Tatsuo Miyajima: Back to the Beginning (Essay By SUN Qidong)

29 11月 2021

I. East Asian Internationalism no more: the radical and the “in-between (ma, 間)”

In the 1950’s, Gutai emerged on the historical stage of Japanese avant-garde art. By naming the movement as gu (tool or measure in Japanese), and tai (body), Yoshihara emphasized the “physicality” and “materiality” of art form, distinguishing it from the abstract “modernism” which was popular in Japan at that time. Later, in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Mono-ha truly established the content and form of Japanese avant-garde art by expressing a unique sense of Japanese spatiality and the temporality. Be it Gutai or Mono-ha, practice or theory, under the banner of cultural nationalism, Japanese arts have consciously differentiated itself from the West, taking Western culture as a “medium” to identify its own cultural form.

The mainstream art history study believes that the emergence of Mono-ha echoes Japanese artistic, cultural, social and political context in the 1960s. In 1962, Chairman Mao Zedong met the Japanese Workers’ Delegation and wrote, “As long as the universal truth of Marxism and Leninism is seriously implemented and combined with concrete practices of the Japanese revolution, its victory is inevitable and beyond all doubts.” This gave Japanese left-wing youth great spiritual encouragement. In the late 1960s, when student movements in the western world gradually went into a low ebb, the new Japanese left-wing student movements sternly protested against and criticized the interference of Western power on Asian affairs and Japan’s active cooperation with the US military force. From the late 1960’s to the early 1970’s, the radical representative of the new left-wing – the “Japanese Red Army” – began to enter the historical stage of international left-wing movements. Accurately speaking, the Japanese Red Army was divided into three groups including the “Red Army”, the “United Red Army” and the “Japanese Red Army”. Later, under the siege of Japanese Police Department, the members either sacrificed themselves or joined the “Japanese Red Army” and moved overseas. Some of them hijacked planes and fled to North Korea in 1970. And some went to the Middle East in 1971 to fight together with local guerrillas. Therefore, one might say that the political complexion and radical action of the new left-wing movements called for an Internationalism in the 1970’s, which was and remains rare in the genealogy of Japanese politics from modern time to now. This significantly separates the Japanese new left-wing movement from Gutai or Mono-ha which were both motivated by nationalism.

In the 1980’s, Tatsuo Miyajima’s artistic career commenced. Ever since his participation in the 1987 Venice Biennale, Miyajima has become one of the most active Japanese artists in the contemporary global art world. His iconic light-emitting diode (LED) works stand in silence, changing constantly the displayed numbers. It is the silent look in darkness that attracts the public and seizes their regards. Western curators and critics tend to observe Miyajima’s works from an exotic perspective, emphasizing the technological sense of the work and the artist’s contemplation of death underneath. This interpretation, on one hand, leads to a flattened and spectacle understanding of Miyajima’s practice, an appalling lack of theoretical apparatuses. On the other hand, it also confirms the world’s stereotypical impression on Japanese contemporary art: relying heavily on the technological and lacking philosophical efforts.

Reflecting on the radical politics permeating in Japan from the 1960s to 1970s, I try to re-evaluate Miyajima’s oeuvre within the genealogy of “post-radical” period on the occasion of this solo exhibition. Therefore, the focus lies on understanding the concept of the “post-radical”. Compared with Europe, the Japanese left-wing movements lacked originality and was arguably a derivative product of the third world movement, which relates to the output or export of revolutions from China, and therefore quickly died out. But this is merely the external factor. The internal factor contributing to the demise of radical politics in Japan, from my point of view, is the constant influence of intense traditional local culture, especially the recognition of “in-between (ma, 間)”: not the individuality of a given individual, but the “inter-individuality”, which means such individuality can only be captured by intermediary translation. Although the works by Japanese contemporary artists are generally described as “de-politicization” and “manifestly electronic”, it is unjust to infer Japanese contemporary artists all celebrate the supremacy of technology. This wrong idea even prevents us from discovering and evaluating the philosophical and spiritual meanings behind the works. With the in-depth study of Miyajima’s 30-year career in creation, I push myself not to be affected by the previous analysis and interpretations of Miyajima’s works. Instead, I insist on returning to the site of creation, employing my own articulations and considerations to de-familiarize a well-known artist, just like a war correspondent sending reports from the front line. The concept of “post-radical” is my attempt to explain the dilemma of distressed consciousness between the radical critical thoughts of the West and the traditional “in-between (ma, 間)” thinking found in Miyajima’s practice. I believe that this kind of distressed consciousness is not merely private and personal exclusively between him and me, but belongs to those who are eager to “fuse two centuries’ worth of vertebrae with his own blood” (Osip Mandelstam “The Age”).


