Tatsuo Miyajima’s is one of Japan’s pre-eminent artists with a career of more than three decades. He is famous worldwide for his deeply engaging and technologically driven installations, sculptures, paintings and video works based on the Buddhist concepts of life, death and renewal and his three principles of “keep changing, connect with everything, and continue forever”.


His story

Tatsuo Miyajima was born in postwar Tokyo, in 1957. In his early teens he decided to become a carpenter like his father in the pursuit of art. In 1986, he enrolled in an oil-painting course at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. After graduating the artist ventured into the world of performance art, influenced by the work of Christo and Joseph Beuys.

“To begin with, I was really intrigued by this idea of freedom of expression in performance art,” says the artist. “But I soon realised performance is only able to be experienced by people who happen to be there at the time. I wanted to access a lot more people and so decided to make objects that would perform in my place to any audience who would come to the object, perhaps forever.”

Tatsuo Miyajima

The role of Buddhism

Miyajima developed a deep sense of his own mortality early in life. Young artist was twice hospitalized with a kidney illness, where he experienced the passing of other children. This had a significant impact upon him, leaving the boy with a deep conviction about the value of life and the time one has to live that life in a meaningful and productive way. Thinking about life and death Miyajima became drawn to Buddhism and Buddhist thinking about the world. The artist turned to Buddhism in his early twenties, and its concepts underpins much of his work.

There are three principles that are central to his work: “everything changes; nothing stays the same”, “everything is related to everything else”, “everything is perpetual and eternal.” “Buddhism 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 I was making art for people, not for art,” states the artist.

Tatsuo Miyajima


The meaning behind LEDs, colours and numbers

During a walk through Tokyo’s electronics district in the 1980s, Miyajima saw the light-emitting diodes (or LEDs) and realised he could customise them and integrate them into his work. The LEDs have become the beating heart of Miyajima’s art practice. Designed by the artist himself, the LED counters tend to run at different speeds, meaning that some reach the ‘end’ of their cycle more quickly than others.

Other thing to look out for in his work is use of colour, which is very deliberate and symbolic, with cultural and religious meanings. For Miyajima, blue is a special colour, it represents the sky, the universe, infinity; red and green have associations with fire and nature; white suggests enlightenment.

Miyajima has also a deep fascination with numbers. He sees them as an “international language” — the past, present, future, and the place in between. However, Miyajima only uses numerical representations from one to nine. Zero, or ku in Buddhist ideology, is invisible, it represents “the void”, the point at which one life ends and another begins.“Death is simply an invisible stage in life,” he says. “So I decided to show it in my art as a blank moment, to express the idea that death — which is parallel with the concept of ku — is just a pause rather than an absolute.”

“All these numbers you see? They mean nothing. They are random. Pure chance. They are like … life.”

Tatsuo Miyajima


Where can you see his works?

“Tatsuo Miyajima: Connect with Everything” is the continuation of the Sydney International Art Series that regularly brings international art stars to the Museum of Contemporary Art. The MCA’s show includes a 35-work cross-section of his 40-year career.

The exhibition presents all aspects of Miyajima’s work, from the digital light-emitting diode installations he pioneered in the 1990s to video works, and his less imperative but still pensive, meditative paintings, sculptures, photographs, and works on paper. Tatsuo Miyajima: Connect with Everything is at the MCA till March 5, 2017.

Miyajima’s Remarkable Works

Mega Death

Miyajima presented Mega Death at the Venice Biennale 1999, where he was Japan’s representative. The room-size  installation meditates on war and indiscriminate killing. The work bathes viewers in blinking blue LEDs repeatedly counting down from nine to one at different speeds. At certain impossible-to-predict moments the lights simultaneously black-out, plunging viewers into darkness. This represents the loss of innocent lives – before beginning their cycles again.

The artist describes his work as a critique of 20th century history. He believes that this installation is one of the most effective and powerful pieces that expresses his concepts. “It is about the Holocaust, but it has parallels with global tragedies. It holds the meaning of many of the human-caused tragedies of the 20th century: the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, terrorist attacks … any mass death or destruction or killing where a life is taken before [its natural term],” states Miyajima.

