Tatsuo Miyajima’s chronovision
“Absolute, true and mathematical time…flows equably, without relation to anything external.” Issa Newton
“The desire to produce temporal ordering in our lives, relate history to the rhythm of the stars and express it all numbers is an ancient and universal.”
“The flow of time is not a feature of thy physical universe, instead it has its origins in the life process, in the creativity of the mind, and in social conventions and modes of communication.” J.T. Fraser
Time is the principal theme of all the major installations which Tatsuo Miyajima has constructed over the past three years.1 All are composed from LEDs (light emitting diodes) arranged in spare configurations in darkened spaces. The earliest of these was Sea of Time, a scatter piece made in 1988 which covered the whole floor of a small room in Venice. followed by Counter circle, a ring of numbers that appeared in two versions. Next came several works which employed single lines and used the wall now as the support, Counter Line, Counter Communication… One of these was vertically orientated: of the remainder which were horizontal and set at eye level, the last stretched beyond a single plant to encompass the entire room.2 Recently, a pair of even more complex compositions has emerged: the first was composed of a rectilinear grid of horizontally aligned LEDs; the second, which was part of the same series, 133651, took the form of a lattice.3 In these last two works green numbers were introduced in addition to the by now familiar red ones.
In all these works the pair of numerals in each component counts from 1 to 99, then returns to 1; zero never appears. The speeds at which the counting takes place are varied so that no adjacent numbers seem to move in convert, though in fact pairs are often coupled in such a way that when one component reaches 99, its counterpart adds 1 to its total.
Both the works composed of a single line and throngs invoke directly those two key conceptions and experience of time which have dominated human history, at least until recently, one being directional or linear time, the other cyclical time. In the latest grid-based installations, however, something new is introduced. Divested of a unitary structure counting now occurs disparately, almost autonomously. In place of a single linked chronosystem there are now a number whose coordinates are determined according to means not readily intelligible to direct observation. Given the seemingly random layout, the temporal system in Sea of Time appeared fractured if not atomized. In these recent works, by contrast, the introduction of a grid implies that some kind of coherence, if not co-ordination, now binds the components together. Yet it is impossible to track visually the relationships that link the hundreds of elements, temporalities are posited as neither aligned nor transposable but simply co-existent. The overall impression is thus of time passing according to systems that neither can be reconciled nor be readily identified.
In these darkened contexts the pieces become available preeminently to the eye rather than to the body conceived as a physical entity. For while with the exception of Sea of Time it is possible to move around each of the spaces in which Miyajima’s works are presented, there is little gained from doing so in that little further is revealed by adopting a series of new vantagepoints. Nor is there even a prime viewing point from which they eye can comfortably encompass the whole. Thus after an initial scrutiny the viewer tends to adopt a static position scanning the changing numbers at selected points. But, given the readily identifiable overall configuration the viewer’s glance easily takes in the work as a single entity, incorporating into his or her apprehension even that which at moment outside the visual field. Hence the seeing eye in Miyajima’s art is not the bodily eye of a perceiving subject, whose being cannot be dissociated from a particular situation and orientation in space, as defined in Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, but a disembodied eye: and a disembodied eye inhabiting an ‘abstracted’ space, one which in being impenetrable, lacks the identifiable characteristics of a specific location.4 This tendency to abstraction is further reinforced by the emphasis on ‘pure’ number, that is, on number diverted of all containing forms and structures: in these darkened spaces the brilliantly illuminated constantly changing numerals take on an almost hallucinatory intensity. Thus once this process of interiorizing the whole by a glance has take 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 and hence of cosmology. The disembodied eye here becomes one with the inner eye.
Whilst an impenetrably dark space may impart a dramatic mysterious character to a piece, as occurred with the Counter Circle installed in Glasgow, this has not always been deemed necessary or even desirable with most of Miyajima’s works. Usually, the artist makes no attempt to conceal the materials or the physical mechanics of his works; they are simply and straightforwardly displayed. For the New York installation he even contemplated showing in an adjacent room the computer with the program which determined the composition – the connecting combinations – of each ten part element. In the event he finally decided that its presence was not crucial and omitted it. In written statements about the most complex of his compositions, a clear exposition of the materials and methodology is included alongside discussion of the larger issues.
