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Japanese installation artist Tatsuo Miyajima – the subject of a 40-year retrospective at Sydney’s MCA – uses arrays of LED light to tackle the big questions with a Buddhist perspective. By Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore.

Artist Tatsuo Miyajima and ‘Mega Death’

Tatsuo Miyajima, standing in front of 'Mega Death'.
Credit: Anna Kučera

Light-emitting diodes aren’t usually associated with genocide. But in his vast installation Mega Death, renowned Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima has used the technology to highlight the horrors of the 20th century.

Three thousand white LED counters flicker and flash, counting down from nine to one at different speeds: some fast, others slow. Walking inside is like being washed in luminous sapphire: an abrasive, pulsating life force. Then, at random, the lights go out and the audience is plunged into sudden, black night.

Created in 1999 for the Venice Biennale, Mega Death is now showing at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art until March 5. It is just one piece in a major retrospective of Miyajima’s work, Connect with Everything, that spans 40 years of his career and includes sketchbooks, paintings, photographic and performance pieces, alongside the LED displays for which he is famous.

In Mega Death each individual counter represents a human life, ticking slowly from birth to death. When the lights go out is the moment “all those lives are lost”, says Miyajima on a recent spring afternoon at the MCA.

The artwork is, in many ways, about darkness: after all, it was the century of the trenches and terrorism, the Holocaust and Hiroshima. Yet at Mega Death’s metaphorical heart is a rekindling and rebirth.

A few minutes after the black descends, one counter flickers again to life. Another follows. Then another. And another. Until, once again, we are bathed in glittering light. The human spirit, Miyajima seems to be saying, can never be fully crushed.

It is this redemptive quality that MCA chief curator Rachel Kent was drawn to 20 years ago when she first came across Miyajima in London. She has followed his work ever since. “Even out of destruction, life slowly, surely resumes again,” observes Kent, who views his pieces as memorials.

She compares Mega Death to watching “a digital sunrise”. “At first it’s really, really black. And slowly, as your eyes start to adjust you see the contours of the room. Then all of a sudden – bang! – blue lights start to illuminate. I’ve been there a few times when visitors have cheered and clapped.”

Born in 1957 in Tokyo’s Edogawa City, Miyajima was a carpenter’s son. “My parents are really ordinary people. They had very little to do with the arts as culture or anything like that – just not their way I guess,” he says with a shrug.

Instead, Miyajima tracks his interest in art – and his fascination with the big questions of destruction and renewal, life and death – to childhood illnesses that left him hospitalised for months, including kidney disease.

“Kids around me died. And that left an impact on me,” he says.

Next to the hospital was a junior high school. “It felt like prison. From my bed I could see these kids running around and I was taken by this great desire to get out and do something in life. I was taken by this thought that once I’m out I’m going to live. I wanted to live.”

When Miyajima was eventually discharged he was shocked by the casualness of the outside world, where most settled for an ordinary, mundane existence as if the days, hours, minutes and seconds weren’t hurtling past. Not Miyajima. He wanted to explore, to experience, to establish himself. To create. And he wanted to do it now.

“My friends said, ‘Slow down, you’re living life in a hurry.’ I was filled with energy. To me, you had to do things because time was so precious.”

There is no sign now of the frenzy that possessed the younger Miyajima. Aged 59, he is thoughtful and reflective, with the quiet, softly spoken confidence of someone who has made his mark.

He is also faintly ironic and amused by his own success. Dressed to meet the press, Miyajima references his artwork in a loud white shirt decorated with oversized digital numbers. Otherwise, he is conservative in unfashionable, plain glasses and black trousers, his closely cropped hair edged with grey. He could be a lawyer or accountant.

Part of Miyajima’s appeal is that numerals are universal. His works, too, are often interactive: their use of playful technology and big, bright lights are accessible to everyone. “My 12-year-old son said, ‘This speaks to me,’ ” Kent tells me. “You are a part of the work. You’re not a passive onlooker but an active participant – reflected in mirrored surfaces, or you’re surrounded and immersed.”

If Miyajima creates pieces that speak to the human condition, his artworks are also rooted specifically in Japanese sensibility. He has benefited from Japan’s strong tradition in pioneering technology, in particular Nobel prize-winning physicist Shuji Nakamura, who brought blue LEDs to the masses.

Technology provides the paintbrush for Miyajima’s work. But its essence is formed by his deep-rooted belief in Buddhism. “People often focus on the technology. Actually, the work is humanist,” Kent says. “It’s philosophical, grounded in big questions about humanity, mortality, the future. It’s very emotional work, but quietly so.”

Miyajima had a traditional arts education, graduating from the Tokyo University of the Arts. “I entered art school on the back of my oil painting. I majored in it and I graduated without painting a single work of oil,” he says with a satisfied chuckle.

“The thing is I wanted to be original. And if you do oil painting there is the whole Western tradition that you’re up against, and all the techniques are explored and they’re complete and perfect. Take me to the cutting edge and to the frontier of things that have not been done before.”

Eager to “be a pioneer and talk to the world” he tried performance art. He laughs about his naive early attempts: “I went into town and hollered out something loud and caught people’s reaction on video.” But his later performance pieces are confronting and powerful.

