‘Tatsuo Miyajima’, Catalogue of ‘STARS: Six Contemporary Artists from Japan to the World’, at Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, 2020, (Essay by Kenichi Kondo)


Tatsuo Miyajima

Tatsuo Miyajima was born in 1957 in Tokyo. Exploring concepts that the artist describes as “it keeps changing,” “it connects with everything,” and “it continues forever,” Miyajima has since the mid-1980s created a body of installations and sculptures using digital LED counters with numbers changing from 1 to 9. In his work, the LEDs go dark without ever displaying the number 0, a deliberate choice intended to signify death and also, in how the counts start again, express the constant repetition of life and death. Dealing with universal notions of time, his work is internationally acclaimed for fusing elements of Buddhist thought and technology.

This essay will discuss the progress of his career and the assessment of his work overseas with a particular focus on the period from his debut outside Japan in the 1980s through to the 1990s, when he began to hold large-scale solo exhibitions abroad.

In the early 1980s, while studying at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music (today, Tokyo University of the Arts), Miyajima started the “NA. AR.” performance series (fig. 1), based on concepts related to nature and the artificial. Performance continues to form an important aspect of Miyajima’s output alongside his other work. It is, however, no exaggeration to say that what has determined the high level of regard that his work enjoys is those three aforementioned concepts and the sculptural pieces and installations he has made based on them, something that is even more conspicuous overseas.

After completing postgraduate studies at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in 1987, he formulated those three concepts that he would advocate throughout his work until the present while preparing for a solo show at Lunami Gallery in Tokyo, and then created new pieces to demonstrate them . Included in this exhibition and made in order to represent the concept of “it continues forever,” Clock for 300 Thousand Years (1987) counts the time for over 3,000 centuries with 14 counters that change every 0.1 seconds. The concept of “it keeps changing” emerged from how a small LCD television image continues to change depending on the flow of electricity, as encapsulated in It Goes on Changing (1987). Nachi Falls (1987) also appeared, inspired by the idea of a universal beauty of vertical lines, what Barnett Newman called “zips,” present even in the Nachi Waterfall hanging scroll painting from the Kamakura period (1185–1333).

These three concepts were brought together in Sea of Time (1988) (fig. 2), which was first presented at the 8th Hara Annual, a launchpad for young artists, held at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo in 1988. He enjoyed acclaim with this installation that featured 272 LEDs laid out on the floor, interrelated while also eternally changing their numbers at their own respective speeds. That same year, upon the recommendation of Fumio Nanjo, then the director of Institute of Contemporary Arts, Nagoya, Miyajima was invited to exhibit at the Aperto ’88 section for emerging artists at the 43rd Venice Biennale, where he showed Sea of Time in a version with 300 LEDs. Having achieved his international debut with it, this would become his representative work.

Though Barbara Bloom received the top prize for this section, Miyajima won esteem in Japan, as indicated by the newspaper article by Shigeo Anzai with the subheading “Tatsuo Miyajima, Widely Tipped for the Grand Prize.”[n]Shigeo Anzai, “Benisu Biennare Kokusaiten ripoto 3” [Venice Biennale International Art Exhibition Report 3], Sankei Shimbun, July 27, 1988.[/n] But not only Japan, he also garnered attention in Europe and the United States. Notwithstanding the large number of artists at the exhibition, the Financial Times selected Miyajima as one of three mentioned in its review of the section, [n]William Packer, “Venice Biennale,” Financial Times, June 30, 1988[/n] leading, as Miyajima has himself described, to more than 200 exhibition offers from overseas.

This exhibition ushered in many valuable encounters for Miyajima, to such an extent that he has said that much of the work he did in Europe and the United States in the 1990s originated with Sea of Time. One of the judges for the exhibition, Dan Cameron, for instance, would start showing his work on a regular basis, while Lisson Gallery’s Nicholas Logsdail would later represent him. Miyajima’s connection with the gallerist René Block led to an invitation to take part in the DAAD artist residency in Berlin from 1990. His participation in Magiciens de la Terre, held in 1989 at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and Against Nature: Japanese Art in the Eighties, in which this exhibition’s Monism/Dualism (1989) was shown and which toured such venues as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from 1989 to 1991, however, were less a result of the Venice Biennale than of Jean-Hubert Martin and the other curators having visited Japan and seen his work there.

