Tatsuo Miyajima, “Mega Death” (1999) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

SYDNEY — Tatsuo Miyajima’s overall career project has been to focus attention on the passing of time. His signature has been the use of small numerical counters made of LED lights that go repeatedly from 1 to 9 and then momentarily black, before beginning again. Miyajima speaks of the influence of Buddhist thinking on his own. He refers to each light diode as representing a life. When the counter goes black, it represents death, and then, when the count recommences, it is a symbol of rebirth and renewal.

Miyajima has a retrospective titled Connect With Everything currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Australia, organized by the institution’s chief curator, Rachel Kent. She describes Miyajima’s works as immersive environments, which the strongest piece in the exhibition certainly is. “Mega Death” (1999) was originally commissioned for the 1999 Venice Biennale, in response to a curatorial prompt to represent or sum up the 20th century. The three-wall installation, which is reflected in the polished floors as well, is meant to speak to the abrupt deaths and mass murders of the 20th century. Without this information, however, that is not what one sees, or more specifically not what I saw. All the numbers counting up to 9 and going dark and then counting back down to 1 appear here as a night sky of twinkling stars. The installation brings to mind the massive scale of the universe, the depth of the darkness we see when gazing up into it, and the relative ways in which we experience time. Given the time it takes for light to travel to earth, what we perceive when looking at the night sky are instances of the past — pasts that are not even simultaneous with one another because the distance to the earth from an individual star determines when we will perceive each celestial body. The ambient blue light enveloping everyone in the darkened room at the MCA created the feeling of being in a sanctuary. Audience members sat quietly, contemplating the flickering walls for long periods of time.

In her essay for the catalogue, Kent states: “Blue in particular has meaning across many cultures, suggesting the sky, the universe and infinity.” Oddly, for a work that’s meant to convey death and murder, the artist has chosen to use blue light. It feels as if Miyajima wanted to represent all the deaths of the 20th century as a part of the human life cycle, which in some sense they are, without delving too deeply into the purposeful way in which masses of people were slaughtered, especially mid-century by Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, who were easily responsible together for a staggering 150 million unnatural deaths. Add to that the gratuitous murder by the American government of close to a quarter million Japanese civilians in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Tatsuo Miyajima, “Arrow of Time (Unfinished Life)” (2016) (photo by Jacquie Manning)

Ironically, the other immersive work in the exhibition, “Arrow of Time (Unfinished Life)” (2016), in which viewers are provided with pillows to look up at the ceiling, features diodes in red, a color one more readily associates with blood, rage, and violence. In the case of “Arrow of Time,” the installation is not nearly large enough to realize the ambition of creating an immersive environment. Scale is so important to the effect of a work like this, and the room allocated was simply too small. The choice of red, we are told in the catalogue, is meant to represent a “dramatic meteorite storm.” Thus, the work which wishes to provoke our thoughts about the deaths of millions during the 20th century is represented by a haunting and tranquil setting, while the night sky is a room awash in red light.

Tatsuo Miyajima, “Life (Corps sans Organes)” (2013) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Not all of Miyajima’s works are immersive; there are smaller, discrete wall installations, videos, paintings, and drawings in the exhibition as well. The piece “Life (Corps sans Organes)” (2013), with its wires running from light to light and conjuring the shape of a map, reminds us that for sentient beings, time must take place in space. For me, it was also reminiscent of Christian Boltanski’s Monuments, which consist of portraits connected by wires running to spot lights illuminating individual faces. The images in Boltanski’s work are of children who died in the Holocaust, and thus the Holocaust as subject matter echoes in this piece of Miyajima’s, if only by association.

Tatsuo Miyajima, “Counter Coal” (2008) and “Time Train to the Holocaust” (2008/2016) (photo courtesy the MCA)

The reference is more overt in “Time Train to the Holocaust” (2008/2016), which is shown together with “Counter Coal” (2008), in such a way that I had no idea they were two individual artworks. A huge mound of coal occupies most of the floor space in the room, and a toy train hauling LED counters drives around its circumference, elevated to about hip height. While I believe the artist meant well, I found the toy train trivializing in a way that even his intentions could not overcome. Dealing with the transcendent, spiritual, and experiential aspects of time has the potential, as in “Mega Death,” for the creation of astoundingly beautiful environments for quiet contemplation. But the approach in “Time Train” seems utterly remote from the suffering connected to the topic he claims to engage.

In the case of Miyajima, whose strength is creating individual immersive installations, the impression the work makes may actually be weakened by a retrospective in which so many iterations of the same idea are present at once and claiming to have a wide range of contents. This is a drawback to an art practice that relies essentially on permutations of the same formula for an entire career; there are hits and misses, but also a certain inflexibility in responding to change and the passage of time — ironic, given his subject matter.

Tatsuo Miyajima, “100 Time Lotus” (detail, 2008-16) (photo by Alex Davies)

Tatsuo Miyajima: Connect With Everything continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (140 George Street, The Rocks, Sydney) through March 5.

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Susan Silas

Susan Silas is a visual artist and occasional writer living in Brooklyn.