same vein, he asks us “Until when do you wish to live?” and bids us to think about death and, furthermore, to prepare for death.

Today, at this very moment, Tatsuo Miyajima and his work keep changing, connecting with one another and with everything, and continue forever.



  1. Michael Auping, “Theater of Time”, Tatsuo Miyajima: Big Time (Texas: Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 1996), p. 14.
  2. The work was influenced by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus; when first shown, the tile of the work was written with German “Es” instead of “It”.