Tatsuo Miyajima's exhibition Sky of Time lights up the darkness in green LEDs
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Tatsuo Miyajima's exhibition Sky of Time lights up the darkness in green LEDs

STIR speaks to the Japanese artist, who – inspired by Finland’s northern lights – works with numeric LED counters to evoke the infinite existence.

by Sukanya Garg Oct 26, 2019

Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima's latest exhibition Sky of Time is on display at the Espoo Museum of Modern Art (EMMA) in Finland. The exhibition is a result of a collaboration between EMMA and the Saastamoinen Foundation, which commissions new work from a contemporary artist each year. Miyajima is celebrated for perfectly blending technological process and aesthetics with spiritual, especially Buddhist, philosophy.

In the immersive exhibition, green LED counters displayed across the ceiling in a dark room evoke the feelings of the northern lights, the latter inspired by the Finnish skyscape. The changing numbers from one to nine on the LED counters exemplify the artist’s long-standing belief in the constantly changing, and yet infinite nature of all existence.

Here, STIR converses with the artist...

Tatsuo Miyajima: Sky of Time (9.10.2019 - 8.3.2020); Espoo Museum of Modern Art, installation shot 2 | Sky of Time| Tatsuo Miyajima | STIRworld
Tatsuo Miyajima: Sky of Time (9.10.2019 - 8.3.2020); Espoo Museum of Modern Art, installation shot 2 Image Credit: Ari Karttunen, courtesy of EMMA

Sukanya Garg (SG): Why numbers? How did you first begin working on projects that employ numbers and light art to reference the timelessness of the universe?

Tatsuo Miyajima (TM): Numbers are a universal language that connect everyone around the world. They are also suitable to express the concept of time. It's obvious that numbers change. This is the reason I started using numbers. It started when I found LED digital number display modules sold as a part of DIY stopwatch kits at the Tokyo electronics market Akihabara. I noticed that they can be used to realise my concept.

Tatsuo Miyajima, EMMA, 2017 | Sky of Time| Tatsuo Miyajima | STIRworld
Tatsuo Miyajima, EMMA, 2017 Image Credit: Ari Karttunen, courtesy of EMMA

SG: As someone who works with light as a medium, how does it influence your creative process and aesthetic?  

TM: Light represents existence, and darkness represents inexistence. Nowadays existence is more emphasised, and inexistence is almost forgotten. But you need inexistence to emphasise existence, therefore you need darkness to express light. With the existence of darkness, you can express existence. 

  • Interior view of The Museum of Modern Art, West Lobby Lounge and Eli & Edythe Broad Ticketing Platform | Museum of Modern Art Renovation and Expansion | Diller Scofidio + Renfro | Gensler | New York| STIRworld
    Tatsuo Miyajima: Changing Time With Changing Self, No. 5, 2001; Installation shot 1. Sky of Time exhibition (9.10.2019 - 8.3.2020), Espoo Museum of Modern Art Image Credit: Ari Karttunen, courtesy of EMMA
  • Tatsuo Miyajima: Changing Time With Changing Self, No. 5, 2001; Installation shot 2. Sky of Time exhibition (9.10.2019 - 8.3.2020), Espoo Museum of Modern Art | Sky of Time| Tatsuo Miyajima | STIRworld
    Tatsuo Miyajima: Changing Time With Changing Self, No. 5, 2001; Installation shot 2. Sky of Time exhibition (9.10.2019 - 8.3.2020), Espoo Museum of Modern Art Image Credit: Ari Karttunen, Courtesy of EMMA

SG: Much of your LED light installations comprising numbers that oscillate between 1-9 are often described as being influenced by Buddhist thought and philosophy. Nevertheless, zero is always absent. However, in Buddhist tradition, the ultimate pursuit is for the truth of zero or the state of Shunyata as it is called. What then inspires the choice of the absence of zero in your work? Isn’t the concept of continuity, which is so central and definitive of your practice, incomplete without the zero?

