Tatsuo Miyajima: Connect with Everything
Time and its passage lie at the heart of Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima’s ambitious, multi-faceted practice. It is represented visually by multiple small, digital counting devices that make up the artist’s sculptural works and environments, and as counting sequences voiced by actors in his performance videos. Miyajima’s creation of small, customised digital counters for his artworks in the late 1980s, using light emitting diodes (LEDs), was an important breakthrough early in his career. These ‘counter gadgets’ remain central to his practice today, their red and green palette expanding in the mid-1990s to encompass blue, then white as LED technology developed in and beyond Japan.
Miyajima’s counter gadgets illustrate the idea of constant movement and change, with their colourful numerical progressions – 1 through to 9, then back down again to 1, over and over. Some of the counters move swiftly, others more slowly. Their cool, blinking luminescence surrounds and envelops the viewer, making them one with the work. The artist’s embrace of numbers serves as a metaphor for life cycles, both individual and collective, and reflects his engagement with eastern thought, particularly Buddhism. The philosophy of the ancient Greeks and Herakleitos offers a parallel discourse, with its focus on flux and transition as metaphors for all of life.
Three guiding principles represent the foundation of Miyajima’s art, which he outlines as keep changing, connect with everything, and continue forever, ‘A constant is the fact that we are always changing’, he observes. ‘In Western thought, permanency refers to a sense of constancy, without change. In Eastern and Buddhist philosophy, change is natural and consistently happening’. Explaining the importance of connection, he expands: ‘As humans and living beings, we cannot and do not exist independently. We are only able to live within relationships in this World.’ The third principle – expressed through the perpetual cycle of birth, death and regeneration-refers back to the first two, for ‘that is the structure of life and of truth.’
For Miyajima, the numbers 1-9 reflect a human scale, showing life on a singular level as well as a wider, communal one, The gap between counting cycles – the zero – represents a pause or breath, the ‘space of death’ before life begins once more. Within this cycle, death is simply a state like life: ‘it is just a question of if it is visible or not’. From the singularity of a human life to the entirety of humankind, reinventing itself generation after generation, this cycle is manifested at a micro and macrocosmic scale. Extending beyond the human scale, one might think of the cosmos in all of its vastness – endlessly expanding and contracting, collapsing notions of past, present and future into one co-existent state. Miyajima concludes,
‘On the macro level, you have not just one human but all living things. The conglomerate has a life cycle of its own, whether it is a country, or a planet, or a universe.’
Technology is central to the realisation of Miyajima’s work, enabling him to express poetic ideas through light and movement. ‘In order to represent change, it has to be through movement, and that is where technology becomes central to the work.’ He expands, ‘I chose to use the medium of the LED as it allows me to express all three concepts simultaneously: light and darkness, numbers counting and constant change. The counting can show this continual change. It is not only a progression, but a very visible representation of change within that progression.’ In the LED format, moreover, all of the numbers 1 through 9 sit within the outline of the figure 8 – a significant number within Buddhism, because of its visual association with the infinity symbol. Asked about his fascination with numbers, Miyajima points out that they are ‘an international language’, accessible across cultures. Whether applied to mathematics and physics, or language and daily activity, they play a central role in our lives and are understood by all.[n]Artist Talk, Art Gallery of South Australia, October 2015, as part of the OzAsia Festival, Adelaide (unpublished)[/n]
Colour is also significant within the artist’s practice. Treated equally in his work, despite their different meanings or associations, each colour reflects the growth and development of commercial LED technology since its inception in the late 1960s. In 1987 Miyajima developed the concept of his first LED counter gadget, making a diagram for it and creating a prototype, with the help of a local electronics company. When he made his initial LED artworks in 1988, only red and green LEDs were available commercially. In 1994 Nagoya University in Japan developed the technology for blue LEDs. The following year, the electronic engineer Shuji Nakamura of Nichia Corporation developed a stronger luminosity, enough for blue LEDs to be used in daily life. He subsequently received the Nobel Prize for Physics for his invention of this efficient, energy-saving technology.
