Tatsuo Miyajima: Chronicle/Anachronism (Essay by Keisuke Mori, Curator, Chiba City Museum of Art)


Tatsuo Miyajima: Chronicle/Anachronism

Keisuke Mori (Curator, Chiba City Museum of Art)


Tatsuo Miyajima is a leading Japanese contemporary artist active on the international stage, whose artworks using LED (light emitting diode) digital counters have won high acclaim. Since attracting attention with his full-scale international debut at the Aperto section of the 43rd Venice Biennale in 1988, he has participated in exhibitions in more than 250 locations in 30 countries. Introduced in 1987, the three concepts of “Keep Changing,” “Connect with Everything” and “Continue Forever” remain important elements of his practice, whose originality and consistency set him apart from other artists on the international art scene. With these concepts at its core, Miyajima’s diverse expression—ranging from LED installations that put an emphasis on the site and spatiality of the venue to performance videos, photography and projects—has evolved in a boundless manner over the course of his career.

Amid this diversity of expression, the seven-segment digital numerals used consistently in Miyajima’s artworks count endlessly from 1 to 9 (or from 9 to 1) without displaying 0. Reflecting the use of numerals in different cultural regions all around the world, Miyajima’s works have been accepted by many people regardless of nationality and the subject of various interpretations. In terms of understanding his work, upon considering the possibilities, two main theories can probably be pointed out.1 The first dates back to when Miyajima began exhibiting LED artworks in the 1980s. Against the backdrop of the economic growth of the time and the advancement towards a highly information-oriented society, the rise of the generation of young people known as the ‘shinjinrui’ (new breed) who wanted to escape from the old-fashioned ideas of the past and seek out new values was a factor in Miyajima’s work being accepted as a new kind of expression combining art and technology the likes of which had never been seen before. The second theory relates to Buddhist thought, into which the artist himself has deep insights. The form of Miyajima’s artworks as clearly expressed by the three concepts, which is to say their “connectability” in terms of their continual expandability into the outside world, their changeability and their continuity, is related to such Buddhist concepts as reincarnation and causation, and aided in the acceptance of Miyajima’s artworks both in Japan and abroad as works that insisted on an urgent rethink from outside of Western-centric understanding.2

Building on such an understanding, “Tatsuo Miyajima: Chronicle 1995–2020” staged at Chiba City Museum of Art seeks to verify based on the key word “chronicle” the artist’s diverse activities and relationships over the quarter of a century from 1995 to 2020. “Art in You,” the artistic concept Miyajima has advocated since the 2000s, was founded on the artist’s belief that everyone has an artistic sensibility, and was therefore predestined to incorporate the “openness of artworks,” whereby the works themselves can be entrusted completely to others. Because this concept was already part of the artist’s thinking in the late 1990s, “Art in You” is also a consistent theme running through this exhibition. What becomes clear is that while the works are deeply related to space and time due to the endless changing of the digital numerals, at the same time their fundamental properties of expandability, changeability and continuity have the potential to occasionally transform space and time as perceived by the viewers. And while each of the works is installed in a particular location within the exhibition venue, the multiple relational threads that transcend space and time on account of these properties tie the works together. In this essay, as well as tracing Miyajima’s activities, I will attempt to describe some of the multiple relationships underpinning his diverse practice from the dual standpoints of “chronicle,” referring to a linear temporal axis, and “anachronism,” meaning the complication of time. 

1. Becoming—Humans/Stones/Kaki Trees   

In the early 1980s while studying at Tokyo University of the Arts, Miyajima started his activities centered on performances using his own body in an effort to break new ground in artistic expression. Titled ‘NA. AR.’ (short for Nature and Artificiality), these performances were held in various locations, including in natural settings and on the street. In these early activities in which Miyajima sought to explore relations between self and others through direct application of his body to the external environment, it is perhaps possible to discover the formulation of the relations found in the performances he resumed in 1995 after a break of around ten years. On the other hand, we can glimpse in ‘NA. AR. (Rain)’ (1982), which involved the artist lying on the street just before it started raining and leaving a dry patch in the shape of his body, the strong desire for a life dedicated to impressing on a particular place his own uncertain self. Furthermore, while it is particularly symbolic today, in the active nature of ‘NA. AR. (Human Stone)’ (1982), which involved Miyajima covering his own mouth with packing tape, cutting himself off from all communication with others, a clear difference with the series of performances conducted since 1995 is discernible.