II. Three early performances: the truth of incidents

From 1981 to 1982, Tatsuo Miyajima created three performance art works, respectively NA.AR. (Voice), NA.AR. (Human Stone), and NA.AR. (Rain). Miyajima walks straight to a crossroad and screamed suddenly “ah!” Then he leaves as if nothing happened. This is his first performance NA.AR. (Voice) .The second work NA.AR. (Human Stone) is not far from the first one: the artist walks to a crossroad and stands still as if frozen for some time, letting people pass by, and leaves. In Miyajima’s third work NA.AR. (Rain), he listens to the weather forecast, knows there will be a shower and leaves for that shower. He then lies down on the street until it rains. After he gets up, there is a dry silhouette of his body on the ground, which is eventually filled up by the rain. These three earliest performances could be considered as site-specific art par excellence, and I describe these as a kind of events. Events are always at the stage of “devenir” (becoming), that they are either on the way of arrival or just ended. The state of a true event, therefore, can only be expressed through various forms of verbs.

As a child, my impression of metropolis was not about cities like New York or London, but Tokyo in TV series with crowds flooding through the streets. As China’s economy prospers, the younger generation is used to seeing such scenes in every central business district in Shanghai that are even busier than those in Tokyo. Georges Didi-Huberman believes that the intention of an image and the historical truth of an event form a unique subject-expression relationship. He noted that “If imagination – this imagery mechanism for thought – shows us the way in which the Hereafter finds our Now to release rich constellations of the Future, then we can understand to what point this encounter of the times is decisive, this collision of an active present with its past reminiscent Walter Benjamin is undoubtedly the setting of the problem of historical time in general.” [1]Benjamin himself, however, denies teleological narratives of history. Today, the white collars in major cities in China have to bear massive pressure while pursuing individual success. Intense workload, heavy loans, and various expenses in the name of “pursuing success” force young people to be prematurely rational and realistic. They constantly remind themselves to keep up with people around them and be “normal”; and their life resembles that of crowds of office workers in Miyajima’s work NA.AR. (Voice). The truth of event is not self-evident, but is shown through the transference of images influencing the suppressed subjects. Transference means unconsciously transferring emotions, intentions, and fantasies pertaining one specific subject to another subject or a symbolic substitute, so that one can be relieved from mental pressure and eventually achieve inner peace. At least, the community’s oppression on an individual is not the totality of the truth of event. For the artist, the truth of the event has both social and personal significance: on the social dimension, the truth suggests a totalitarian “common mentality” suppressing the individual; on the personal dimension, for the artist himself, the truth is about how to make his own path against the background of his predecessors’ glorious achievements, and finally become an artist. Miyajima confessed: “I did not think it through when I was doing those performances at that time. I just felt that I was supposed to do it as an art student. I was not totally conscious regarding the creation of an artwork.” Thus the NA. AR series is extraordinary: the pubic, the artist (Miyajima), and the nature as “in-between (ma, 間)”. Together these elements constitute a system: as Miyajima attempts to differentiate himself from the society through artistic means, the in-between brings him back into the system in which the others are co-present, effectively creating a space where the two are inseparable and the relation between two forces or two pairing dimensions is emphasized.