Commercially available blue LEDs were soon followed by white (a combination of red, green and blue electroluminescence). Miyajima immediately began to incorporate them within his practice, opening up a whole new dimension to his art. Blue in particular has meaning across many cultures, suggesting the sky, the universe and infinity. It also has cultural and religious associations, as the colour of divinity and the Star of David in Judaism. White too opens up a range of spiritual associations, among them the lotus, the Buddhist flower that represents pure life and knowledge or wisdom leading to enlightenment. Red and green have their meanings as well: fire, life, nature and new growth among them.
Painters have studied the various properties and meanings of colour for many centuries, establishing the discipline known as chromatology. Miyajima observes, ‘Artists like Kandinsky followed these traditions, and I do myself, but also give my personal input. I use colour to symbolise specific ideas, for example, concerning race and religion. Blue – the colour of the sky – can also be seen as a colour that cannot be measured according to depth. Yves Klein [explored] that aspect in his art.’ Linking particular colours with geometric forms, he further commented in a 2004 interview: ‘Kandinsky’s theory was that yellow is a triangle, red is a square and blue is a circle. Blue is crucial, and it is connected to the circular form, because blue is unformed. It escapes, and in a sense is not there. We must put the ultimate form around it… A circle. The symbol of the universe and infinity.’ The sky is what we associate the most with blue, yet as Miyajima observed, it is ‘invisible’, ‘not a solid’. ‘I cannot begin to think about measuring it. I think of sky both as very close and at a distance…’[n]Mel Woods, Tatsuo Miyajima, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Roma, Rome and Electra, Milan, 2004, p. 181[/n]
The idea of a colour without boundary, depthless, is explored in Miyajima’s own room-scale installation Mega Death (1999), a vast twinkling enclosure of blue Counter gadgets that periodically switch off in unison, plunging viewers into temporary stasis or ‘death’ before the counting cycle begins again. A memorial to death on an industrial scale during the Second World War – recalling Hiroshima, Auschwitz – it is also a powerful statement about humanity’s capacity to heal and begin again.
Miyajima has spoken at length about the profound influence of Buddhism on his practice. He cites the writings of Buddhist philosopher Daisaku Ikeda, a key figure within the Soka Gakkai Buddhist organisation, as particularly influential. Beyond his writings Ikeda has been deeply engaged with the global peace movement, anti-nuclear activism and education. His influence can be seen in various ways within Miyajima’s practice, both directly – through his address of the nuclear age and its devastating legacy, for example, in works such as Mega Death – and more widely in his representation of humanity with its ceaseless cycle of life, death and regeneration.
Despite its embrace of technology, Miyajima’s practice is humanist in spirit, founded on compassion and the individuality of each person or soul represented by a solitary, blinking diode. Each life, no matter how brief, has meaning in the mass. It may be just a tiny blip in time, but it forms a precious connecting point in the vast, glittering web of the cosmos. Ikeda’s writings express Buddhist concepts of life and death as being ‘like turning pages in a book, back and forth’, according to Miyajima. Death resembles sleep at the end of the day, when consciousness shuts down; and life, the period of awakening once again. ‘Death comes after the process of wakefulness during the day, as a kind of rest; but once you have rested well, you wake up again and comeback to life.’ The binary code of modern computing itself is analogous to this process, with its repeated on-off-on-off or 1-0-1-0 pattern.