In his 1995 book, Yasushi Kurabayashi writes, “One can perhaps say that the main concerns visible in Miyajima’s works to date are all contained within these early performances.”3  In considering the extent of Miyajima’s activities, including the development from the performances of the early 1980s to LED works, the resumption of performances and the commencement of the “Revive Time: Kaki Tree Project” (hereinafter) the “Kaki Tree Project,” this comment from 1995 is still profoundly interesting. Kurabayashi summarized the artist’s concerns as “a critical mind with respect to space and time,” and detected in his work “the kind of free subject that eliminates the very thing (i.e. the regulation of the ego or the subject)” that arises from the process of working out the three concepts.4  Certainly, at the heart of the attempts to leave traces of himself discernible in Miyajima’s activities in the early 1980s, one can probably say there was both a hunger for life and a gaze directed at his own extremely unreliable, transitory existence. Adding further impetus to this are the LED digital counters he came across by chance in Tokyo’s Akihabara Electric Town in the early 1980s, and the work in which he first used them, ‘Human Stone’ (1983). When he first saw the flickering digital counters, Miyajima says he was moved in the sense that he thought “these are alive.” 5 Then, based on his experience of actually seeing the Masuda Stone Ship, a massive stone in the shape of a ship in Nara prefecture, he imbedded LEDs in a stone-like sculpture made of concrete, making them part of the work. As the title of the work, a combination of the words “human” and “stone,” clearly indicates, this three-dimensional object was created as a “substitute” for the artist’s body in opposition to his one-off performances.6

Regarding expression using digital counters, which conveys a life-like impression, Miyajima says it indicates not only “humans,” but also “life.”7 But in the 1990s, this relationship, which can be seen now and then in the artist’s activities in the 1980s that straddle the boundary between humans and stones and make passing back and forth between them possible, would summon another very special subject. When Miyajima visited Nagasaki for the first time in 1995, he learned of arborist Masayuki Ebinuma’s efforts to plant saplings from a ‘kaki’ (persimmon) tree that survived the atomic bombing in 1945. In response he launched the “Kaki Tree Project,” and the following year, 1996, the first sapling was planted at Ryuhoku Elementary School in Tokyo’s Taito ward. For Miyajima, the kaki tree is above all a symbol of peace and the future. He describes how when he first saw the kaki tree saplings in Ebinuma’s office, he was touched by their beauty and saw their “lives fated to suffer a nuclear bombing” superimposed on his own life as someone with no experience of war.8

The fact that Miyajima’s original artistic concept of Art in You is referenced alongside the concept of Peace in Art indicates that the basis of his artistic activities is the ongoing quest for world peace for humankind through art. For Miyajima, who has projected and transferred himself onto stones as well as plants in the form of kaki trees, the elimination of the subject or the redefining of the subject itself pointed out by Kurabayashi would eventually lead to the problem of achieving the reciprocity of ideas, concepts and values (i.e. empathy) by way of the human body while having the potential to become anything. In Counter Skin on Faces (2019/2020), the black of the burka worn by Muslim women colors the face of an Asian woman symbolizing Buddhism, with the three colors of red, black and white intended to represent the reversal and interchanging of religious and racial differences. Here, what is conveyed through the power of art to traverse national borders and the barriers of race, religion and language is the becoming of entities that have surpassed such individuals. 

2. Water as “relationship” 

In 1988, Miyajima summarized his own practice in the form of the following two “research tasks.” 

1. Addressing ‘problems in Japanese art’ that people in other countries cannot take on and that are unachievable in other time periods.

2. Employing as methodology methods of expression cultivated by the Western education I have received. (emphasis in the original)9

This was the year after he unveiled his “three concepts” at Lunami Gallery, further indicating that he was already coming up with original ideas. The contemporaneity of the expression Miyajima pursued was premised on the distinctiveness of “Japan,” the place where he was born and raised, but at the same time “the West,” which had become a part of him, was also indispensable. Japan and the West could not be conflicting elements. They were inseparably fused and connected to his own body. One of the three concepts, “Connect with Everything,” was embodied in ‘Nachi Falls’ (1987), in which a reproduction of the Kamakura period painting of the same name was used. As Miyajima has stated, the Kamakura period theory of ‘honji suijaku’, the idea that Shinto gods are manifestations of Buddha deities, is a syncretic fusion of Shintoism and Buddhism in which the latter, which was introduced from abroad, changed as it took root in Japan. Nachi Falls is an assemblage in which in addition to the original image of Nachi Falls, a TV monitor, cassette tape machine and various other items that render multiple divisions such as time and place invalid are connected excessively. And as if responding to the image of a waterfall, this small monitor is immersed in water.