III. Keep Changing and “0” as a symptom

Tatsuo Miyajima never stopped making performances, though he had also been trying to find his own way of expression. Every school day he passed by the Akihabara area by train. At that time, Akihabara was a retail center where electronic devices from all over the world were available; the neon lights and billboards there were visually stimulating and stunning. As he passed by, he discovered a material both simple and direct: digital LED bars. In 1987, Miyajima exhibited his first LED work; one year later, curator Fumio Nanjo nominated Miyajima’s work Sea of the Time for the Japanese young artist special exhibition of the Venice Biennale. This piece made him internationally recognized. Since then, by innovating the form of the work, his concept of creation has gradually come into shape. In his works there are often serial numbers from 1 to 9 (or 9 to 1) with each one replacing another in variable speed.

It is not surprising that Miyajima is widely acknowledged by the West. For the western society in 80s, the LED counters in “Keep Changing” are considered the best representation of Japan: a country known for its electronic, technological products, a nation that highly values order, and the indifferent looks on people’s faces on the streets of Tokyo. Besides, the countdown acts as a reminder of death, while death is the core of all Christian psychological activities: before the world comes to its end, God will hold the last judgment for the living, and those who believe in God and Jesus Christ will go to heaven while those who refuse redemption will be thrown into the lake of fire, then they will die for a second time. There is a fear for the end of the world buried deep in Christianity, and “the Last Judgment” is like the Sword of Damocles, hanging above everyone’s head. For the Western society, Miyajima’s artworks that features LED countdowns are the most direct representation of “the Last Judgment”: on one hand, the countdown constantly reminds people of the approaching ending — 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and back to 9. As the new round of countdown begins, the spectators are led to ask themselves if they would resurrect in heaven or be burned in hell. On the other hand, since Nietzsche claimed “God is dead”, mankind has become their own legislator and creator. Everything including death is shown in museums as subjects to be scrutinized, granting a certain part of the population the right to judge the world. When an artwork is being exhibited, critics cannot wait to announce the death of the author, so that his work can truly be immortalized. It is how the critics and the represented audience can guarantee their own resurrection or birth. The summoned artwork sacrifice for the entire institution and death remains inside the museum, a safe zone of isolation, where all can discuss it comfortably and casually.

However, art history tells a “smoothing” story of the image, transforming the “content” of an image into words. Therefore, that comprehensiveness resulting in such reading of image overlooks the symptom of the image (every kind of image) in itself. As Didi-Huberman mentioned, when gazing at the edge or the details of an image, (we) would find a kind of unsettling expression “passing through” the image: when the “1” resets into a “9” again in Miyajima’s LED work, there is a moment of darkness, and he uses it to indicate the existence of “0”. In this way, innumerable moments of the calculated and uncalculated are distinguished. The artwork as a symptom shows strong vitality, and ripping opens the history of art in a non-knowledge gesture. It is that darkness that totally modifies the economy of representation, letting some sort of essence go through. “0” enables the viewers to see the “gap” inside the piece, and to dwell upon it indefinitely. In fact, Miyajima has never been burdened by “the Last Judgment” narrative. Instead, he shares the Buddhist idea of “instant creation annihilation” in his works, completing the transformation of life and death in one fleeting moment. “Instant creation annihilation” reflects a kind of tragedy that does not provoke mourning. Because there does not exist a Creator in Buddhism, coming from nowhere, one does not have an eventual destination, neither. Naturally, one can connect the changing LED digits with On Kawara’s work I am still alive. On Kawara has sent his friend 900 telegraphs since 1969, and the content in each telegraph was a single line of “I am still alive.” It’s plain and repetitive, but shows how patient and astonishing the course of time can be. Miyajima’s signature performance Counter Voice and the LED installations have all become décor and prelude, against which the flow of time reveals itself: the moment when the “1” becomes darkness, and that when the face is immersed into the fluid – these are both moments of becoming, everlasting and stunning. Its everlasting, for the sense of time is subjective; stunning, time finishes an implosion in itself, rendering itself patient.