Ikeda’s observations on life and death are significant, for they suggest that the ‘space of death’ is not nothingness or oblivion, but a transitional state of being – a form of actuality. Speaking about the ‘zero’ in his practice, Miyajima recalls the number’s origins in 6th century India and its Sanskrit word, śūnya, which in Japanese translates as Kū or ‘the void’. Interestingly, he observes that the original meaning of śūnya was two-fold, describing both a state of emptiness and swollenness – ‘an explosion’. He asks: ‘What does this mean? It indicates this zero or void is invisible, yet packed with energy… And this repeating cycle of life and death can be taken as the boundary of what is visible. This part [death] is zero, Kū, the void. It’s invisible; then it flows back into being visible.’[n]Filmed interview between the author and artist at Ibaraki, April 2016 (transcript in English, translated from Japanese by Ben Jones)[/n]
For Ikeda, time exists in relation to being, and being is central to time. This way of thinking finds scientific equivalence in the ‘observer effect’ in quantum physics: specifically, that something does not exist unless it is being witnessed by a person, which is very close to the Buddhist way of thinking. Time is not separate from humanity but essential to its purpose and meaning. Buddhist philosophy has long concerned itself with the nature and meaning of time, and its relationship to the human realm. The 13th century Japanese priest and philosopher Dōgen considered these questions in his writings on ‘The Time-Being’ or Uji, noting that ‘time itself is being, and all being is time’.[n]Kazuaki Tanahashi (ed), Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dōgen, North Point Press, New York, 1985, p.76[/n] For Miyajima, Ikeda’s interpretation situates the person firmly within the moment, offering a contemporary response to age-old questions about our brief but meaningful existence within the cosmos.
Writing on the nature of actuality, the renowned art historian George Kubler spoke of his teacher Henri Focillon and ‘the final and capital question of his life’, which had obsessed him leading up to his death in 1943. Haunting Kubler ever since, he concluded in his masterwork, The Shape of Time, ‘Actuality is when the lighthouse is dark between flashes: it is the instant between the ticks of the watch: it is a void interval slipping forever through time: the rupture between past and future: the gap at the poles of the revolving magnetic field, infinitesimally small but ultimately real. It is the interchronic pause when nothing is happening. It is the void between events. / Yet the instant of actuality is all we can ever know directly. The rest of time emerges only in signals relayed to us at this instant by innumerable stages and by unexpected bearers.’[n]George Kubler, ‘The Nature of Actuality’, in The Shape of Time; Remarks on the History of Things,Yale University Press, New York and London, 1962 (reprinted 2008), p.15[/n] Expressing the idea of the void, replete with meaning, bursting with anticipation, his poetic analysis resonates with Miyajima’s interpretation, and Ikeda before him.
Since the late 1990s, Miyajima has ceded certain decisions about the realisation of his LED works to other people, with whom he collaborates. ‘My early works and recent works are made in a different way’, he says. ‘In the early works I controlled pretty much everything including speed and colour within my vision for the work. With each piece I would have a theme, for example, the seasons. Then after 1996 I started to create work that gave greater importance to relationships with other people, allowing others to choose the speed and colour of the counters.’ A permanent installation on the island of Naoshima, located in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan, represents the turning point in Miyajima’s process. In creating this work, he invited residents from the small port town of Honmura on the island each to choose a counter, determining its speed. The resulting work Sea of Time ’98 (1998) comprised an ‘inland sea’ of red and green counters, submerged in the water-filled interior of an Edo-style wooden house in Honmura. An allegorical portrait of the town and its ageing inhabitants (many of whom had lived on the island their entire life), the work is both poignant and breathtaking in its visual impact. When visitors enter the house, its wooden sliding doors reveal a sunken water pool in place of tatami mats and flooring. They can walk around the perimeter, observing the counters as they flicker and blink, tiny pinpoints of light that illuminate the water from within.
Miyajima has continued this approach in his subsequent practice, allowing other people to play a central role in many works. Nature also plays a role for his outdoors works, which have since been realised in rivers and streams, on a sheer rock face, as well as public sites in Tokyo. The role of chance is important in realising Miyajima’s outdoors works that involve collaboration with other people. These works are unpredictable in outcome, both in terms of the speed and colour of the individual LEDs, and how they are accessed and viewed in the context of their natural locations and changing weather conditions. For Hundred Life Houses (2014), made for the Kunisaki Art Festival in the Oita Prefecture of Japan, 100 Kunisaki residents along with Japanese, Chinese and Korean students fabricated small concrete enclosures for their counter gadgets, which were affixed to a vast rock wall. They could design the small ‘houses’ as they wished, and likewise choose the colour and speed of the counter within. The work is now a permanent installation, its meaning extended by locals who feed visitors travelling to see it.