Miyajima addresses the ideas behind “Connect with Everything” in his 2017 book ‘Geijutsuron’ (Art Theory), explaining in detail once again the concept he came up with nearly thirty years earlier. Spanning an array of fields including Buddhist thought, quantum physics, literature and art and exhaustively illustrated with examples from the 2010s, this theory arrives at among other things the kind of fluidity and mutability of human life and psychology cited in the Buddhist theory of the ten realms. In relation to the mutability of the self, Miyajima emphasizes the importance of the existence of others. What we require is others as mirrors reflecting the self, and open dialogue with others.10 C.T.C.S. (Changing Time with Changing Self)”, a series using mirrors begun in 2002, depicts this very mutability of the self that continues to change along with the counting of digital numerals amid the passage of truly fleeting time. Combined at different angles, the mirrors can be interpreted as revealing multiple worlds.

These dialogues with others have been repeated from the 1990s onwards using various materials including banknotes, musical scores, old kimono and artworks. For this exhibition, Miyajima has attempted a dialogue with the Chiba City Museum of Art’s collection, resulting in the work ‘Changing Time/Changing Art’ (2020). Here, works by five artists Miyajima has long admired, namely On Kawara, Kumi Sugai, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Natsuyuki Nakanishi and Lee Ufan, have been chosen and covered with a mirror sheet out of which countless randomly extracted digital numerals have been cut out. This dialogue, in which not only the chosen artworks but the viewers reflected in the mirror surface are incorporated into the work, gives rise to multiple spaces and times within the gallery. It is also reminiscent of the water that was previously used in ‘Nachi Falls’. Here, it is not only in the tranquil seascape photographed by Sugimoto arousing thoughts about the origins of life that water is featured. As seen in the reference in the title of Nakanishi’s work to the “(water’s) edge” and in Lee’s painting in which the points are compared to “floating islands” and the support to the “sea,” water fills the space as a medium that crosses boundaries and connects the various artworks.11 In this space, all of the works, including the piece from the “Today” series (date paintings) into which Kawara’s own life and times are etched and Sugai’s painting with its “autoroutes” connecting distance places, intermingle and become inseparably connected as if the viewers, space and time dissolve into the gaps formed by the digital numerals.

This overlaying of images that is characteristic of the dialogue between Miyajima and other artists can be seen in the digital numerals from 1 to 9 (excluding 0) that were superimposed over abstract paintings by Piet Mondrian over ten pages in the art magazine ‘PARKETT’ in 1992.12 However, going back even further, plates of works by Mondrian were already used at the solo exhibition where Miyajima introduced his three concepts. It is worth noting that Miyajima described the images on the tiny LCD screen used in ‘It Goes on Changing (Mondrian)’ (1987), a work that embodied the concept “Keep Changing,” as an “ever-changing painting,” and detected similarities between these and Mondrian’s paintings.13 This is because the contemporaneity of the expression he aimed for was something that would transcend art as a conventional system. At this time, Miyajima perceived the picture frame as something that divided art and the world, and he was seeking to change this “closed” world into an open world through relationships.14 Referring to the grids that are characteristic of Mondrian’s works, Rosalind E. Krauss detected in them mutually contradictory “centrifugal” and “centripetal” effects, observing that “the grid operates from the work of art outward, compelling our acknowledgement of a world beyond the frame.” Written in 1978 when postmodernism was coming into the foreground, this text by Krauss can be said to complement the dynamic quality of connecting to the world centrifugally that Miyajima detected in Mondrian’s paintings.15

3. Technology and nature 

Given his use of LEDs, for Miyajima, it seems that light acts like water as a medium that connects to the outside world. Flickering LEDs not only represent the “flickering of life,” but as already seen in the above-mentioned Nachi Falls, from the late 1980s they have also incorporated a religious quality against a backdrop of Buddhist thought. Looking back on that period, as suggested by Miyajima’s statement regarding the “three concepts” that, “I thought I could use them and continue creating for ten or twenty years,” the religious light of LEDs continues to have an increasing importance and is evolving in diverse ways even today.16 In more recent years, the 2500 tiny LEDs in ‘Innumerable Life/Buddha MMD – 03’ (2019) represent both the bodhisattvas that emerged from underground as Bodhisattvas of the Earth in the Lotus Sutra and the people who live in the earthly world. As well, in the new work ‘HITEN – no.11’ (2020), the hiten (heavenly beings) that Miyajima saw depicted in wall paintings during a visit to the Mogao Caves, a Buddhist historical site in Dunhuang (China), and Western angels form double images, emitting strong light and changing color with each count cycle.

