Tatsuo Miyajima embodies the crux of contemporary Japanese society; it's deeply humanist principles and its status as the world's vanguard of modern technological thinking. Drawing on ideas from both and building them into something unique in modern art, the artist questions what each means and whether the two can ever coexist.
Japan is an outlier in that it's a country with deep ties to ancient practices, namely the cultivated patience of Buddhism and the ethos of emperors, inventors and philosophers that have passed down through generations. It is a place, you could say, that hasn't dared forget its illustrious past. For many, this traditionalism could be seen as romantic and of little use to our modern world, but in Japan, it's so deeply woven into every part of life - from eating meals, learning pastimes and choosing a career - that one cannot avoid the path carved by those who came before.
Few look to shirk it. There'd be no need to, given the life expectancy and general capacity for success that the society has developed. Yet, the relationship isn't without its foibles. Many feel that Japan is losing its way. Many more - those of the younger generation - don't understand the history that led to the current society. They see Japan for what it is, not what it took to get there. This buffer between old and new is full of puzzles, and in this atmosphere Miyajima creates his subtly confrontational artworks.
Not quite installation, nor sculpture, but closer to a technologically generated concept, Miyajima utilises digital LED displays, particularly with numbers between 1-9, to investigate time, space and how these heady concepts are integrated so seamlessly into our everyday lives.
Above mere capitalist critique, time in the Japanese artist's works still binds us. The cycle from 1-9 is abstracted to a scale that symbolises our life as a whole - making a statement about the power of numbers and their ability to represent the most profound matters. This is especially true given the significance that we give them. Birth dates, time itself and all the numbers that define our everyday lives like bank balances, tax codes and registrations.
Another notable feature, or lack thereof, in Miyajima's works is that a 0 never appears. The finality of the number, or the ambiguity of no beginning nor end, is avoided for something more concrete - even in the most abstract of realms. The 1 through to 9 offer a sense of continuity, flow and linearity. It's the idea, drawing back on more esoteric modes of thinking, that nothing ever really ends or begins, it just meanders through our lives.
His ethos may be best distilled by his core mantra of 'Keep Changing, Connect with Everything, Continue Forever.' It's an idea of renewal and change, embracing what happens rather than reacting to it. Weaving together Buddhist thought and parts of Western contemporary philosophy and science allow the art to have a global appeal, transcending any one society, people or language.
Although the ideas touch on the eternal - both of ancient and futuristic thought - his materials are firmly rooted in the technological age. Circuit boards, LED displays, videos and computers are crucial structures in the visual language employed by the artist to tell his story.
It's easy to think of these devices as particularly un-human, but they're not. Technology, for many, is the epitome of human intellectual endeavour and it's the human side that Miyajima is eager to maintain a relationship with. The artist said, "I want people to think about the universe and the human spirit," whilst maintaining that "Time connects everything".
Using numbers as a thread, Miyajima connects disparate philosophical ideas by showing that something as simple as marks on a display can truly get to their core. Time affects everyone, yet remains a concept that isn't as universal as one may think. When we see how Miyajima uses it, we are empowered to question our own understanding of the everyday and even so far as to look at it in a fresh light, possibly reassessing our own relationship to it.
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