Chance is also central to Miyajima’s gallery works, including Mega Death, in its unpredictable moments of ‘black out’ or shut down, when all the counter gadgets switch off simultaneously, then re-activate after a brief period. It is further built into his Life (Rhizome) (2012) works which comprise wall-mounted grids of brightly coloured LEDs, attached to a metal frame and connected to one another by a grid of wires, criss-crossed by diagonal wires. Programmed in collaboration with Artificial Intelligence expert Takashi Ikegami of Tokyo University, these works are created by Miyajima but cannot be controlled by him once they are activated. The LEDs illuminate and count at random, like living organisms in ‘conversation’ with one another, moving at varying speeds; and they periodically all switch off together, shutting the work down for no apparent reason. ‘Like Marcel Duchamp or John Cage, I want to explore chance operation, and see the importance of exploring a territory that cannot be controlled by itself”, Miyajima observes. At first glance, the French-born Dada artist and American avant-garde composer may be unexpected reference points for Miyajima, with his embrace of high-end digital technology alongside philosophical and spiritual enquiry. In their experimental approaches to objects, materials and chance operation, though, both offer compelling insights into Miyajima’s process.
Chance, improvisation and the unexpected all played a central role in John Cage’s music. His longstanding interest in Asian cultures, and studies in Indian philosophy and Zen Buddhism in the 1940s, also profoundly influenced his compositional practice and writings. In Cage’s best known composition 4’33” (1952), musical performers sit in silence and the ambient, unintentional sounds of the audience form the actual ‘music’ of the piece. No performance can be pre-determined and each is different in its outcome. 4’33” was preceded by the piano piece Music of Changes (1951), reflecting Cage’s study of the ancient Chinese oracle, I Ching or Book of Changes, which he used to generate random numbers that would in turn determine pitch, duration, and other aspects of the piece. He returned to the oracle when composing 4’33” to determine duration, removing pitch and sound from the composition.[n]Kyle Gann, ‘Foreword’ in John Cage, Silence, 50th Anniversary Edition, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, xv[/n]
For Marcel Duchamp too, chance and improvisation were aspects of his ‘ready-made’ sculptures and assemblages using everyday objects. Redefining meaning and authorship in art, they questioned the latter, acknowledging the viewer’s pivotal role in aesthetic validation. In his 3 Standard Stoppages (1913–14), moreover, he created an idiosyncratic, chance-based metric system, using one-metre lengths of thread dropped onto stretched canvases, which he re-measured and cut down according to the random fall and curve of each thread. He then affixed the wavy lines of thread to the canvas surfaces as object and evidence. What differentiates Miyajima’s work is his direct appeal to other people – to individuals, communities, even children – to get involved and help to realise his work with him. This sense of co-ownership in the frontline decision making process introduces unpredictability and actively divests power and control on the artist’s part. There is a certain humility to this approach, which pushes back against grandiose notions of the artist as creative genius. Embracing chance and multiplicity, it also resonates with the practice of a younger generation of artists for whom human relations and social context are central.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the extraordinary global initiative, Revive Time: Kaki Tree Project, which began in 1995 and continues in the present. Reflecting on his practice, Miyajima explains how deeply touched he has been by the people and communities he has worked with, and by the contribution they have brought to his works. It has led him to understand that art is not only something made by the artist – it can be made by other people, too, as Joseph Beuys famously declared. ‘Revive Time: Kaki Tree Project was when I experienced that,’ Miyajima says, responding with a new concept he expresses as ‘Art in You’. In 1994 an arborist named Masayuki Ebinuma discovered a persimmon (kaki) tree in the Japanese city of Nagasaki that had somehow survived the atomic blast of 1945, leaving much of the tree devastatingly burnt and disfigured. A small part had however survived and continued to grow, decades later. He treated the tree, restoring it to health and gathering seeds, which he gave to schoolchildren as a symbol of hope and new growth. On hearing this story, Miyajima developed an art project with Ebinuma for children in Japan, extending the project outwards across the world over 20 years. Tree planting ceremonies and workshops continue to spread the message of world peace, and educate a new generation about hope for the future. Revive Time: Kaki Tree Project expresses the artist’s three founding principles in its realisation – it keeps changing with each new project; it connects with all people and groups, regardless of country or religion; and it goes on forever, sending ‘peace messages for as long as kaki trees are growing’.[n]Revive Time: Kaki Tree Project website: kakitreeproject.com[/n]