The overtly contemporary character of these materials and means is crucial to Miyajima on two counts. Firstly, it reinforces the immediacy and ‘universality’ of the work; in this technology he discerns a common language across which people from different societies and cultures can readily communicate. Moreover they are to him devoid of any trace of a specific culture unlike, say, oil paint or the sumi brush which are linked inextricably to certain historical context and to specific traditions. Neither precious nor rooted in an identifiable culture, these means have been aptly linked to an “aesthetic esperanto”.5
For a western viewer, the character of his installations – their abstract nature and spare rendering together with their contemplative tone – invites comparison, initially at least, with the work of certain West Coast artists, namely Maria Nordman, James Turrell, Robert Irwin, and Douglas Wheeler, with the proviso that what light is to them time is to Miyajima. Common to all is a movement from the material to the metaphysical through a kind of displacement, or disembodiment, of the physical space or place that comprises the piece. There is, for example, a notable kinship with Turrell’s “hypothetical” pieces, (that is, pieces not devised in relation to the peculiarities of a particular site) in which physical engagement is not necessarily required, the space may be inhabited mentally.6 Yet Miyajima requires of his audience an associative enquiry rather than a hypersensitive response to the visual sensation, which is the case with Turrell. Prolonged scrutiny of the shifting integers in his installations will not in itself prove revelatory; it is the implications that they embody regarding the nature and definition of time, together with the ways in which this culturally specific temporal perception is reflected in and conditions the prevailing cosmology that is significant.
Whilst might appear at first that Miyajima shares an interest in archetypal imagery of the kind that informs the work of Eric Orr, who is also sometimes connected with his loose grouping of artist involved with “perceptual fields”, closer examination points to telling differences. Rather than archetypal forms, that is, forms evidently bearing the weight of past cultures, Miyajima’s configurations function as ideograms. In that their very appearance directly manifest the idea – of cyclic, linear and relative time-, they become analogons or symbols for it. Thus where Orr’s works is notable for its reference to ancient religions and magical traditions as the means to invoking prehistoric, and supposedly elemental chronovisions,7 Miyajima’s modalities are insistently of the present, redolent of current scientific thought and an electronic era.8 In short, while Miyajima does have some kinship with this outlook, in that for him as for them art consists of a certain way of experiencing rather than in the production of a certain type of object, his approach to the human problematique is, in the end, more overtly grounded in the present.
Several western artists have concentrated on number, ratio and measure as a way of approaching mystical or fundamental truths, the avowed mystagogue Alfred Jensen being a key example, and Dorothea Rockburne and Roman Opalka more oblique cases; however, number per se has never become the focus of Miyajima’s attention. Nor has the mystical – at least as that notion is conventionally invoked (in the west) as referring to certain kinds of irreducible, non discursive experiences, experiences which may be wholly independent of any specific belief system.9 Conceptual in origin, his works require an even more cerebral response.
Of greater relevance to Miyajima’s art is the work of an artist he much admires, On Kawara. For Kawara, too, time is an abiding preoccupation.10 Over the past three decades this subject has informed virtually all Kawara’s ongoing projects, from the date paintings through the series of telegrams and postcards to such encompassing works as the One Million Years (Past) and …(Future). In much of his work time takes on an existential cast, as may be seen in the sending of telegrams and postcards which attest in the former case to his continuing existence, and in the latter to the moment he got up. Far from being autobiographical in the sense of displaying a preoccupation with the individuated self, these impersonal personal statements simply attest to he fact of an ongoing existence at the most elementary level. A kind of social counterpart can be found in the date paintings, works which combine a small canvas containing a date inscribed in the language the country in which Kawara was on the day that he executed the painting, together with a box containing newspaper clippings from the same day from amongst whose headlines the title of the piece was culled. Very different yet not unrelated are the One Million Years.. Which comprise typed pages of numbers contained in plastic folders and bound into looseleaf books, some ten of which are required to tabulate methodically the full span for each period. As the view pursues these pages at leisure different time scales are juxtaposed; his or her inner mental time, the time that is the subject of the piece and the actual time in which scrutiny of the work occurs. Over these various series Kawara moves from using the single human being as the source to positioning it in the larger social environment, to dissolving it into a matrix in which the whole of human existence is more than enfolded. This expanding horizon entails a process of increasing abstraction. There is a shift away from an identifiable moment at a single site, recorded in the details of telegram and postage, to quasi-simultaneous events spread over international venues, to, finally cosmic duration in unspecified space.