Tatsuo Miyajima: Mega Death


100 Time Lotus

100 Time Lotus is a 20-metre ‘pond’, that contains 100 white diodes, five lotus plants and ten goldfish of different colours and shapes. White lotuses represent a key point on the Buddhist’s pathway to enlightenment.

In her catalogue note exhibition’s curator Rachel Kent writes: “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.”

Tatsuo Miyajima: 100 Time Lotus

Arrow of Time (Unfinished Life)

The large-scale immersive work debuted last year as part of the Met Breuer’s inaugural exhibition in New York.  Arrow of Time takes its title from the scientific concept of linear time. The idea is that the audience sits on the floor beneath the red-lit LEDs experiencing “time coming at them”.  The small counters look collectively like a constellation, but each represents an individual life travelling at a different speed.

This installation is an attempt to get people to consider the passage of time in their own lives. The artist always was passionate about confluence of art and science. “Arrow of Time is an expression used in physics and it represents irreversibility. Something that has happened can never be undone. And that phenomenon also represents the whole cycle of life and death: life goes in one direction,” explains Miyajima.

Tatsuo Miyajima: Arrow of Time (Unfinished Life)

Counter Voice in the Water at Fukushima

In this performance video work the artist stands in a grey waterproof  suit and tie in front a bowl of radioactive seawater. The audience can see the damaged Fukushima power plant visible across the sea behind him, reminding us of the tsunami that swept ashore in March 2011. Miyajima counts down from 9 to 1. When he reaches zero, he holds his breath, and puts his face in the bowl.

The work is a sister piece to Clear Zero in the Water, a performance Miyajima conceived in 1996 in Paris during France’s controversial series of nuclear tests at Mururoa Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. The artist selected people to put their faces in water from the Pacific.

“I did the performance as a protest to the nuclear tests, but on a greater scale it was also my feeling of protest towards the atomic bomb and nuclear power. When everything happened in Fukushima, I felt it my responsibility as a Japanese to put my own face in the water from my own country,” says Miyajima.

Tatsuo Miyajima: Counter Voice in the Water at Fukushima

Counter Coal and Train Time to Holocaust

Time Train to the Holocaust is a toy train that hauls tiny blue counter gadgets in wagons around Counter Coal, brilliant-red LEDs looking like glowing embers. The union of these two works points to the often polemic domestic debate surrounding the finite capacity of our natural resources and of our own lifespans.

“The network of railroads essentially came into being to deliver German coal all over Europe,” says Miyajima. “Ironically when World War II started the very same network of railroads was used to collect Jewish people into Germany and then to Auschwitz.”

Tatsuo Miyajima: Train Time to Holocaust

Tatsuo Miyajima: Counter Coal

Counter Void

A 2001 3m-tall installation includes six large digital neon numbers from nine to one. Miyajima created this work to represent the notion of death in a place “where there is so much life” — Roppongi Hills — the bustling cultural and entertainment hub in central Tokyo.

Counter Void was switched off at the request of the artist on March 12, 2011. That day a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami wrought widespread death and tragedy on the island nation. The artwork was turned on only once in March last year for three days to commemorate the tragedy’s fifth anniversary.

“So many people passed away and suffered from this, all around the world, too. The Japanese people decided to give a moment of silence for all those lives lost. So as an artist, this was my tribute — my moment of silence,” explains Miyajima.

Tatsuo Miyajima: Counter Void

Time Waterfall

Miyajima presented this large-scale work during the Art Basel fair. The artist’s massive light installation featured numbers of different sizes cascading down the side of a Hong Kong skyscraper. Time Waterfall enthralled Hong Kong a whole week, illuminating the building that towers over the city’s famous harbour.

For Miyajima, time is far more than a simple tool of measurement or an abstract concept. Time forms the very basis of his practice: it is the work of his life. Life, death, regeneration. No matter where the work takes Miyajima, it never strays far from these universal themes. He is a man with all the time in the world.

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