‘THE DELUGE OF TIME PAINTING AND NUMBERS ON THE SURFACE OF ART’ Catalogue of Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rome, 2004, (Essay by Achille Bonito Oliva)

22 Mar 2004


Achille Bonito Oliva

Between full and empty, between noise and silence, between number and pause, time writes its own total. For this is the sum of all numbers and of all pauses. And the pause contains a further space. One that acts as an interstice that is also mental–between one number and the next. Between repetition and difference, Tatsuo Miyajima gives the pause the task of repetition and the number that of difference, and vice versa, according to the spatial or temporal point of view. In any case, both elements are adopted as a unit of measurement, perceptible counterpoints in the invisible passing of time.

Numerical progression, by definition, does indeed always tend to advance and knows no hindrance. Miyajima began by inscribing the number one, and since then has continued without the slightest derogation, with endless LED counting. Because Miyajima is not a machine, he does not possess the synthesis time but only the desire to express it and bear witness to it with relative objectivity. But if time is a continuum, the number-which is used to measure it-is a fractioned and fractioning unit, so it cannot describe all of the time on its own and, in order to do so, it needs the pause, the interruption of numbering, which gives its continuity.

So the pause always exists before the number: before the number one there is an empty interstice from which the potential for the number departs. And so works do not terminate with numerical completeness, but with the emptiness of the final pause. The beginning is the initial pause, the fragment of pre-existing time. The number is what the artist manages to describe of the temporal continuum, while the pause becomes symptom if an infinity that remains outside the artist’s experience. This means that the pause becomes a unit of measurement of this infinity just as the the number is the unit of measurement of the finite work. The pause is a number that is repeated to infinity, even when there is no longer any portion to be filled in, nor any experience that can be accomplished.

Now time and space face each other in a forward-facing and differentiated position: time as the virtuality of absence (the pause), space as a contextual presence of flagrancy and absence. The pause follows its geometrical recurrence, using the number as a sound that heralds silence. Miyajima has understood the profound and dramatic sense of the temporal continuum, its numerical progression that tends towards infinity, since it is outside the research of the circumstantial existence of the individual. Infinity is all that cannot be measured by numbers or direct experience, it is the present shifted continually forward and postpones in the consecutiveness of the work.

“The amalgamation of time constitutes the present, and even though the present is not a dimension of time, only the present exist, is nevertheless intra-temporal. Which means that present passes away. Certainly, it is possible to conceptualize a perpetual present, a present that is co-extensive with time – it is just necessary to direct contemplation towards the infinity of a succession of instants. But such a presence has no physical possibilities, for withdrawal into contemplation always brings about the qualification of an order, of repetition according to elements or cases, necessarily creating a present of a certain duration. A present that is depleted and passes by, caring according to the species, individuals, organisms and parts of organisms considered” (G. Deleuze, Difference and Repetition).

In Miyajima’s work, what really never fails to appear is the pause, the interstice that separates the number, and that lets it advance towards, the future. The numbers is that which is never present, in so far as it is never constant in its own quality: it becomes the difference that spans space more than time. When it starts going towards time, then the number too becomes repetition, for it comes in an irreversible and unstoppable continuum. In this way Miyajima shows how the work is the validation of an entropic state that tends towards infinity, in the sense that what is last never corresponds to the last time, but only to the instant of the last number, followed by the last pause. Entropic destiny, represented by the mechanical articulation of time going backwards, means not so much the extinguishing of art as its becoming still life, able to represent precisely the irreversibility of time. But also to recap the tragedy of Hiroshima, the Holocaust, the ethnic martyrdom of Balkans – in other words what Miyajima refers to as “Mega Death”.

While numerical progression is unstoppable, so too do speed and chromatic progression follows the same laws, and gradually numbers acquire a tonality that attenuates its legibility until it is white on white, in other words until the sign is annulled. In its repetition, like the pause, it always represents a return to number one, and all the pauses when multiple together always form the same pause, so the number transcribed in the emptiness of a black space becomes the indecipherable unit of time. The reduction of individual existence is symmetrical to rendering of the entropy of difference – in other words, of the number. Miyajima traces the differences, standardizing them under the banner of repetition.  Over time, the works increasingly acquire the absolute totality of silence and become theatre, the place that gathers together the traces of a light that increasingly tends to go out.

No progress is made towards the future, for infinity cannot be finite: what forms the present is repetition, and thus deadlock, the distance that remains and cannot be bridged. The terms of this distance remain one and infinity, the impossibility of a real movement that modifies their identity. As in Zeno’s paradoxes, progress definitively validate the initial deadlock, since it does not alter the initial differences: one and infinity, the initial pause and the pause that is forever postponed and that can never be captured.

Miyajima takes up this assumption conscientiously, knowing full well that infinity is the constant pause that nullifies every initial and final number. In the end, infinity is what watercourse conjugated in the present that, in its flagrancy and persistence, also contains the apparent differences that there are between one number and another. Since every number appears to predispose a different pause, it appears to start out from an inertia that is circumstantial to itself.