The crucial distinction between their approaches lies in the fact that for the younger artist time is overtly dynamic; experience of this kinetic flow is actualized through the modalities of an installation. But different, too, are the philosophical dimensions and systems of belief which underpin this. For all that the thrust of his work, once again, is ultimately conceptual in orientation, there is something more directive in Miyajima’s art than the passive awareness and Zen-like acceptance that Kawara’s work seems to imply, as may be gauged by a consideration of an early piece from 1987, Clock for 300 Thousand Years. In this work the passage of time may be directly apprehended through no viewer will or could witness the whole activity, from beginning to end. As Fumio Nanjo astutely argues, it raises the question, “what does it mean for time to be counted continuously for 300,000 years?”.11 And this in turn, seemingly inevitably, leads to such issues as“Is time that we can see and count passing, the same as time that passes after out death? What is the significance. is it related to some form of universal values?”12
A kinship can also be discerned with certain works by Nam June Paik which again confront the question of time, its perception and philosophical dimensions. In a number of sculptures such as Swiss Clock Paik has exploited video’s capacity for presenting in real time that which is simultaneously being record; in this work time monitors itself in an endless conundrum. Somewhat differently, in TV-Clock, 1963–81, in which twenty-four monitors are aligned in a darkened space, with each screen displaying a minimal, virtually static, single bar of electronic light. As the sequence of twelve black and white and twelve colored monitors is traversed, the position of the bar ‘moves’ from one set to the next through two complete rotations. Each live set thus offers a single point in time on a set of physical co-ordinates strung out in linear sequence. This playfully serious way of addressing significant questions is characteristic of Paik, as are his gnomic statements and stories, amongst which the following is exemplary. Paik once rerouted a tale about his quest to buy certain books in Tokyo. Having finally succeeded in securing all the most important Japanese philosophical works on the subject of time in order to study them in the original, he discovered on his return to New York that he did not have enough time to read them.13 Questions not answers, paradoxes not expositions, constitute his vision.
Although dealing neither with technology nor with kinetic activity, the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto in which time is, again, a central preoccupation is also pertinent to a consideration of Miyajima’s chronovision. To date, Sugimoto’s oeuvre compromises three main projects, each of which address a different aspect of his subject. One sequence of photographs was take of the dioramas in the Natural History Museum in New York, the content of the cabinets shot in such away that the diverse species seem to coexist in seamless moment of time. A second series depicts the interiors of cinemas during the screening of a film. In these the aperture of the camera is left open for the duration of the movie, the result being a luminous white, paradoxically not blank, screen. The third, and the most recent, records the moment of sunrise in different oceans on different days. Photography as the medium par excellence for the recording of time is manipulated in each of these works in order to betray the complexity, even fallibility, of this notion. The photograph as an index, a trace of a moment passed is called into question by the fact that what is recorded is in some sense not a moment at all, or, rather, it is an artificial construct: it is a coded representation more than a literal record of a concrete moment, one that in terms of what is represented may have had no phenomenal actuality at all. Sugimoto’s preoccupation with competing if not mutually exclusive representations of time takes on a physical embodiment in Miyajima’s installations. In Sea of Time, for example, temporal relativity as conceived by Einstein is resonantly if metaphorically suggested. Here the notion that time is intimately connected to the speed of movement in space is adumbrated by the use of hundreds of different units all following different rhythms but all somehow interconnected. Since each counts a different time each necessarily occupies a different space, and yet each is electronically dependent on at least one other for the speed of its motion. In Miyajima’s work as in that of his two Japanese predecessors, the materials are overtly contemporary, different conceptions and attitudes to time the focus of consideration, and mechanical notions of time, Miyajima’s emphasizes digital time, that time which is as much the hallmark of the computer age as it is of scientific enquiry. Tell in this regard is the recent shift in the computing of time from calculations based on astronomical observation to ones derived from the world of physics, from the electromagnetic properties of matter. In totally unprecedented move mankind has discovered its standard of time from cosmic calculations. The implications are momentous, as Michael Shallis eloquently point out: “[W]e can say that we have decoupled our perception of time from our cosmology, or at least from our perception of the universe… Our cosmology, therefore, is an abstract and mathematical one… [It] has ceased to be grounded in the organic and cyclic world of nature in which we live our daily lives and in which time is more explicitly, more immediately present.”14
The fact that all four of these artists preoccupied with time have their roots in Oriental cultural may not appear coincidental in that many traditional Japanese art utilize actual time rather than merely depicting it as do the static art-forms of painting and sculpture. Ikebana, bonsai, the tea ceremony and even architecture embody in diverse ways a heightened awareness of the passage of time. If all are very aware of this heritage, it is arguably Miyajima, the youngest among them, who most strongly stresses his connection with this past. Typical of his position is the following statement from 1988: “The history of contemporary art in Japan has, until now, been a history of imitation of American and European developments in art. There has been little true originality, the result of artists’ failure to study the essential foundations of Japanese art. In my work I wish to reexamine – to inherit – those themes which have long been a part of Japanese art and to express them through the media of today.”15 Yet it would be dangerously reductive to posit some underlying oriental tradition linking these artist together, the differences in their attitudes and understandings are just as significant.16 But what is possibly just as significant is the fact that because of his wish to tie himself to his native traditions Miyajima is little concerned with that attempt fuse Eastern and Western concepts and philosophies that preoccupies a number of artists of his generation. In place of a fascination with eclectic syncretism, with an East-West dialogue and, ultimately, with the very notion of identity that motivates, say, Yasumasu Morimura, among others of his peers, Miyajima attempts to speak to the larger moment – that of the global present.17 Thus as relevant to his art as any contextualizing amongst his fellow artists is a consideration of the changing attitudes to, and the contradictory definitions of, time that at present flourish across the world.