The Concept of ‘Art in You’ is succinctly expressed through Miyajima’s kaki tree project and other collaborative works. It also finds expression in his gallery works that immerse visitors quite literally ‘within’ the art – bathing people in coloured light, surrounding them from above and below; and reflecting them through the use of polished, reflective surfaces including glass and mirror. The artist’s mirror works in particular demonstrate concepts of immersion and unity between viewer and artwork. One suite of works entitled Changing Time with Changing Self (2001) takes the form of flat wall-mounted mirrors, punctuated with colourful LEDs, which reflect the audience directly. Another grouping, Warp Time with Warp Self (2010) have a distorted surface, reflecting instead a warped, rippled vision back at the viewer that is not dissimilar to a funfair reflection. Miyajima comments, ‘It feels like you are looking at a piece of work, but you are looking at yourself at the same time. My concept of ‘Art in You’ refers to the realisation that art is inside yourself. The work itself is living and moving as you yourself are. It allows you to experience both things at the same time, giving different visions and manifestations of how you can see yourself.’
A third suite of mirror works goes even further, breaking the reflective surface apart into small triangular protrusions, to create a fractal ‘diamond’ effect. Entitled Diamond in You (2010), these works suggest the graceful unfolding of a lotus, or origami. Another reference is the geodesic dome – a concave, halved sphere made up of multiple conjoined triangles – pioneered by the American architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller in the early 20th century. The sphere or dome is analogous to the human being, according to Miyajima, revealing what is within. When you open it out you can see all the possible lives (or cells) revealed within that one human being, which perpetuate the cycle of life, death and regeneration. It also suggests the ‘diamond’ within all of life – a hidden core that has value and dignity. He concludes of the mirror works, ‘Through this relationship or encounter of living work and living human, a person comes to the realisation of being more fully, and is made to think about the process of being alive.’
Miyajima’s rooms and environments also immerse and envelop their audience, extending the ‘Art in You’ concept. They include Mega Death, which surrounds the body from the ground up within three towering walls of blue LEDs. Other works approach the body slightly differently, including Floating Time (2000) which consists of monochromatic light projections that beam down onto the gallery floor, beneath peoples’ feet; and Arrow of Time (Unfinished Life) (2016), which takes the form of a brilliant ‘shower’ of red diodes, suspended overhead like a fiery, dramatic meteorite storm. Each work requires movement on the part of their audience, as they wander around and through it; and in the case of Floating Time, as the fleeting, projected numbers swirl beneath their feet. This work can be realised in many different colours as well, for example bright yellow or hot pink. This is something the artist revels in, given the constraints of the LED palette.
Floating Time is the only one of Miyajima’s room-scale works that does away with LEDs, using video projections instead to represent the digital counting process. The artist observes it is particularly popular with children who dance within the sea of numbers surrounding them, extending their hands to ‘capture’ them momentarily. The concept of the work lies within its title, illustrating the inseparability of space and time. What is interesting though, according to Miyajima, is that this can only be realised through the presence of an audience. Thus, it is necessary that people immerse themselves within the work for it to have any meaning. He says, ‘Time is floating in space; once a human interacts with it, it becomes a visual manifestation. When another person outside the work looks on, that becomes the final manifestation of the work, as it should be.’ Ikeda’s words on being and time, and the ‘observer effect’ of modern physics, have particular resonance here.