IV. Connect with Everything: The Human Community

Unlike On Kawara’s dissociative relationship with the world, Miyajima always work s with a sense of responsibility regarding the human community. In 1996, Miyajima completed the first performance of the Counter Voice series. In the work Counter Voice in the Water, the artist dressed as a salaryman. He counted from “9” to “1”. When he reached “0”, he inhaled and held his breath, immersed his face into a bowl of water, and then started over again. The Counter Voice series implies the decline, suspension and rebirth of life. The unchangeable boundary between life and death in traditional Japanese mentality has become an interconnected process of change. If there were no death, how could there be life? Matsuo Bashō composed a poem entitled “Senso-ji Temple” which reads: “cloud of blossoms – is the temple bell from Ueno or Asakusa?” Matsuo depicted the moment when one hears the bell but could not tell the direction. The two ends of “in-between (ma, 間)” are unclear, vague, and one could not tell it is the beginning or the end. Therefore, by observing death from the perspective of “in-between (ma, 間)”, we could say that death is not the opposite of life, but perpetually presents itself as a part of life. Those who advocate Japanese cultural particularism tend to emphasize the uniqueness of Japanese culture, believing that “in-between (ma, 間)” can develop into a specific and rational methodology. With it, one can narrate one’s self freely. However, Maurice Blanchot reminded us to ask ourselves, “Who is the subject of experience?” In Blanchot’s view, we should confront affirmation “in this interrogative form,” “by substituting the openness of a ‘who?’ without answering for the closed and singular ‘I’ ”, and “much more radically to recover himself without reprieve”. Miyajima does not fully agree with the Japanese cultural particularists’ reading of his work (unfortunately most of the interpretations of his works stop here), and he chooses to constantly reenact the Counter Voice. The most representative of them are Clear Zero in the Water at Fondation Cartier completed in 1996 and the Counter Voice in the Water at Fukushima which Miyajima completed in 2014 after the Fukushima nuclear crisis. In 1995, France carried out a nuclear test out in the Muruora atoll despite the strong opposition from the rest of world. In the following year, Tatsuo Miyajima took the distilled water from the Moruroa atoll, and poured the water from a tank into each performer’s bowl. The six performers were all French native speakers with different dialects. They counted down from nine to one in their own dialects. When the counting reached “Zero”, they counted silently holding their breath and thrusting their heads into the water. This is the first time that Miyajima drew upon the nuclear issue. He harshly expressed his condemnation of the nuclear test, without the prediction that his motherland would also have a nuclear problem that shocked the world 15 years later——Fukushima nuclear crisis. As a world citizen, if his criticism on previous French nuclear explosion test was merely provoked by his bystander perspective, the nuclear accident that happened in his own country stimulated him more directly, so he went to the Fukushima waters without hesitation, and redid the Counter Voice in the Water again. He still suited up like a salaryman, sitting down at a table with a transparent bowl of radioactive seawater. The man and the table sit at the stern of a boat, swaying on the shore of the devastated Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, bringing to mind the tsunami that swept ashore in March 2011. After the countdown completed, he immersed his face in seawater contaminated by nuclear radiation. Through this reenactment, Miyajima genuinely connected himself with everything, with thousands of contaminated, polluted objects, with the poor who have to consume the contaminated water just for its lower price, even though they were aware of the danger.


V. Continue Forever: The Impossible Living of Bare Life

If the political radicalism of the Counter Voice series is finally made glare by Miyajima’s active approach of connecting himself with people that cannot dissociate themselves from the nuclear catastrophe, then the political radicalism of LED works chiefly mirrors the artist’s understanding and introspection of the principle of “Continue Forever”. Mega Death was first shown at the Japan Pavilion, the 48th Venice Biennale, in 1999. At that time, curator Jun’ichi Shiota commissioned Miyajima to create works that could summarize the twentieth century, before the arrival of the new millennium. The result is a work that takes tick-tocking numbers to commemorate 167 million lives lost in the 20th century wars, revolutions, violent conflicts and massacres. The work Counter Coal is a pile of coal in the exhibition hall. Digital LEDs constantly flash among the coal blocks. There is a train track around the pile of coal, named Time Train to the Holocaust. Miyajima summed up the twentieth century as a period of human history more violent than ever before, thus also involving the concept of “state of exception”[2]. Looking through the twentieth century, the “state of exception” is no longer a rare situation. Moreover, as Benjamin addressed, “the state of exception has become the norm.” Essentially, the sovereign[3] decides the “state of exception”, whereas the “bare life”, which is always in an oppressed situation, does not has the same power at all. This dilemma causes the “bare life” to be excluded from the legislation process while getting absorbed into the norms of the law. The cyclically changing numbers in the Mega Death and the trains running around the coal piles in circles condemn the normalization of the “state of exception” in twentieth century. Just as Jacques Rancière resentfully addressed in the article The Ethical Turn of Aesthetics and Politics[4], “an unprecedented dramaturgy of infinite evil, justice and redemption.” In the modern political regime, sovereign power integrates the government of the exceptional state with that of the law-standard through the topology of exclusion-absorption. This kind of bio-politics is essentially a Death Device for the “bare life”, which causes “bare life” to be produced again and again, and yet never rescued. Miyajima’s radical attitude towards life is manifested through the impossible life of bare life in reality.