If at a popular level time is still experienced in Newtonian terms, that is, as having a low and direction, in contemporary science it is obviously perceived very differently. Yet as novel discoveries gain widespread attention, even becoming popularized, it is now increasingly commonplace to refer casually to both minuscule periods of time, such as a nanosecond, and, simultaneously, to the vast eons of astrophysics.18 The familiarity of such concepts seems in no way undermined by the fact that observational evidence is unavailable, indeed impossible. But no more of a barrier is the degree to which they defy ready understanding and are, ultimately, at best only imaginatively grasped through such metaphorical terms as black holes, and white dwarfs. The sudden, unexpected, and unprecedented enthusiasm for books like Stephen Hawking’s, A Brief History of Time, together with numerous others devoted to aspects of computer culture including Sherrie Turkle’s provocative The Second Self: Computers and the Human Sprit further attests to the strength of this cultish preoccupation.19 So, in a different way, does the near ubiquity of digital timepieces of considerable sophistication, amongst which an Islamic Prayer Watch, ingeniously applying state-of-the-art technology to traditional ritual and knowledge, is typical.20
One result of the way in which time measurements, and not least those that stem from Einstein’s theories now some three quarters of a century old, are devised, is the fact that they have become ever more refined through the cource of scientific development and the gradual diffusion of scientific thought. It becomes clear even to a lay audience that there exists no ‘really true’ time scale; there are only different natural processes, which may be compared by time measurements, and different organizational levels, which have different determinacies and different notions of temporality.
In the past the diversity in interpretation of an individual human being’s experience and observation of time was both embodied in and conditioned by strong differences in his society’s view of human history and of ultimate reality, as well as in the prescriptions for the conduct of life that these differing views have suggested. Variations in the basic notions of time and in their corresponding codes of conduct have been among the salient characteristic distinguishing the principal civilizations, philosophies and higher religions that have appeared to date. If the nature as well as the definition of time in any society are crucial to its role in the history of thought and action, then the arrival of a new concept of time, specifically, that of a global present, must prove highly significant. That the impact of the computer and electronics is crucial to the rapidly increasingly evaluation of time is obvious. As J.T. Fraser argues in his comprehensive and fascinating study Time The Familiar Stranger, “The call for a complete global socialization and evaluation of time, demanded by the needs of a time-compact globe, cuts across all cultural, ethnic and racial boundaries and differences in political ideology.”21 The key issue of the day are undoubtedly global, rather than national or even international in implication. Whether it is through changes in environment or via new technological weaponery it is now the fate of the plant which is at stake, not merely that of certain races or ethnic groups, or even the human species alone.
In this sense Miyajima’s work can be said to be finally concerned less with ideas that are “universal” (in the usual meaning of operating at the level of transcultural archetypes), than with those can be deemed global, that pertain to contemporary world-wide culture.