And yet the various numerical quantities are always zero reset and sucked back by the vacuum of the pause that becomes the immobility that prepares the way for the cycle of progress. Between immobility and progression, Miyajima exercises the ethics of parsimony. In place of any expressiveness and subjective inventiveness that might spill out from the work, the artist prefers an economy of elements, of minimum terms – such as the number –that contain all the references and coordinates of the movement, of the interference between the circumstance of its existence and the infinite dimension of real time. Miyajima upturns the diagram and position of incidence between subjective time  and objective time, between the horizontality of temporal infinity and the accidental verticality of individual existence.

Now the artist changes position and synchronically, almost specularly, contrasts his own horizontality with that of time. With his own numerical progression, he chases after temporal irreversibility, not so much in an attempt to reach it, as to adopt its structural mechanism, its unrepeatability of time forces Miyajima into eternal repetition, into the definitive oscillation between pause and number. The ethics of parsimony is a direct result of this awareness, which also coincides with an obsession and the compulsion to mark and an inhibition to retrieve – the past. The compulsion to mark corresponds to the desire to be synchronous with temporal movement – tautological in itself – the long horizontal line that finds its way to infinity and determines the finiteness of individual experience.

The inhibition of the past arises precisely from the idea of its own finiteness, because shifting from pause to number and from number to pause does not mean being reborn and taking up time from its point of origin every time, but simply grafting onto a temporal instantaneousness that gives entropy to life. Pause and number become the iterative stations with which the artist – the modern-day Sisyphus compelled laws that are extraneous to him into movement that leads to nothing new – constantly reaffirms the value of the act, in which the act is always definitive in so far as it is a repetition of itself. Sisyphus does not choose his own torment, for his punishment is imposed from above: that carrying a boulder to the top of a hill, and having it inevitably rock back down again, forcing him to carry the weight aloft once more in a never-ending cycle.

Miyajima establishes the punishment himself, that restraining his own work, his own desire. If the desire to reach time heroic – in other words out if the reach of human powers – he is subject to a domestic sentence, that of a numerical progression obtained by means of miniaturized digits, in the sense of eternal embellishment. The technological miniaturization of the LED counters is also an attempt not to emphasize the punishment, to make it less conspicuous and striking, so that it will abstract the heroic nature of desire and lead it back to the almost cordial terms of mutually agreed impossibility.

But miniaturization does not suspend obsession, even though it appears to domesticate desire. It rather tends to unravel it, to conjugate it along the horizontal repetition of lines that are arranged in a relationship of symmetrical specularity, with a single, almost sentimental vibration of red that turns into blue, orange into green. The grey journey of everyday life, that cuts through every activity in the home, is the monotonous tone that his neutrality marks with the interchangeability of every act, never rising up above the captivating temporal horizontality. And yet monotony, the repetition of grey, is ruffled by a slight inflection that shifts the numerical figure towards imperceptibility: the number becomes a slight modification, the delicate exorcism of definitive repetition. While the legend of Sisyphus follows a right schema that cannot be changed, Miyajima’s work accepts it while diluting it, almost imperceptibly, through the minimizing use of color.

However subtle, almost subliminal, this modification may be, it is what enables Miyajima to feel himself master of his own torment, of the compulsion to count that becomes a choice, even though essential and the only one possible. The color that fades away and that softens the visible number corresponds to the astonishment of time, no longer consider as an infinite line, but as time that has been lived. Color in terms of physical senility acts as a go-between with the body and adopts its biological rhythm. From a peak of initial energy to the loss of biological rhythm, to the exhaustion of the perception of time and of any possibility of record it. It records the imperceptible variation, the desire not imperceptible variation, the desire not to be modified, as well as its inevitable modification. With its little snap, the lens of the LED machine records his obsession, just as the digits of the numerical progression register the miniaturized entropy of time. Because time has an imperceptible hum, which it reveals only in what is past, or in the interstice, in the pause between what was and what is to be.

In the end, Miyajima’s work is the painting of time on the surface of space. The position of the artist clings to the balanced silence of oriental philosophy, which compensates every assertion with the symmetry of its opposite. While on the one hand he has given us the scattered symphonies of a Great Shower of time that has flooded contemporary art and the conscience of the public, on the other he offers a persimmon orchard that is almost appeased and fertilized by the energy of the numerical rain.

And so various aesthetic, ethic, linguistic and behavioral references are intertwined: Mondrain, Opalka, On Kawara, Fontana and Beuys.

In this manner, the art of Miyajima becomes a fluid bridge between East and West, between philosophy and technology, painting and installation, performance and social event. A bridge Space but in order to reach Time, an incursion that is visually formalized by the counting of the LEDs that, in its incessant, synchronous and aphasic pulsation, indicates what the Japanese artist has referred to as “the renaissance of time”.

For time, even though guaranteed by the objective rigidity of the clock, is transformed by the aesthetic experience into a flow that is bound up by individual subjectivity. The condition described by Miyajima in his video – which is produced by a count that vocally personalized by the individual – corresponds to the subjective state that is altered by the immersion into wine and water of the participants.

And here we have a definition of the internal time diagram, a long horizontal line in which pulsates the existential drowse of man thrown into a cosmos that appears encapsulated in a black sky in which numbers, not stars, explode, going on and off in the ironic service of a humanity that manages to witness the spectacular catastrophe of life.

Down here, in space, dying is an ugly death. Life on the other hand is always hard at work, even though it is articulated and numbered in time, as we can see in the polyphonic art of Tatsuo Miyajima. Always pulsating.