As for ‘Mega Death’ (1999), an important work that was shown at the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999, Akira Asada once described it as “a refined form of ‘sublime’ expression,” noting similarities between the work and “sublime” experiences beyond the realm of aesthetics.17 As Asada suggests, encountering Miyajima’s LED works is certainly akin to encountering the kind of magnificent, overwhelming natural phenomena that shake our existence from its very foundations. Perhaps this is also related to Miyajima’s understanding of the urban environments in which he undertook performances in the early 1980s, too, as “nature.” For Miyajima, because our constantly growing cities as well as the technologies and media that form the basis of human society have themselves become domesticated as part of our living environment, cities and nature were not something special that could be separated. In this sense, perhaps we should not overlook the fact that as someone averse to simply going along with technology’s advance, Miyajima has for many years continued to attempt recreations or representations of such natural phenomena as the sea (‘Sea of Time’ (1988)), waterfalls (‘Time Waterfall’ (2016)), the sky (‘Sky of Time’ (2019)) and the heavens (‘The Sky of the Ground’ (1996)), while by no means abandoning the LEDs that are so heavily influenced by this advance.

Incidentally, there is an interesting text from the early 1980s when Miyajima was exploring a new kind of expression centered on performance that deals with the telephone, a medium involving communication with others. Titled “Telephone self-consulting office,” it adopts the style of a conversation between “me” and “myself,” presumably the same person, concerning the “new art” of the time. However, due to the intrusion of a third voice from the outside resulting from a “crossed line,” the conversation between the pair is suddenly and frequently impeded. 

Me: Yes. “No, it’s Tomoyo. Leaping through time…”

Myself: What? The girl who leapt through time?

Me. Hello! Hello! Hello! Hello! “Hey, is there a crossed line or something?”

Myself: Yes, “It seems like it.”18

In terms of tracing the development of Miyajima’s works from our current standpoint, the intrusion into the consciousness of “me” and “myself” by another party from outside is extremely thought-provoking, and the fact that this crossed line is an unexpected, “random” happening could perhaps be said to be a sign that “randomness” would become an indispensable element in the artist’s later work. Randomness surfaced in Miyajima’s works from the early 1990s in combination with the redefining of the subject as an artist eliminating the self. In particular, Miyajima spoke later of how the conversations he had in 1994 at the invitation of the U.S. State Department with physicist Ilya Prigogine and mathematician Gian-Carlo Rota had a considerable influence on him.19 The knowledge he gained of “randomness” devoid of laws and of “chaos” through his conversations with these individuals led to an understanding that the various laws of the natural sciences, including those that can be expressed by numerical formulae, for example, can only explain a certain part of nature divided off by a particular frame, and can by no means explain nature in its entirety. As a result of such experiences, Miyajima moved even closer towards visualizing nature beyond the bounds of human consciousness. He actively incorporated “randomness” into his works to completely eliminate the self as prescribed by the frame of the observer, formulating a unique methodology with respect to his practice. It goes without saying that the participation of viewers whom the artist cannot control in this creative process became an important topic from the 1990s onwards.

In the painting-based works aimed at creating a dialogue with others, the countless digital numerals depicted on or cut out from various supports are extracted randomly as if to introduce contingency. At this exhibition, various works from the 1990s to the 2010s employing such a methodology are displayed, but of particular interest is the work Miyajima created in 1992 as a homage to John Cage following the musician’s death, in which the two men’s ideas on “randomness” seem to resonate with each other. Cage was influenced by Eastern thought and used an ancient Chinese divination text ‘I Ching’ to compose “Music of Changes” (1951), while in ‘Changes of Music of Changes’ (1992) Miyajima has increased the “changes” in Cage’s music exponentially by cutting out digital numerals from the score. Cage, who produced numerous pieces of avant-garde music that defied the conventional wisdom of the time, such as ‘ 4’33” ‘, in which the musicians do not play their instruments, once compared his own music to an aquarium in which all the fish are in the same tank. Given Cage’s remarks about the importance of “dialogue” in which various art forms interconnect and his belief that in “the entire whole of society segregation must eventually be eliminated,” while mindful of coincidentality, Miyajima’s ideas about expanding outwards and encompassing others through “dialogue” seem to demonstrate a remarkable correspondence with those of Cage.20

