Tatsuo Miyajima, Mega Death, 1999/2016, installation view, LED, IC, electric wire, infrared sensor. Installation view, Tatsuo Miyajima: Connect with Everything, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, 2016. Domus Collection, image courtesy and © the artist. Photo: Alex Davies 

It’s something of a cliché in Western art history that canons shake when revolutions sound. Social change precipitates stylistic reinvention and the same can be said in reverse. Although they might gesture back, time and style share an aggressively forward momentum. Over a career spanning more than three decades, Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima has explored revolutions of a different kind. His are cyclical, and in constant replay as rituals of time that quietly govern human lives.

Although he trained as a painter and his early work was performative, Miyajima is best known for his expansive installations comprising hundreds of light-emitting diodes, in which electronic counters cycle through the numbers nine to one. In context, they variously evoke the patterns of life and death, the tenets of Buddhist theology, the movement of the heavens, or the simple passing of a day. Seemingly dispassionate, his data can also be politically charged. These are the hidden forces to which individual lives are inextricably bound. “A constant is the fact that we are always changing,” he explains, “as humans and living beings, we cannot and do not exist independently. We are only able to live within relationships in this world.”

Tatsuo Miyajima: Connect with Everything at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia as part of the Sydney International Art Series 2016–17, is the artist’s first major show in Australia, although he also featured in the 2012 MCA exhibition Marking Time. Both shows were curated by MCA Chief Curator Rachel Kent. Connect with Everything makes a bold claim. Whether built into a fractured mirror, a pile of coal, or the side of a building, the meanings to be found in Miyajima’s numbers as tiny chunks of data are all-encompassing, scaling from the micro to the macro. “On the macro level, you have not just one human but all living things,” Miyajima explains. “The conglomerate has a life cycle of its own, whether it is a country, or a planet, or a universe.”

Miyajima’s installations, as is the case with this exhibition, are often billed as “immersive”, a term that signals a strategic trend in contemporary museum practice towards curating spectacle and audience engagement. These are perfectly worthy aims that recognise the 21st century museum as an evolving space for relational enquiry, not be confused with mere novelty. But for me this particular terminology has always sat uneasily with Miyajima’s practice. To be immersed is not simply to be enveloped. It implies a dissolution of the conscious mind, often a strategic suspension of reality. Sometimes Miyajima achieves this. In Arrow of Time (Unfinished Life), 2016, an array of red LEDS hover like stars above viewers who lie beneath them on cushions. The artist’s intention is to explore the astrophysical inevitability of time and by extension the importance of our custodianship of it: “we live in moments that cannot be recovered,” he says. In this work, the digits seem to visually dissolve into the dense atmosphere as they slowly tick down. Here the individual viewer is but one speck amongst a vast constellation of celestial bodies. Mind and matter mingle.

Miyajima, Installation view MCA
Tatsuo Miyajima, Arrow of Time (Unfinished Life), 2016, LED, IC, electric wire, iron. Installation view, Tatsuo Miyajima: Connect with Everything, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, 2016. Image courtesy and © the artist, photograph: Alex Davies

But often the power of Miyajima’s installations comes from keeping viewers at a distance from which to apprehend concepts of more gravity. This is the case with the immense installation Mega Death, originally commissioned for the 1999 Venice Biennale and spectacularly installed at the MCA. Here, three sides of a cavernous room are covered by bright blue LED counters that randomly switch off in unison, leaving the audience temporarily enveloped in darkness before the numbers light up to resume again. In Mega Death the tempo of the count has real weight.  

As Miyajima recalls, he responded to Japanese pavilion commissioner Jun’ichi Shiota’s request to “make something that sums up the 20th century” by creating a work that visualised “the century when more people were killed than ever before in human history’.” The unsettling mechanics of the work speak to the systematic slaughter of the holocaust, the calculated killings of Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the senselessness of the Somme. This is a work that exists in the spaces where tragedy demands reconciliation but defies picturing. It visualises the scope and consequence of human violence without replaying its symbols.

Miyajima, Mega Death (detail)
Tatsuo Miyajima, Mega Death (detail), 1999/2016, installation view, LED, IC, electric wire, infrared sensor. Installation view, Tatsuo Miyajima: Connect with Everything, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, 2016. Domus Collection, image courtesy and © the artist. Photo: Alex Davies

But here is where Miyajima keeps his audience at bay: visually, the barrage of blue LEDs is incredibly difficult to look at for anything more than a few seconds. The array of data is intentionally overwhelming, random and unintelligible. The blue evokes the sky and the depths of the sea, but the kinds of spiritual reverie we expect from gazing into the infinity are unavailable in Mega Death, apart from the fleeting instances when everything expires. It is a brilliant, spectacular work, relying on the ability to overwhelm rather than immerse, pushing the audience back towards a reflection on the real world. Otherwise it makes no sense as a meditation on trauma.