The roots of his desire to address the present lie in his engagement with the Buddhist belief that the self is organically and inextricably part of a larger environment, while the terms in which this is examined have been profoundly shaped by the writings of Daisaku Ikeda, who is for Miyajima a great master and spiritual teacher. A philosophical as well as religious thinker, Ikeda is fundamentally concerned with mankind’s condition and future prospects.22 Notwithstanding his preoccupation with what he perceives as the current ‘crisis’, Ikeda’s view of the human condition is generally optimistic in its assessment of the character and achievement of the newly unified global society and its burgeoning culture: “In truth, in our time we are witness the birth of a common worldwide civilization that has originated in a technological framework of western origin but is now being enriched spiritually by contributions from all the historic regional civilizations”, he argues.23 Nonetheless, for him, the achievement of any lasting unity and peace at a global level will depend on personal response and action. Answers will lie not with institutions and governments but with individuals engaged in cultural communication: “the kinds of negotiations that we need now are not political ones between nation and nation, but life negotiations among individual beings.24
Standing in one of Miyajima’s installation, the viewer observes the changing digits, taking note of the rhythms, recurrences, returns, and unidentifiable even unquantifiable sequences. Irrespective of how fragmented, disjointed and discrete they might appear, and irrespective of whether they are identified with a mental present, an organic present, a social present or a global one, or all of these simultaneously, they seem unquestionably to belong in the flow of time, to partake in the passage of time in which the very observation takes place. Yet as Fraser argues this image of a moving cosmic present, of a universal flow of time whose speeds the human mind can assess correctly, and incorrectly, is an illusion: “There is nothing in the physical world to which this image of a moving present or flowing time could correspond. There is no ultimate rate of passage in the cosmos to which some inner sense of passage could be compared. For the sources of the feeling of time passing and for its abstract representations we must look entirely within our own heads”, he insists.25 And he adds: “Answers can be given in terms of experimental and theoretical psychology, in biological approaches to time, in the study of language, and in the many branches of philosophy.”26 If the flow of time has its origins in the life process, in social conventions and modes of communication, and in the creativity of the mind, then it is in the individual mind that understanding and responses to the competing notions of temporality are to be discerned. If time is perceived as one of the fundamental concepts shaping mankind’s sense of itself, the world at large and its place its place within it, the way in which Tatsuo Miyajima invokes it is, as has been argued above, in highly contemporary but abstract terms and by means that involve the response of the single observer, rather than a collectivity or a social self. Through the meditation of the ‘inner eye’ he attempts to forge a movement outwards from the self, towards a larger self-expression, and via that to a recognition of oneness with the world outside.
To the degree that the terms in which this is conceived can be described as poetic rather than discursive or polemical they possibly owe something to Rabindranath Tagore, Miyajima’s other great mentor. Miyajima’s admiration of poetic speech as an eloquent and resonant mode of address is commensurate with his belief, shared with Tagore, that the art object is less an object among other objects than it is a focus of psychological address, of a ‘beyonding’, and that its recipients are human beings rather than humanity at large. In place of an instrumental view of the role of art, there is an invitation to meditation on a fundamental concept, its character and import, one which is embodied in the most contemporary and immediate of terms, that takes note of the recent evolution in time perception. But there is no ‘answer’, no message demonstrated or enshrined within his invocation of the subject of time. As Tagore put it, “One will go to Universal Literature, then, to find out how far man has succeeded in establishing relations with the world at large, or what comes to the same thing, how far he has know and embodied the truth.”27
Numerical measuring, ordering and tracking in these complex environmental installations are revealed as conditional, indeterminant, systematic and yet elusive activities. For much of human history the most exalted form of knowledge has been number and whatever may be done with number.28 “On the scale of values sanctioned by the success of science and technology”, Fraser writes, “a statement about the nature of time is unlikely to be judged significant unless it can be tested for its truth and falsehood by measurement, expression in number.”29 It is a socially conditioned axiom in the West that “answers to all important questions about the world, such as those concerned with the nature of time, must be found through exact science – through number and measure”. 30 This is not in itself “scientific” or by any logic necessarily correct. Rather, as Fraser argues, “It is based on the firm historical belief that mathematics is the queen of the sciences, that it forms a complete (or completable) self consistent set of metaphors for all natural things and processes” 31 Yet despite beliefs which have equated mathematics to the reasoning of nature itself, and its arguments with the language of Logos, the eternal controlling principle of the Universe, increasingly the cherished certainty of mathematics will, he predicts, be replaced by a system of indeterminacies.
For many philosophers of cosmology the consequences are extremely negative. Not only is all time known to be relative and indeterminant but the question of which time scales to utilse – which are appropriate, that is, –when at base they are irreconcilable, must be in some senses arbitrary. The result is, as Michael Shallis puts it, “a cosmology which I think tells us little, if anything, about the nature of time.” It is nonetheless highly revealing: “I do think it tells us a great deal about ourselves, although it is not normally regarded in that light. It tells us of our obsession with technique (we will solve the puzzles that remain if we develop better instruments), about our abstractness from ‘normal’ human experience, about our inconstancy, our insatiable need and acceptance of perceptual change, our lack of a base, if you like.” 32 Whilst he argues that such a (chrono) vision lacks “the symbolic richness, the human ideals, of past myths”, his conclusions may be premature. It may be only now that the metaphorical and mythic accompaniments of this novel vision are taking form; insodoing they may adopt highly unexpected guises.
The focus of an intensely quizzical contemplation, time is presented Tatsuo Miyajima’s as lying at the heart of everything. Simultaneously idea and experience, abstract concept and actual visible phenomenon, it is offered as the key to all – KEEP CHANGING: CONNECT WITH EVERYTHING: CONTINUE FOREVER.33