4. The power to transcend boundaries

Yasuo Kobayashi once stated that music was “above all an experience of a ‘communal place,’” observing that Cage’s thinking was “thinking about place.”21 For Miyajima, a “site” has an energy within which is hidden a powerful identity.22 In conjunction with the exhibition “Tatsuo Miyajima: Art in You” held at Art Tower Mito (Ibaraki) in 2008, a workshop caravan based on this thinking concerning site was staged the previous year, visiting four locations within Japan. In the “Counter Skin” series conducted at these workshops, in which Miyajima performed body painting on participants, the artist encountered people at each place and experienced a process of accepting the lives of others through and the creative act of touching the participants’ skin. Miyajima has to date conjured numerous such narratives concerning life. One work intimately concerned with the universal question of life and death is ‘The Sky of the Ground’ (1996), which is in the Chiba City Museum of Art’s collection. ‘The Sky of the Ground’ was presented at “Tranquility,” the second in a series of exhibitions marking the opening of the museum held in 1996. Using the blue LEDs that had only just become commercially available, this work honors the memory of Miyajima’s former teacher, Koji Enokura, who died suddenly in the autumn of 1995.23 The artist’s experiences and thinking, including the deaths in quick succession of Enokura and gallerist Takako Sawashima, two people he was close to, and the image of the sky conjured by the International Klein Blue (IKB) color used by Yves Klein in his works, are folded through the work like pleats.

Furthermore, with the circular shape surrounding the 197 LEDs, Miyajima makes reference to the theories of Johannes Itten, who taught at the Bauhaus. In Itten’s color theory, individual colors had geometric forms assigned to them, and the circle corresponded to “transparent blue.” As a result, in The Sky of the Ground’, Miyajima links the shape of the circle with the color blue by way of Itten.24 The significant thing here pointed out by Itten regarding the circle is that it generates a feeling of “incessantly moving.”25 A mesh of complex relationships is spread over ‘The Sky of the Ground’, with numerous other references to people in different fields, including Yuri Gagarin, William Blake and Albert Einstein. Perhaps the most important of these is Atsushi Mori’s ‘Imi no hen’yō’ (The Transformation of Meaning), in which the shape of a circle, which separates the exterior at a regular distance from the center, is examined. Itten detected in the middle of circles incessant motion, but Mori speaks of the very invalidation of boundaries in circles. And this also indicates the possibility of passing back and forth between life and death corresponding to the interior and exterior.

“Why would it not be possible to realize death within life? At least it’s possible to realize the exterior in the interior. And the interior in the exterior, too.”26

As a work in which “the sky” and “the ground” are united, The Sky of the Ground’ is intended to represent the formation of a “cosmos” in which time and space become one.27 While the boundary that acts as a frame forms a circle, by embracing the forces of expandability and cyclicity, from life to death, and from death to life, the work seems to aim for a wholeness in order to interact with others. In terms of this resonance between Miyajima and Mori, one can say our lives contain at the fundamental level a relationship with the world we call “nature” in which interior and exterior are not separated.

We should perhaps recall here that in speaking about his performances, Miyajima once emphasized their quality of “breaking through that which is formalized.”28 The year 1995, which coincides with the creation of ‘The Sky of the Ground’, is regarded as a “slump” year for the artist, and the significance of his resumption of performances was that it broke down the wall that was preventing him moving forward. The artist Miyajima gives form to things. At the same time, the artworks he creates possess a dynamic “corporeality” that internalizes expansion towards the exterior, penetration into the interior and the inversion or interchange of exterior and interior, nullifying boundaries as given outlines. If we adopt this standpoint, then we must also reconsider the significance of the “Kaki Tree Project” that was launched the same year. In recent years, the term socially engaged art (SEA) has been adopted to refer to the field of art whose practice has the ability to bring about change in society. To the extent that Miyajima and the members of the executive committee engage with communities over a long period and together with participants foster an awareness of “peace,” “the preciousness of life” and “how people live,” the “Kaki Tree Project” is clearly a pioneering example of SEA in Japan. We must not overlook here that Futoshi Hoshino, for example, has pointed out connection points between SEA and performances using the body, in that both have as an essential characteristic “physical intervention in a particular place.”29

Forcefully and deeply etched into the core of Miyajima’s LED works, performances and “Kaki Tree Project,” which could be referred to as the three pillars of the artist’s diverse expression since 1995, is the human body invested with communality by way of the intervention of “participation.” And because these are all mutually closely related in that they all have the ability to spread, flow and recur repeatedly, the amplitude of this multilayered development is also enfolded in anachronisms that transform the very concepts of time and space together with the artworks. Pointing to the dramatic changes in the world we have experienced since the second half of the 20th century and the gaps that have appeared in the social systems humankind has built as a result, Miyajima talks of our “fleeting world.” This indicates the condition of the world that is ambiguous and continually fluctuating in a precarious manner and at the same time serves as an omen of a nature that is unrecognizable. Miyajima confronts such a world with his sensibilities and his body, devoting himself to continually taking on the challenge of the recreation or representation of nature in the form of the possibilities of expression in art. And as reminders that transcend various boundaries such as those between life and death, as lights illuminating an uncertain world or as mirrors reflecting multiple images of ourselves and society, the works he creates continue to shine.