This is an observation rather than a criticism, a nuancing of what emerges from installation strategies and how we might describe the relations of viewers in space. It is also fair to say that Miyajima sometimes achieves greater perceptual dissolution in the humbler moments. He often employs reflective surfaces, such as in Warp Time with Warp Self (2010), which mirrors the viewer. These works are entrancing for the entangled, reflective play of light on simple surfaces that defer to the presence of the viewer through slight variations in form (the artist calls this effect the “art in you”).

Warp Time with Warp Self, installation view
Tatsuo Miyajima, Warp Time with Warp Self No. 2, 2010, LED, IC, electric wire, mirror glass, steel, Taguchi Art Collection. installation view, Tatsuo Miyajima: Connect with Everything, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, 2016, Image courtesy the artist and SCAI THE BATHHOUSE © the artist. Photo: Alex Davies

Likewise, Miyajima’s painted works on silk and kimono, which Kent included to show the breadth of his practice, present complex and layered materialities that reward deeper inspection. Indeed, Connect with Everything showcases a surprising range of material virtuosity, as well as technical and conceptual subtleties. This exhibition is instructive in its construction of a multidisciplinary artistic practice based on the singularity of one artist’s drive to pursue an idea to its logical limits across a lifetime of enquiry.

Miyajima is often better when he avoids the carnivalesque spectacle altogether. In Counter Coal (2008/16), red LEDs are interspersed amongst seven tons of coal, brought in from Newcastle in NSW. In its original incarnation at the Kunsthalle Recklinghausen, it situated the major economic product of the Kunsthalle’s Ruhr region within contemporary concerns about ecological sustainability. It also touched on historical threads; the coal powered the German railways, which were the infrastructure of Hitler’s Final Solution.

This is a sobering and haunting work with great material beauty, but its subtlety is undermined by the overly literal incorporation of a model train carrying blue LED counters and encircling the pile of coal. Perhaps this black humour stems from Miyajima’s roots as a performance artist. It is certainly present in his video work Counter Voice in the Water at Fukushima (2014) filmed on a boat in the irradiated waters off Fukushima, in which he dunks his head into a bowl of water while shouting the count from nine to one and back again. Here the comedy hits home; in spite of the seriousness of the site I found myself laughing.

Miyajima. Counter Coal
Tatsuo Miyajima, Counter Coal and Time Train to the Holocaust, 2008/2016, LED, IC, electric wire, toy train (Fleischmann 4117, HO Scale steam locomotive), HO rail, MDF, coal. Installation view, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, 2016. Photo: Alex Davies
Miayjima, Counter Voice, video
Tatsuo Miyajima, Counter Voice in the Water at Fukushima, 2014, digital video. Installation view, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. Image courtesy the artist, Akio Nagasawa Gallery and SCAI THE BATHHOUSE © the artist. Photo: Alex Davies

It is a testament to the power of Miyajima’s work to colour the Zeitgeist a world away from his homeland that it anchors a second Sydney exhibition that reflects on time and space, Time, light, Japan: Japanese art 1990s to now at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Curated by Melanie Eastburn, this exhibition is staged in conversation with Tatsuo Miyajima: Connect with Everything, bringing together Japanese artists (mostly from the collection) working in video, photography, sound and installation.

Miyajima’s Region no 126701–127000 (1991) dominates the exhibition space and provides a sounding board against which the other works resonate. Three hundred LED panels present a count, each to their own rhythm, in red and green digits. As a cairn along Miyajima’s career path it is a fascinating object. Its exposed wires and panels contrast the slick, reflective surfaces and blue LEDs of Miyajima’s later works – indeed in 1991 this colour of LEDs was yet to be perfected and would finally earn their Japanese inventors a 2014 Nobel Prize. But as an evocation of Buddhist theology, Region no 126701–127000 is one of the artist’s most convincing works. The mass of data is complex and messy; it is cyclical but unstable, beyond our ability to predict, manipulate or fully comprehend it.

