‘The place of Time’ Catalogue of Artsonje Center, Seoul, 2002, (Essay by Dan Cameron)

7 Sep 2002

The place of Time

Dan Cameron

Tatsuo Miyajima is one of the most significant artist to have emerged during the tumultuous late 1980s, as part of an overall transformation within contemporary art from an expressionist paradigm to one more closely related to the conceptual orientation of the artwork. In purely historical terms, Miyajima’s importance as a figure is linked to the totality with which he embraced a very simple methodology, counting, to express his ideas about a profound and elusive subject, time. Other than the moment when his work first came to public attention, Miyajima has not often been associated with a particular generation, in the sense of sharing an attitude about making art with his peers. His closest historical predecessor would probably be On Kawara, whose painting of dates, specifically the dates on which the paintings were painted, have accumulated over four decades into a vast diary or calendar that will someday take the art of an individual’s adult lifetime, forever.

Miyajima’s art does not refer in an easily noticeable way to himself, although the reference is certainly there. The strategy behind his work is more perforative, its impact grounded in his use of well-known digital to create an elaborate staging of what he perceives as commonplace enigmas regarding the experience of time. In his first well-known work, Sea of Time (1988), Miyajima presents the spectator with a sealed and darkened room. Encountering a threshold barrier a few feet inside the space, one peers out over an expansive black floor, on which hundreds of individuaL LED digital counting devices have been randomly arranged. Each deceive counts from 1 to 9 (Miyajima never employs 0), and returns to the beginning, but each runs at a slightly different speed. Standing at the edge of his spectacle, viewers are drawn at first to the patterns made by clusters of LEDs, then to the individual devices, each of which seems identifiable by way of its particular experience of time. Because Miyajima has given the LEDs individualized roles, our instinctive relation to them is as entities of some sort, defined by their unique tempos as they occupy their individual, blinking spaces.

The impact of Sea of Time on the international art world enabled Miyajima to build from its sculptural premises, giving much of his work from the early 1990s a feeling of consolidating that work’s breakthrough via a series of sculptural counting devices arranged in multitudes of architectural configurations. In a sense, an entire facet of Miyajima’s work continues to develop around the sculptural premises of the single LED counter, and it has been the source of some of his most significant public commissions, including the Tokyo Opera City (1996) and Edo period house on the island of Naoshima (2000). In the former, he embedded a single small counter into the ground on both sides of every tenth or twelfth step of the main outdoor stairway, so discreetly that counting is only discovered by a fraction of the people using the stairs. For the Naoshima Contemporary Art Museum commission, he converted the main family room of the house into a shallow sunken pool, at the bottom of which the counters blink in colors and speeds which have been chosen by the inhabitants of the tiny village.

As successful as his works based on the static use of counters have been, within a few years Miyajima was exploring ways in which he could enable the viewer to visualize a different dimension of time: one in which each agent moved through space along its own course and at its own speed. For the artist, this is the closer approximation by 1993, he was ready to introduce motion into his work in the form of U-cars (1993-94), single counting devices attached to miniature sensor-driven vehicles, which continually moved and dodged other objects (including other U-cars) in its path. From there is was a short step to replying a hundred U-cars in a confined darkened space, creating a ‘bumper car’ effect from the jostling and interweaving of the crowds of individualized clocks. The most compelling aspect of Running
Time No.2
(1995) was the movement towards and away from the viewer, implying a proximity that went beyond the merely physical. With their strangely melancholic evocation of the dehumanized pace of life at the dawn of the 21st century, these works constitute one of Miyajima’s most significant accomplishments as an artist, and have left one of the most impressions of any single artwork of the 1990s.

Since the mid-1990s, Miyajima has created other works based on the LED technology that have extended his original sculpture premised into new conceptual territory Mega Death (1999), shown as part of the Venice Biennale, utilizes only blue numerals, and in an expansive arrangement that covers the entire wall surface of a large room. Mega Death, which is directly related to the experience of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, uses a countdown format to synchronize all of the to synchronize all of the digital counters in the room to go completely dark at a pre-arranged moment. This moment, which is not pre-announced to the work’s public, conjures the exact point in time when the bombs were detonated, signifying not merely the deaths of thousands of individuals, but the end of one chapter in history and the beginning of another. Mega Death was presented in Venice in combination with another work, in which the sole living organism to survive the blast, a species of kaki tree, has produce new generations of the same tree, which the artist has been traveling the world to plant in public gardens in various cities. In this way, a living thing is made the memorial for one of the most devastating losses of life in historical memory.

In the past few years, Miyajima has also been working to perfect Floating Time (1999), an installation work that extends the premises of movement in the U-cars to include the space in which the viewer is located. In Floating Time, a series of darkened staging areas on the floor are set up in conjunction with moving projectors on the ceiling. As the viewer enters these spaces, he or she becomes part of a projected environment in which dozens of individual numbers are not simply progressing forward, but also changing size, color and velocity of movement. Although viewers are encouraged to become to become a physical part of the space of projection, it is equally possible to stand alongside one of Floating Time’s platform and gaze into the spectacle. I this freedom of movement, Miyajima has opened his work up to a new interrelationship with the viewer, in which total body immersion and a more traditional spectator’s passivity can be alternated at the whim of the visitor.

Whereas, generally speaking, most of Miyajima’s work requires technology to make its underlying philosophical points, he has been actively investigating ways of developing his work that embrace other media as well. Since 1996, he has produced a series of works under the title Counter Falls, which explores the ways that awareness of the passing of time depends on language and cultural orientation to produce a corresponding awareness of the constant proximity of death. Counter Voice brings together several different individuals, sometimes speaking in different languages, each with his or her own separate video projection. Each participant is asked to recite a countdown, and upon reaching the end to submerge his or her head into a bowl containing liquid (he has used water and milk as well as wine). I this way, Miyajima dramatized the face that each individual possesses an inner clock set to the time that each of us will die. Because none of us knows precisely when that will occur, our lives are predicated to some degree on acknowledging this reality, while also making sure that we can keep functioning within a social context. Bringing together this this reality, as well as the compulsion to keep our knowledge of it at a distance, Miyajima explores the fundamental role that the unspoken awareness of impending death plays in different cultural situations.

Most theoreticians and philosophers of time emphasize that the precision mechanisms which society has developed for keeping track of time are based on a kind of mutual deception, in which the emphasis is transferred from the subjective experience of time to a kind of absolute confidence in the role of technology to measure time. This false security acts as a kind of cultural anchor, to keep our minds off the feelings of chaos that can be engendered when one’s fate is known to be absolutely out of one’s hands. Far from fetishizing the role of technology in daily life, Miyajima actually invites us to see through its illusions, and to construct for ourselves a more skeptical attitude toward the ways in which time is experienced. In the end, his hope seems to be not very different from other artists, who experience the passing of time as a kind of eternal present, in which the past and future are equally inaccessible, and the only time on which our actions have any effect is the present moment. Miyajima asks us to consider this ‘now’ through a different, more speculative, lens, and in so doing to embrace the idea that the moment which is too elusive to grasp in its passing is no less infinite that the continuity of all time, from before its beginnings to the point after which it (and we) no longer exist.