Miyajima subsequently exhibited at Carnegie International 1991 in Pittsburgh, USA, and held numerous solo exhibitions at art museums in the 1990s. In the following, I look back over how these were received.

What is first apparent is the almost countless examples that introduce Miyajima’s work while referencing the three key concepts and Buddhist thought. When he devised the three concepts, Miyajima was confident that he could continue making work based on them for a long time and has frequently talked about the three ideas ever since his international debut. [n]For example, the concepts are already evident in his self-published catalogue (Fumio Nanjo, Tatsuo Miyajima, 1988) produced in the year when the 43rd Venice Biennale was held, and the catalogue (Tatsuo Miyajima, Florence: Galleria Vivita, 1998) produced for the solo show held at Galleria Vivita in Florence, the first held in Europe following the biennale.[/n]Simple and uncomplicated, these concepts are comprehensible regardless of the social or cultural background of whomever is discussing Miyajima’s work, functioning like a point of entry granting people access to interpret his art.

Many articles reference Miyajima’s concept of time, introducing it as Asian or Buddhist. Michael Auping, for instance, who curated the solo exhibition Big Time, held from 1996 to the following year at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, USA, and the Hayward Gallery, London, writes:
Miyajima sees our understanding of time as fundamental to a basic definition of religion and spirituality. The artist, who began studying Buddhist philosophy when he was age 23, refers to Buddhism simply as “a religion about time.” Miyajima’s continuously changing numerical images address the enormous challenge of visualizing the complexity of a vast universe̶as defined by both Buddhist philosophy and modern physics where the individual is a tiny but significant unit within an immense incomprehensive whole. [n]Michael Auping, “Theater of Time,” in Big Time, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 1997, p. 13.[/n]

At the core of his work, needless to say, is an exploration of notions of time, concepts of which Miyajima has himself also often discussed. Sea of Time and Running Time (1993), in which countless numbers of toy cars with LEDs drive around, both reference time in their titles. Running Time also shares its title with Miyajima’s solo exhibition at the Kunsthalle Zürich in 1993, where he first showed the work, while the aforementioned Big Time is yet another example of how the artist demonstrates his engagement with the theme of time through the names of his exhibitions. Time is a notion that transcends national boundaries; it is something that anyone can talk about as something universal, as something related to them.

We can also see discussion of Miyajima as an artist who, by dealing with time, transcends era. James Lingwood, the curator of a 1995 solo exhibition held in Greenwich, London, the location from which the eponymous global time standard is measured, said: “One reason I was attracted by his work […] was that it gave me a sublime feeling of terror or awe, such as one might have felt in front of a landscape painting of the early 19th century.” [n]Nigel Hawkes, “The ultimate time-and-motion study,” The Times, February 1, 1995.[/n] Looking back on Miyajima in the 1990s, Dan Cameron said: “Miyajima’s importance as a figure is linked to the totality with which he embraced a very simple methodology, counting […] Miyajima has not often been associated with a particular generation.” [n]Dan Cameron, “The Place of Time,” in Tatsuo Miyajima Count of Life, Seoul: Artsonje Center, 2002, p. 31.[/n]

Derived from this notion of time, we also commonly find discussion on the large physical and conceptual scale of Miyajima’s work. Lynne Cooke’s following commentary, taken from the catalogue for an early solo exhibition in 1991, is an excellent example of this.

