For Tatsuo Miyajima, numbers hold the key to the universe. The Japanese artist believes the digits one through nine embody the Buddhist philosophy of change and renewal, while zero represents sleep, the void, a momentary pause between life and death. In Miyajima’s most recent survey exhibition, “Connect with Everything,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA), this numerical life cycle was seen both ascending and descending, though zero was always absent. By omitting this deathly pause, the cycle of numbers could endlessly rise and fall.
Miyajima created performance works in the 1980s; however, he sees the art form as ungenerous to the audience due to its short-lived nature. He now refers to his sculptures and installations as “performing objects,” intended to act in his place. Most of his works contain numbers in the seven-segment, angular font commonly found in electronics, such as calculators or digital watches. These digits characterize Miyajima’s creations, and are prominently featured in his sculptures, installations, paintings and photographs.
The MCA’s central gallery spaces contained standalone two- and three-dimensional works. These included a number of floor- and wall-based sculptures with LED numbers embedded in mirrored surfaces, positioning the viewer inside the work via their reflections. Electronic componentry was hidden or left exposed; the numbers ticked up or down in preprogrammed sequences. At times, Miyajima combined organic materials with manufactured electronics: LED number displays were scattered across tons of coal in the installation Counter Coal (2008/2016), while goldfish swam among frogspawn-like spheres containing LED counters in the long pool of 100 Time Lotus (2008/2016).
There is no doubt that immersive light installations are a major drawing card for general audiences, and when I visited the exhibition on a quiet weekday afternoon, fellow visitors entering the show let out audible gasps. Both Mega Death (1999/2016) and Arrow of Time (Unfinished Life) (2016) are environments of single-colored LED numerals. The artist used blue for the former, representing the infinite in its connection with the depthless sky. Its morbid title references the destruction of human lives in the 20th century, and the wall of evenly placed LEDs is programmed to fall dark at random moments. In Arrow of Time, viewers are invited to recline and gaze up at a black ceiling from which red digits suspend at different heights. Despite the violent overtones of the color, the red-saturated room had a surprisingly calming power.
In the 1990s, Miyajima created the “Counter Voice” series of recorded performances, which marked a return to his roots in performance works staged a decade earlier. Each video on view features a performer counting down from nine to one in their own language; when viewers expect the countdown to reach zero, the performers dunk their faces in a bowl of water, milk or wine—symbols of birth or rebirth in different cultures—before beginning the countdown again from nine. Counting slows or is pushed through with hasty difficulty as the liquid runs into the performers’ eyes, nose and mouth. These works are both perverse torture and homage to the human spirit, and make for oddly compelling viewing.
Miyajima coined the phrase “Art in You,” meaning art exists for the viewer’s self-discovery, and that it ceases to function without an audience. This approach—placing the onus on the viewer to conceptually generate the work through their own experience—combined with the manufactured material qualities of his creations, makes it difficult to feel a connection with Miyajima through the exhibition. Apart from some preparatory drawings and diagrams, the artist’s hand is barely evident in his oeuvre. When we do see Miyajima himself, following up his early video series with Counter Voice in the Water at Fukushima (2014), his performance feels exaggerated. While his creations do refer to Japan’s past, these references form a broader consideration of global history and ignore any personal narratives.
Miyajima is a multimedia artist, but his media are actually the number system and time. While the seven-segment display has taken on a nostalgic effect in the era of LCD screens, the numerals themselves remain effective symbols, and the resulting works are like digital mandalas that invite the viewer to ponder their own existence.
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