Arrow of Time (Unfinished Life), meanwhile, refers to the astronomical concept of time’s irreversibility – that it cannot rewind itself and ‘come back’ again. For Miyajima, this is reflective of life itself and the fact that a particular moment in time cannot be re-made. ‘In everyday life, we tend to forget this reality so I would like to communicate that we live in moments that cannot be recovered.’ Creating a situation where ‘those moments are raining from the universe’, he chose red LEDs to express caution and urgency in relation to our brief but significant moment on this planet.
Despite his use of high-end technology, Miyajima has also harnessed elemental materials – water, earth and coal – for some works. Counter Coal (2008) for example comprises a vast black mound of coal in the gallery, punctuated by red LEDs. In sore presentations it is encircled by a second work, Time Train to the Holocaust (2008), featuring a model train that hauls tiny blue counter gadgets in its wagons. Originally commissioned for display in Recklinghausen, a centre for coal production in Germany, Counter Coal referred to the material’s extraction and efficient transportation across the country. It also pointed to the use of the same train system to transport countless human lives to the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.
Speaking about Mega Death, his largest memorial, Miyajima recalls the words of Jonathan Schell, the American journalist and anti-nuclear activist who observed that when you take away someone’s life, you also take away their death. ‘It is the death of a death’, says Miyajima – a double loss that robs dignity and time of their rightful role. Other memorial works include the artist’s Pile Up Life sculptures (2009) comprising small ‘stupas’ moulded from dried earth and studded with blue or red LEDs. Each conical structure pays tribute to the many lives lost across Asia in recent years to natural disaster, including earthquakes, typhoons and mudslides.
Water is also significant for Miyajima – transparent, reflective, constantly flowing and changing. The focal point of public works including Sea of Time ’98 at Naoshima, it is central to gallery works such as 100 Time Lotus (2008), a vast rectangular ‘pool’ containing 100 white LEDs and white lotus flowers that grow between them. 100 is a significant number in Buddhist thought, used to express ‘the all’ of the universe. Coupled with the lotus – symbol of wisdom and purity – it is one of the artist’s most striking works and a serene counterpoint to the melancholy that pervades his memorial pieces.
Although Miyajima is best known for his light-based objects and installations, they are expanded by his paintings, works on paper and performance videos. His Over Economy series (1992-2015) employs the materials of everyday life and commerce, comprising overdrawn bank notes in rows or grids upon the gallery wall. Each body of work uses a different world currency, and his delicate overlay of pencil or wash outlines a numerical sequence, revealing portions of the original currency behind, in the unpainted interior space of each digit. One writer notes that the series represents a ‘double pun and reference to concepts that “time is money” and that time in fact changes money as value’.[n]Michael Auping, ‘Theatre of Time’, in Tatsuo Miyajima: Big Time, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth and Hayward Gallery, London, 1997, p. 29[/n] Miyajima adds to this, noting that the works acquire a considerably higher value as ‘art’ than the original value of the currency they are painted on. The idea of looking through, or beyond, recurs in his paintings of numbers upon other domestic materials, such as kimono silk. Two large works, Counter Painting on Kimono-Yellow and Counter Painting on Kimono-Gold (both 2013) take antique Japanese kimonos as their starting point, overlain by pencil, gouache and acrylic paint. The detail of the kimono fabric and its patterning are revealed only within the internal space of each digit, inviting close inspection by viewers.