Of these, 2014’s Counter Voice in the Water at Fukushima stands out. Miyajima, dressed in the drab grey-suited uniform of a Japanese salaryman, plunges his face into the contaminated sea at the nuclear power plant, his glasses flying off in the process.

Filmed on a boat that bobs violently up and down, the camera moves, too, creating a nauseating, seasick-inducing effect. The work may look suspiciously like a Japanese theme show, but Counter Voice is rarely shown in Japan because of its political sensitivities.

Still, Miyajima has questioned how effective performance art is. “If an audience isn’t here to see it, it didn’t happen in a sense – performance is incredibly temporary and ephemeral,” he says.

“The whole point of art is to reach an audience, so hopefully it will go out into the world and meet someone and they will respond. It’s at that point that the work fulfils its destiny as art. That led me to think of some other entity who is not me to do the performance – it led me to light and motors.”

During his 20s, the path from oil painting to performance to diodes marked a time of uncertainty. Miyajima found himself “deeply conflicted about life”. He was worried whether he could ever make it as an artist. It was hard to make ends meet. Then he was introduced to Buddhism.

Three concepts, rooted in Buddhist ideals, form the philosophical backbone of Miyajima’s practice: things change continuously; everything is connected; and the world is perpetual and eternal. These are reflected in Miyajima’s counting diodes. The numbers never reach zero, which the artist views as symbolic of death or, worse, nothingness. Rather, the cycle of counting represents his belief in reincarnation.

If Mega Death is one major work in the show, the other is Arrow of Time, first shown at the Met Breuer in New York this year. In a room decked out in cushions, hundreds of red counting diodes hang from the ceiling like stars or falling amber rain. For Kent, it possesses other-worldly poetry similar to a “meteorite shower or the colour of the cosmos”. The title references the theory of irreversibility in physics: that time keeps hurtling forward and nothing, once done, can ever be undone.

The sound of silence is important. In many of Miyajima’s larger all-encompassing sculptures, you can hear the buzz of electrics, like bees swarming around a nest. In one 1997 interview, he stated: “There are going to be sounds in any work despite the apparent silence, it is because of the way sound works in void-like situations … Also, numbers form a rhythm. We hear them.”

In a corner of the MCA, two partner pieces sit together. One is 2008’s Counter Coal for which nine tonnes of coal – sourced from Newcastle – were hauled into the museum to create a vast towering hill. Embedded in this mountain are red diodes that gleam like hot ashes.

Chugging around the coal mound is Time Train to the Holocaust, created the same year. A toy train on toy tracks hauls miniature blue counters in its wagon. The colour blue represents the Star of David, and the counters the lives lost – the piece was originally shown in the German town Recklinghausen. The blue diodes count down slowly: this is a journey from which few would return.

When Miyajima talks of the Holocaust or, closer to home, Hiroshima, he describes “profound shock” at the cruelty at humanity’s core. Buddhism is about fighting “the utter darkness within us that enables us to do these things”.

Then there’s nature’s savagery, too. Counter Void – consisting of six giant white neon signs that count from nine to one – has sat in the bustling Tokyo entertainment district of Roppongi since 2003. In 2011, the day after the devastating tsunami and earthquake in which more than 22,000 perished, Miyajima requested that the lights be switched off.

“I thought, what can I do as an artist?” he says. “It became self-evident what I should do is turn it off at a time when all of Japan was struggling to maintain power.” On March 11 the work was switched on again for three days to commemorate the tragedy’s anniversary. Otherwise, it remains dark.

Counter Void is telling. Unlike, say, Ai Weiwei, Miyajima does not engage in the cult of the artist. He stands in the shadows cast by his works, letting them speak for themselves, allowing them to perform for him.

“He’s come to that realisation that he wants to make art for other people – it’s about the audience, not for the artist,” says Kent. “It’s a very humble practice, there’s not a lot of artistic ego.”

This was drummed home when Kent visited Miyajima in his studio in the small city of Moriya. Kent asked if he kept his sketchbooks. He replied yes. She asked to see them. Puzzled, he shrugged and came back with “these beautiful yellow bound spiral notebooks – small, the size of a postcard”.

They were, she says, “the most exquisite things: pages and pages of notes, newspaper clippings, studies of human DNA, molecules, the cosmos. I’ve spoken to those who have followed his work for years and they didn’t even know they existed.”

Miyajima is starting to draw again – in Sydney he sketches in his hotel room, drinking in the pleasure of pencil on paper. “And I know it’s a strange thing to say this, but as a practising artist of 30 or 40 years, for the first time in my life I am actually hitting the point where every line that I draw I can express my thoughts perfectly. And that’s such a delight.”

Next year, he turns 60. Gazing into the 21st century, Miyajima believes we are “deeper into conflict and death and destruction than before. So, in a way, I feel that Mega Death is increasing in [significance].” He is adamant, though: “I’m not afraid of death. What I’m more focused upon is living.”

The art historian George Kubler once wrote that actuality is “when the lighthouse is dark between flashes: it is the instant between the ticks of the watch”. For Miyajima it is about the pause between light and dark, the moment before everything reboots. After all, when the night takes over, he says, “the Buddhist believes you arise from death and start again. And then you can shine.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 26, 2016 as "Light and death". Subscribe here.

Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore
writes on current affairs and the arts for the BBC, Financial Times, and Wall Street Journal.