According to artist Tatsuo Miyajima, the biggest lesson to be learned from nature is that humans are not invincible. Having witnessed one of the worst natural disasters to hit his home country of Japan in 2011, followed by the global pandemic over the past two years, he says the time has come to reflect on the priorities of life.
“With the development of science and technology, we humans have the illusion that we can do anything and try to manipulate nature at will. But nature and the universe behave in unpredictable ways,” said Miyajima told Artnet News.
Coming from a prominent sculptor and installation artist who relies heavily on technology, this statement may seem dissonant at first glance. Miyajima is best known for his “gadgets” – flashing digital LED counters chronicling continuous, repeating cycles from one to nine. But in its design, the incessant flashing of numbers is a philosophical representation of life’s journey, centered on Buddhist teachings that are widely understood in Japan and many parts of Asia. His most recent work expands this reflection on the intersection between technology and philosophy.
An ongoing project that Miyajima has developed is Sea of Time—TOHOKU, an initiative to honor the memory of those who suffered from the ‘3.11’ earthquake and tsunami that shook Japan on March 11, 2011. The 9.1 magnitude undersea earthquake east of the Tohoku region was the strongest in the country’s history, and it caused a tsunami with waves as high as 132 feet. Updated figures released last year totaled 19,747 lives lost, while 6,242 were injured and 2,556 missing.
The final format of the project is still unknown, but will incorporate Miyajima’s signature LED meters. “We have been working with 3,000 people affected by the disaster for 10 years to build it and install it in the disaster areas,” explains the artist.
He offered a preview of the work, which is supported by crowdfunding and the artist’s own funds, during a presentation at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo in 2020. But the final version will not be ready until 2027, which marks the 10th anniversary of the “Sea of Time”. Participants from the Tohoku region are asked to set the speed of the meters, and the generative process aims to create an opportunity for them to heal. “I wanted to confront the catastrophe of the earthquake through art,” said one participant, a 41-year-old man.
Miyajima has taken a similar approach with his own practice, using art to address the pandemic. Unable to travel, the artist said he had become “mentally lonely”. But the enforced isolation also gave him the opportunity to do things he never had time to do, such as organizing his archives and experimenting with new types of work. (The entertainer admitted he was also secretly glad he didn’t have to attend various events and dinners, as most shows were canceled.)
Among the results of this period of confinement is a new body of work entitled “Painting of Change”, which the artist debuted in the solo exhibition “Art In You” at the Lisson Gallery in London (it ends tomorrow, but the exhibition will still be available for viewing online).
“We have a Buddhist concept that ‘all things are impermanent.’ It’s the idea that everything is constantly changing and never stays the same, which fits perfectly with the Japanese climate,” Miyajima noted. “In this work [Painting of Change]I dared to leave fate to chance, hoping people would experience this unpredictable world and think about what time is and what nature is.
The new paintings – in oil on canvas or gold leaf on cardboard – still revolve around numbers, but this time, rather than being powered by electronic circuits, the numbers are decided by fate: the Viewers are invited to roll a specially designed die displayed next to the works and change the number displayed accordingly.
The show’s installation in Lisson once again caused Miyajima to think about change. Japan’s borders were closed to foreign visitors for nearly two years until this week when the government announced it was easing travel restrictions. It wasn’t easy for Japanese people to travel overseas either – Miyajima only made his first international trip since the pandemic for his show in London.
Arriving in the UK, the artist is struck by the contrast. Unlike most places in Asia, which are still cautious about the pandemic, London is thriving on its “living with Covid” policy, and Miyajima said he was happy to experience a vibrant cultural scene again. “Japan has had a lockdown of cultural and artistic activities due to Covid. The performing arts in particular have suffered tremendously,” he noted.
Japan’s cultural scene, he says, should be as active as London’s, but he rejected the idea of having another art fair in Tokyo, a proposal recently floated by the Japan Agency for Cultural Affairs. “Personally, I don’t think bringing more art fairs to the Asian region will have much effect. Strengthening local arts education and exhibits in public museums is more important, he said.
“In London,” he says, “I went to the British Museum, because my work is in the Japan section there. What surprised me was that the museum was free. So many tourists and school children were there. I saw children running around in the Egyptian section and touching the mummies. I thought that was wonderful. I felt that art was liberating.
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