Thus, war, violence, and massacre have become typical in daily life of our free and democratic society. Agamben illustrated “The true horror of the camps…more than the gas chamber, is the football match between the SS and the Jews of the Sonderkommando in the empty hours”[5]. The real horror is that, after we realize that human beings have committed such crimes, people still go cheering for a football match in front of their TV afterwards. Just like what Miyajima intends to tell the world, the railway that transports Jews is also the railway that transports coals. The scene of the massacre repeats itself every time we watch a football match in front of our TV, delivering a cart of coal by train. On September 10, 1937, not long after the full-scale war between China and Japan started, Ozu Yasujirō, who had filmed 36 films in Japan, was enlisted in the army as an infantry corporal, and affiliated in the Matsui troops of the Central China Army. This unit participated in various battles in China, including the Battle of Shanghai, the Battle of Taierzhuang, and the Battle of Changsha; he was even a participant on site in the Nanjing Massacre. Ozu himself was demobilized and returned to Japan after finished serving in July 1939 for one year and ten months. Later, in June 1943, he was drafted again and was sent to the battlefield in Southeast Asia. As a member of the military film class, he participated in the propaganda and reporting work of the Japanese army. After Japan’s defeat, he surrendered with Japanese army as a prisoner of war in Singapore and returned to Japan in 1946. After the war, Ozu continued to make films as a director, and created his representative works such as Late Spring and Tokyo Story, etc. Regrettably, what is shown through his lens, still, is the daily life of ordinary Japanese. Ozu expresses his feelings of helplessness and nostalgia towards the slowly disintegrating traditional Japanese big family life, as if wars seem to have never happened before.


VI. “Inochi”

Tatsuo Miyajima’s creation has always returned to the beginning of his artistic career, to the very afternoon in Tokyo when he stood at the crossroad in Tokyo, trying to leave a trace in the world by crying out loud. Unlike other artists who stick to exploiting the same image and conservative style, Miyajima has been trying to forget the past, but he fails. This is the past of contemporary Japan, the radical politics, the traditional cultural genes – which he calls “Inochi (life,命)”. Even when it is an extreme disillusionment, it has to be carried forward, just like the gorgeous spectacle formed by ever-changing digits. As Benjamin whispered in The Agesilaus Santander, “for scarcely had I seen you the first time than I returned with you to where I had come from.”[6]


[1] Didi-Huberman,Georges. Sobrevivencia dos Vaga-lumes. Trans. Vera Casa Nova and Marcia Arbex.Belo Horizonte: Editora UFMG, 2011. 61.

[2] A state of exception (German: Ausnahmezustand) is a concept introduced in the 1920s by the German philosopher and jurist Carl Schmitt, similar to a state of emergency (martial law) but based in the sovereign’s ability to transcend the rule of law in the name of the public good.

[3] Agency of the will of all citizens.

[4] A Journal of Philosophy and Social Theory, Volume 7, 2006 – Issue 1.

[5] Giorgio Agamben, Ce qui rest d’Auschwitz, Rivages, Paris: Éditions Payot et Rivages, 1999, pp. 30.

[6] Walter Benjamin, ‘Agesilaus Santander (First Version)’, ‘AgesilausSantander (Second Version)’, in Benjamin, SelectedWritings Volume 2: 1927-1934, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland andGary Smith, trans. Rodney Livingston, The Belnap Press of Harvard UniversityPress, 1999, pp. 715.