Art Gallery of NSW installation view of Time, Light, Japan
Tatsuo Miyajima, Region no 126701–127000, 1991, light-emitting diode, IC, electric wire and aluminum panel, 300 units. Purchased 1995 © Tatsuo Miyajima. Foreground: Akio Makigawa, Garden of Desire V, 1995, Mexican onyx with bronze and water. Purchased with funds provided by the Art Gallery Society of New South Wales 1998 © Makigawa Akio. Installation view, Time, light, Japan: Japanese art 1990s to now, Art Gallery of NSW, 2016. Photo: Jenni Carter

This is essentially a one-room show, drawn predominantly from the AGNSW collection of contemporary Asian art. Perhaps due to its spatial limitations and the tightness of its juxtapositions, it is more thematically satisfying than Connect with Everything. That is because the broad themes of Miyajima’s works, so deeply explored in the MCA exhibition, are given perspective by the others.

On Karawa’s conceptual works, 100 Year Calendar (c. 1968), a lithograph that as the title suggests presents a century’s calendar dates, and One Million Years – Past and Future (1999), a book that documents one million year dates in two volumes, add poetry to Miyajima’s spirituality. Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photograph Bass Strait, Lockard (1997) which characteristically depicts a moody, abstracted horizon line, captures the the twinkling lights of Miyajima’s countdown reflected in the glass, overlaying a sublime aesthetic image with one of more discursive theological backbone.

There is further fruitful and playful propagation of the shifting cultural narratives in the series of works by Yasamusa Morimura, Las Meninas Reborn in the Night (2013). This series of tableux vivants depicting the coming-to-life of Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656), is both charming and poignant. In eight photographs taken over one night in the Prado, Morimura dresses up and plays all the characters. The work is a metapicture in which art history creates biography, probing the western canon from another time and place.

Two works by the Japanese new media collective teamLab are similarly charming and expansive. Flowers and People – Gold (2015) is visually stunning, symbolically rich and materially overwhelming as a series of traditionally sized Japanese screens, here reworked as a digitally live spatial interaction. A plethora of flowers, floating rhythmically in 3D space but rendered to look 2D and almost screen-flat, responds to the movements of viewers in physical space. Black Waves (2016), a visualisation of a silk-screen seascape, is hypnotic. These are works that suspend time and cognition.

Installation view, Black Waves, AGNSW
teamLab, Black waves, 2016, 8-channel digital; conAnuous loop, artist’s proof. Courtesy of teamLab, Tokyo, Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney, Ikkan Art Gallery, Singapore and Pace Art + Technology, Menlo Park, USA. Installation view, Art Gallery of NSW. Photo: Jenni Carter

This suspension is what Time, Light, Japan allows – a kind of spiritual succour that sometimes proved elusive in Connect with Everything. Nowhere was this more evident than in Japanese–Australian artist Makigawa Akio’s Garden of Desire V (1995) in which eight onyx plinths, arranged in a circle, suspend bronze bowls filled with water. Garden of Desire ritualises time. Standing within the circle makes tangible the measure of the moment. Over minutes, the world outside changes with passing people. Over days, the water slowly evaporates even in the controlled atmosphere of the gallery. Over weeks – which I know from my six years working at the Art Gallery of NSW – people dip their hands in the bowls, unconsciously but ceremoniously, to the admonishment of the docents.

The achievement of these two exhibitions in general and Miyajima’s work in particular is to bring to light the forces to which human lives are subject, but which often go unseen. This sensitivity to interconnectivity forms the basis for Miyajima’s philosophy. To him, three forces symbolise human life: the constancy and necessity of change as a natural phenomenon, the interdependence of human lives with others and the world, and the continuity of the cycle of birth, death and regeneration that governs existence. These themes constantly turn over in Miyajima’s work, shaping his oeuvre as a reflection on the nature of being that replays in its many facets.

Revolutions take many forms, but one constant holds true – they revolve around something. In this point in time, in these two Sydney exhibitions, that fulcrum is Tatsuo Miyajima. Connect with Everything speaks boldly, demanding the attention of the viewer, while Time, Light, Japan responds poetically and with clarity. Both support reflection and analysis and deserve to be seen together, before time runs out.

teamLab, Flowers & People Gold. AGNSW
teamLab, Flowers and People – Gold, 2015, 3–8 channel interactive digital artwork. Collection:
Art Gallery of NSW, G. Wilson Bequest Fund and Asian Collection Benefactors' Fund 2015 © teamLab, courtesy Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney. Photo: AGNSW