This tendency to abstraction is further reinforced by the emphasis on “pure” number, that is, on number divested of all containing forms and structures. […] [The] numerals take on an almost hallucinatory intensity. Thus once this process of interiorizing the whole by a glance has taken place attention moves to a consideration of such notions as rhythm, repetition, recurrence, periodicity, duration and flow. This inevitably leads to a meditation on the nature and character of time, and through that to questions that pertain to cosmology. Apprehension of the nature of time has always been intimately connected with mankind’s understanding of the universe as a whole, of the cosmos and hence of cosmology. [n]Lynne Cooke, “Tatsuo Miyajima’s chronovision,” in Tatsuo Miyajima,‘s-Hertogenbosch: Het Kruithuis, Museum for Contemporary Art, 1991, p. 7.[/n]

On the other hand, Miyajima’s work is also often discussed in terms of “Zen” and “high-tech.” [n]For example, one review of the solo show at the Kunsthalle Zürich in 1993 includes “high-tech” and “Zen” in its title. Yvonne Volkart, “High-Tech, Zen und Variationen des Frauenbades,” St. Galler Tagblatt, June 29, 1993.[/n] Strictly speaking, however, “Zen” and “Buddhism” are not interchangeable. Moreover, the LEDs that Miyajima repeatedly employs were already in general use at the time and not especially “high-tech.” [n]There are exceptions whereby he incorporates the latest advances in technology into his work, such as the “Time in Blue” series, in which he quickly adopted blue LEDs right after they went into mass production in 1995. [/n]Miyajima also distances himself from media art, associated as it is with high-tech, and apparently declines invitations to appear in media art exhibitions. In Japan of the economic bubble period of the early 1990s, the electronics manufacturing industry was advanced and exporting its products to Europe and the United States, with the result that “high-tech” became a stereotype of Japan in those parts of the world. Miyajima’s work was presented alongside this image of Japan as “Zen” and “high-tech,” though Azby Brown, someone well versed in Japanese culture, gave the following response to this in his review of Miyajima’s first solo exhibition in New York:
So many foreign commentators describe [Miyajima’s work] in terms of 1) “Zen simplicity” and 2) “high-tech Japan.” I think these stereotypes should be avoided. Although this reading may in fact be one reason for the works’ ready acceptance abroad, in that it fits neatly into Westerners’ preconceptions about what sort of art might emerge from modern Japan. […] I find nothing particularly “Japanese” about Miyajima’s work. I do however, find a reflection of the search for truth, and the role played by mathematics in it, as well as a reflection of a global culture. [n]Azby Brown, “Miyajima in New York,” Asahi Evening News, June 15, 1990.[/n]

To turn now to Miyajima and his relationship with the commercial art market, his success at the Venice Biennale in 1988 led prominent galleries to represent him and sell his work. At a solo show held at Gallery Takagi in Nagoya the following year, an installation he made was already valued at ¥2.5 million and was introduced in the start of a newspaper review. [n]Janet Koplos, “What do you see?,” Asahi Evening News, April 21, 1989.[/n] Overseas, his first solo show in New York was held at the gallery Luhring Augustine in 1990, where all the pieces sold. Through this gallery, Miyajima also held his first solo show in London at Anthony d’Offay Gallery in 1991. In this way, it would appear that a young artist barely over 30 had achieved a dazzling commercial debut. Miyajima, however, often describes how he attempted to distance himself from the market, recalling that he stopped making work for exhibitions and the art market from around 1993, and noting that the value of an artist in today’s art market is something akin to speculation.

On the other hand, Miyajima knows full well that he needs money to make his work. Unlike painting, his installations have high production costs due to the LEDs and other components. For the Venice Biennale in 1988, there is a story that he called upon art professionals and collected the funds for procuring the LEDs himself. Even though he was able to realize large works in this way, there was a long period when this did not lead to sales.

According to a person formerly associated with a gallery that represents him, the artist started to acquire commercial status through the works he made from the mid-1990s with LEDs arranged on a base, such as the “Time in Blue” (1996–) series or Keep Changing, Connect with Everything, Continue Forever (1998), which was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, and became better known in the international art market after he represented Japan at the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999, and then established his commercial popularity with the series “Changing Time with Changing Self,” which was first exhibited in 2002. [n]Interview by the author with Maho Kubota of MAHO KUBOTA GALLERY on March 4, 2020.[/n] Miyajima has himself said that he receives many commissions to make this series, in which LEDs are arranged on mirrors. In comparison with the large-scale installations that require enormous space as well as specialist skills and a budget when setting them up, it is a fact that the works with a base and that are easy to set up are more suited to the commercial market. In auctions, the highest bid for a Miyajima work was at Christie’s Hong Kong in 2010 for T.L. Sakura (2005), a piece featuring LEDs on a rectangular mirror and which sold for around $375,000, while works from the “Changing Time with Changing Self” and “Time in Blue” series have sold for similarly high amounts. [n]artnet Price Database, 2019.[/n]