Miyajima has drawn and painted over a variety of surfaces, from bank notes and kimonos, to Japanese scrolls and photographic reproductions of Modernist European art works. Describing these works as a ‘conversation,’ he notes that although the material becomes a background for his work, its significance is heightened by close observation. ‘The viewer, by looking through the numbers, looks at the original work in a more detailed manner because it is partially concealed. When it is not covered, we don’t take in as much detail, but by overlaying it with ‘Miyajima numbers’ it allows us to focus our attention. I propose this as a collaboration between the original work and myself.’ He adds that the kimonos – which he sources from antique shops in Kyoto – are from the late 19th century, their manufacture loosely coinciding with the establishment of Greenwich Mean Time in 1884. A further body of works on paper, Life Face Vol. 3 (1991), recalls the Japanese conceptual artist On Kawara, whose Today paintings of 1966-2013 recorded the date on which they were made, against a monochromatic background. Miyajima’s work consists of 100 panels made from one silkscreen; every print is a slightly different variation on the original, altered by masking. Each is thus unique, whilst part of the wider series, like human life itself.
The artist’s performance videos, made throughout his career, return conceptually to his student days at Tokyo University of the Arts in the early 1980s. During this period he experimented with street performances and witnessed live works in the city’s museums by Joseph Beuys and Nam Jun Paik.[n]See Mami Kataoka, ‘Tatsuo Miyama in Conversation’, in this publication, p.33[/n] Soon however, he came to realise that his performances would only ever be witnessed by a small number of people, at a particular instant in time. ‘The defining factor of performance is that you can only see it if you are there in that moment’, he says. ‘In terms of viewers, [I feel] that is not such a generous approach. I wanted to be able to perform for the viewer and that is why I started to make objects [instead]. The objects act as performers in lieu of myself.’
Miyajima returned once more to performance in the 1990s, commencing a series of live works that feature actors – or the artist himself – voicing a repeated counting sequence, 9 down to 1, and back up again. At each interval the performers plunge their faces into a bowl of liquid (water, milk or red wine) suggesting the fluids of life. The liquid cascades down the their torsos and stains their clothes, and the counting becomes increasingly laboured as the cycles repeat. Unlike the one-off events of his youth, Miyajima’s Counter Voice works continue to exist as performance videos for public display. Building upon Mega Death, with its memorial to Hiroshima, he began the series in response to French nuclear weapons testing in the Moruroa Atoll, in the Pacific Ocean, during the mid 1990s. Clear Zero in the Water (1996) is an 11-minute performance staged at the Cartier Foundation, Paris, featuring six French performers who plunge their faces into bowls of de-radiated seawater from the Moruroa Strait. A partner piece Counter Voice in the Water (1996) featured the artist plunging his face into water and counting.
Miyajima describes Clear Zero in the Water as ‘a manifesto’ and has since followed it with a related performance video, Counter Voice in the Water at Fukushima (2014). This work features the artist dressed as a Japanese ‘everyman’ in a grey suit and tie, with the contaminated sea and damaged nuclear power plant visible behind him. He says: ‘Because I had done [the earlier work] with French performers, it was imperative that I did this performance myself as a Japanese [citizen] when the Fukushima disaster happened. I wanted to make the performance right after the disaster but was prohibited; I did it one year later once the waters were accessible again.’
Reflecting on his choices as an artist, Miyajima recalls that he turned to Buddhism during a time of personal questioning and turmoil in his early twenties. ‘It allowed me to clarify my vision and direction, and helped me to understand why I was creating art and had become an artist. In other words, it clarified for me that was making art for people, not for art. That was an important moment for me and gave me a new perspective.’ Reflected in his three guiding principles and extended through ‘Art in You’, Miyajima’s practice is one of innovation and inclusion, inviting people in through reflection, immersion and collaboration. It is also poetic and starkly beautiful in its realisation,
Miyajima embraces the materials and substance of life in order to explore the nature of being. Numbers and counting sequences are central to this process, revealing time’s relentless, cyclical nature. They also serve to remind us that whilst our time on this planet is brief, our lives have beauty and purpose, for we are one with the cosmos that exists within and outside us.
All quotes by the artist, unless otherwise specified, are drawn from a series of interviews conducted between the author and Tatsuo Miyajima at Ibaraki, Japan, in April 2016. With sincere thanks to Angela Reynolds for her translation support.