TM: Zero has two meanings. In Europe, the concept of zero is connected to nothing, emptiness. But you can make a number bigger and bigger by adding zeros to the end of it, or you can scale down a number by adding zeros in front of it. With the help of zeros, a number can increase and decrease to infinity. In a way, zero contains everything, it's full of potential. 

The other meaning is death, and this derives from Buddhism. When something dies, and you cannot see the body anymore, there is still energy for the next cycle. Zero carries that energy. It's all there, but you cannot see it. This energy enables the continuous concept familiar from Buddhism – reincarnation. 

The reason why I don't show the number zero is because it represents death. If I would use light to show zero, then it wouldn't represent death. The numbers from 1–9 are in a continuous flow of change, and that represents the cyclicality of life. Death is a part of the cycle, but when it comes, it cannot be represented with light. Zero is there, but in the form of darkness. The moment without light emphasises the cyclicality. When a gadget is lit again, a new cycle begins and life goes on. There is no conflict of emptiness in Buddhism. 

Tatsuo Miyajima: Sky of Time (9.10.2019 - 8.3.2020); Espoo Museum of Modern Art, installation shot 3 | Sky of Time | Tatsuo Miyajima | STIRworld
Tatsuo Miyajima: Sky of Time (9.10.2019 - 8.3.2020); Espoo Museum of Modern Art, installation shot 3 Image Credit: Ari Karttunen, courtesy of EMMA

SG: The work Sky of Time is immersive in some sense. What is the artistic and conceptual inspiration behind the work?

TM: Universe, time, and human life are combined in this piece. I was inspired by the stars in the sky. You are under it as the light falls down from the sky. You have to experience it. 

Tatsuo Miyajima: Sky of Time (9.10.2019 - 8.3.2020); Espoo Museum of Modern Art, installation shot 4 | Sky of Time| Tatsuo Miyajima | STIRworld
Tatsuo Miyajima: Sky of Time (9.10.2019 - 8.3.2020); Espoo Museum of Modern Art, installation shot 4 Image Credit: Ari Karttunen, courtesy of EMMA

SG: Is there a pattern behind the changing numbers in the work Sky of Time? If yes, what is the pattern and basis for the same? If not, what explains the volatility?

TM: Every gadget has its own rhythm, its own speed of changing. It is continuous, and the gadget holds it forever. There is no unitary control over all the gadgets. If you see some kind of pattern, it's coincidental.  

Tatsuo Miyajima: Sky of Time (9.10.2019 - 8.3.2020); Espoo Museum of Modern Art, installation shot 5 | Sky of Time | Tatsuo Miyajima | STIRworld
Tatsuo Miyajima: Sky of Time (9.10.2019 - 8.3.2020); Espoo Museum of Modern Art, installation shot 5 Image Credit: Ari Karttunen, courtesy of EMMA

SG: What do you hope to express through the sculpture Counter Falls?

TM: In Counter Falls, time is falling down from the sky, which means that it will never come back. The message is that this moment is very important but also fleeting. 

Tatsuo Miyajima: Counter Falls, 2018, at Sky of Time (9.10.2019 - 8.3.2020); Espoo Museum of Modern Art | Sky of Time| Tatsuo Miyajima | STIRworld
Tatsuo Miyajima: Counter Falls, 2018, at Sky of Time (9.10.2019 - 8.3.2020); Espoo Museum of Modern Art Image Credit: Ari Karttunen, courtesy of EMMA

SG: What do you hope to bring forth or evoke through this work?

TM: The wonder of the universe. The wonder of time. The wonder of life. I want the audience to think about the ideas that they usually don't think about. 

(Tatsuo Miyajima: Sky of Time is on display at Espoo Museum of Modern Art till March 8, 2020.)

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About Author

Sukanya Garg

Sukanya Garg

Garg is an artist and writer with a Masters degree in Public Policy from Duke University, USA. She has been involved in research, planning and execution of gallery exhibitions and external projects in collaboration with curators. Her writing has been published in several art magazines, journals and as part of curatorial notes and catalogues, and her work has been showcased in multiple exhibitions.

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