‘DEATH CLOCK: TATSUO MIYAJIMA’ Catalogue of “Marking Time”, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, 2012 (Essay by Haruko Tomisawa)



Haruko Tomisawa

Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima has created three works containing the word ‘death’ in their titles. They are ‘Death of Time’ (1990 – 92), ‘Mega Death’ (1999), and ‘Death Clock’ (2003 – present).

Miyajima began to express two kinds of deaths – natural and ‘artificial’ – in his art works starting from the early 1990s. For Miyajima, natural death means a kind of death that gives us a premonition of the next life welling up from within us.1 Conversely, artificial death means an unnatural death that arises from the desire to do as one likes with another person’s life – death prematurely imposed through human intervention.2 Miyajima’s works exploring the devastating legacy of the atomic bomb reflect on the concept of artificial death, on an epic scale. Two works that visualized the stark contrast between these two types of death – one a part of nature’s cycle and the other forcibly imposed – were ‘Death of Time’ and ‘Mega Death’.

To begin with, the iconic digital counters in Miyajima’s works depict the rhythmic passage of time from birth to death. The numbers count down from 9 to 1 and then fade to black, only to repeat again. They refer to the Buddhist notion that life is eternal, as is reincarnation. The fade to black that happens during the regular motion of numbers symbolises the concept of a natural death.

In ‘Death of Time’ – a series of sculptural forms that are lined up lengthwise – there
are counter gadgets that stay dark without counting down, forming about the width of a human body. Miyajima invests his deep feelings about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in this work. ‘Death of Time’ symbolises the enormous death toll in Hiroshima through this darkness that has no beginning or end.

‘Mega Death’ is presented in such a way that there is one un-illuminated area within the gallery. Should an audience member pass by that place, all the gadgets are shut down forcibly and the gallery sinks into complete darkness. After a few minutes, the counter gadgets light up slowly, one by one, and the space returns to a gentle light blue. The sudden, complete darkness symbolises mass death.

Prior to undertaking ‘Death Clock’, Miyajima was thus able to visualise death as a phenomenon without shape or image, as darkness, in a way that was at once compelling and persuasive. He created an experience in which viewers were confronted with an unnatural mass death that happened to other people.

Alternately, ‘Death Clock’ creates a place where one can confront one’s own death. People who register with ‘Death Clock’ are asked to type in their own date of death. But this death is a different kind of death; it is like the aforementioned welling up of an intuition that makes us sense the next life ahead. The reason Miyajima did not create a system alluding to artificial death is so that, even if a person dies unnaturally after their registration, it still values and records their desire for a natural death. Through this work, Miyajima declares that no man can interfere with the right to life nor harm the dignity in life and death.

It should also be noted that while the earlier two works form memorials to the traumas of the past, ‘Death Clock’ looks towards the present and future where an individual’s death lies. In this regard, Miyajima’s thinking has arrived at a point where he believes ‘those who can teach how to die can also teach how to live’.3 

‘Death Clock’ places emphasis on the second of three operative concepts that underpin Miyajima’s art practice: ‘Keep Changing’, ’Connect With All’ and ‘Go on Forever’. He describes this concept as ‘where Tatsuo Miyajima forms a relationship with everything’.4 Put simply, ‘Death Clock’ connects the artist with an ever-growing number of people, who are in turn connected to one another through their participation in the art work.

Everybody who registers with this work enters a dialogue with the artist when they register. Miyajima speaks to each participant five times in the process from the beginning to end.

In response to these words, the participant submits their name and their date of birth; they express themselves by taking a photograph of themselves; they determine the day they will die; and finally they confirm their contract with the artist. Before finalising the registration, Miyajima checks for people’s consent by informing them: ‘once the Death Clock button is pressed, the count-down to death cannot be stopped.’ People open their hearts to this series of requests, and as proof of that relationship, they press the registration key. Throughout this dialogue Miyajima is committed to drawing out the personality of the participant. What appears on the computer screen is the expression of the person at the moment they commit to a date
to die and the beginning of their own numerical count down, but there is no indication a dialogue took place. Yet, the relationship formed through this dialogue lies at the centre of the work.

‘Death Clock’ is a complex work that organises, harmonises and expresses the death that exists within every life through aggregating the relationships formed between Miyajima and all the individuals who have entered the participation process. In turn, people who have registered with the project are transformed into ‘messengers’ who embody the message of the work, and in turn form relationships with many things that lead back to the epicentre that is ‘Death Clock’. This mutual interaction is the most notable aspect of the work.

The installation of ‘Death Clock’ in the Marking Time exhibition5 – comprising 500 individual photographs and three monitors rapidly counting down – recalls the exhibition space from ‘Mega Death’. If the current work represents 12 years of development Miyajima has undertaken since ‘Mega Death’, then it is worth us comparing the two works to gain insight into Miyajima’s thinking.

‘Mega Death’ was a work that focused on unnatural or ‘artificial’ deaths on a vast scale. ‘Death Clock’ focuses instead on the natural death that exists within every individual life. The former was a work that made us understand mass murder in the abstract. The latter is a work that manifests the will towards a natural death through each voluntary participant.

The former is structured around an abstraction of life and death while the latter is structured around an existing life and its inevitable death.

More than ten thousand people have registered on ‘Death Clock’ to date, and this has become an undeniable value in itself. In a world of war, natural disasters and man-made horrors, what encourages us all is the connection between people who live this life to the limit. ‘Death Clock’ is such an expression.

‘Where death waits for us is uncertain; let us look for him everywhere. The premeditation of death is the premeditation of liberty; he who has learned to die has unlearned to serve. There is nothing evil in life for him who rightly comprehends that the privation of life is no evil: to know how to die delivers us from all subjection and constraint.’6

(Translated from Japanese by Arthur Tanaka)