Finally, I will discuss Miyajima’s activities since 1999 and the projects that have become his life’s work. As previously mentioned, Miyajima further raised his international profile with his exhibition at the Japan Pavilion in 1999 for the 48th Venice Biennale. What he showed was a new work, Mega Death (1999) (fig. 3), a magnum opus in which 2,400 blue LEDs repeatedly counted down numbers on the walls of the exhibition space, presenting the twentieth century as a century of mass death and with the individual LEDs expressing warfare and calamity. This work is one part of a trilogy on the theme of life and death, the first being Death of Time (1990–1992), which was about the atomic bomb and exhibited in Hiroshima in 1990. As also seen in his other work dealing with the Holocaust, death forms a core element of Miyajima’s oeuvre, of which Mega Death is a representative example.

Miyajima’s subsequent activities outside Japan in other parts of Asia were striking, holding major solo exhibitions not only in Europe and the United States but also in Seoul in 2002, in Beijing in 2011, and in Shanghai in 2019, and creating large-scale public art for the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul and the Fosun Foundation in Shanghai. In 2016, during Art Basel Hong Kong, Time Waterfall (2016) was exhibited on the wall of a skyscraper, conveying a sense that his popularity was now firmly established in the Asian market. This was perhaps less a case of Miyajima securing his status in Asia through specific artworks or exhibitions than merely a particular phenomenon that took place within a larger current whereby Japanese contemporary art was frequently introduced in the region following the development of art museum and related infrastructures around Asia from the 2000s onwards and the simultaneous rapid increase in individual collectors.

Incidentally, alongside Mega Death, the aforementioned exhibition at the Japan Pavilion also included the Revive Time: Kaki Tree Project (1996–) (fig. 4). This is a project to plant the saplings from a persimmon tree that survived the atomic bombing of Nagasaki around the world as art, with Miyajima serving as head of the executive committee. Conceived in 1995, the first saplings in the project were planted the following year. Reviews of the Japan Pavilion exhibition tended to focus on Mega Death, while later discourse about Miyajima overseas has also rarely made reference to the saplings project. It is indeed difficult to show this kind of project effectively in an art exhibition. Nonetheless, it is deeply related to Miyajima’s three concepts[1] and, having achieved the planting of saplings in 312 locations in 26 countries by the end of 2019, constitutes what we might regard as his life’s work. I hope that we shall see a livelier discussion of this overseas.

Another ongoing part of his life’s work is the exhibited piece “Sea of Time – TOHOKU” (2017–), which was started as a requiem for the victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake and as a way of passing on memories of the disaster. People who suffered in the disaster or members of the public with memories of the areas affected decide the speeds at which LED numbers count down (a process called “time-setting”) and then these LEDs become part of the artwork. Aiming eventually to install permanent 3,000 LEDs in the Tohoku region, the work features all of the 719 LEDs completed by the end of 2019 installed in a pool of water. Though developed out of the earlier Sea of Time, it has a new collaborative quality in how it is made: the timesetters are called “collaboration artists” and the people who contribute to the crowdfunding campaign are called “support artists,” in this way involving not only Miyajima but numerous other “artists.”

Those 300 LEDs that glowed in Venice in 1988 now connect with all kinds of people toward the future, continuing to transform into a vast, more open sea that aims for the eternal.


Kenichi Kondo (Senior Curator, Mori Art Museum)


*This essay was originally written in Japanese and was translated by William Andrews. It was first published in the exhibition catalog “STARS: Six Contemporary Artists from Japan to the World” (edited and published by: Mori Art Museum and Bijutsu Shuppan-Sha Co., Ltd.)