Whether lying on your back and looking up into the deep red neon haze of ‘Arrow of Time (Unfinished Life)’ or surrounded by the chilly beauty of ‘Mega Death’, the works of Tatsuo Miyajima are deeply immersive, drenching everyone in their proximity in light. Epic in scale and engaged with the grandest of ideas, his is a thematically unified and stylishly recursive body of work.
One of the major names in contemporary Japanese art, Miyajima’s work has been exhibited over 300 times, but the Museum of Contemporary Art’s summer blockbuster ‘Connect with Everything’ is his first major solo retrospective in Australia. Visitors will find all the key room-scale installations and LED-based sculptures from across his remarkable career.
They’re visually spectacular, but also steeped in deep melancholy. A recurring motif in Miyajima’s work are displays of scattered numbers counting down from 9 to 1, then cycling through the process again, creating a kind of infinite loop of life, death and rebirth.
Speaking through an interpreter, Miyajima says the countdown ties in with his Buddhist beliefs. “In Buddhist philosophy, we’re born, we live, we die, but then we come back, so there’s a cyclical nature to that journey”.
Growing up in postwar Japan, he was surrounded by childhood mortality (including his own serious illness) and the legacy of nuclear destruction, both of which informed his work. “I actually despaired for humanity at times” he says. “But it’s a Buddhist thing to fight that evil, that utter darkness within us”.
Rachel Kent, the Chief Curator at the MCA and the curator of this exhibition, says Miyajima’s installations are fascinating partly for how they deal with death without ever becoming maudlin. “There’s a wonderfully redemptive quality,” she says. “There’s a sense that life eventually resumes again.”
It’s very much a passion project for Kent, who says her initial exposure to Miyajima’s work, back at London’s Hayward gallery in 1997, was a hugely memorable one. “I was in the early stages of my career as a curator… and it was a beautiful big exhibition and it just made this incredible impact on me,” she explains. “It stayed with me for years. I can still remember different parts of that exhibition today.”
She reconnected with Miyajima’s practice for the MCA’s 2012 exhibition ‘Marking Time’, introducing him to Sydney audiences and paving the way for future collaborations. “That (exhibition) was all about how artists mark the passage of time so Tatsuo was obviously central to my thinking, and it was a good way of starting a conversation towards a major retrospective of his work, ” she says. This current exhibition is the culmination of more than three years work and feverish planning.
The ambitious and technologically based nature of the work made for huge logistical challenges, Kent says. “There’s been an enormous amount of construction (for the exhibition), we’ve pretty well had to rebuild parts of the gallery, knock down walls, drop ceilings.” Some 9 tonnes of coal were shipped in for ‘Counter Coal’, while installing ‘100 Time Lotus’necessitated bringing in some 6,500 gallons of water as well as live fish and lotuses.
The huge undertaking has produced a fascinating exhibition which feels both futuristic in its tangles of electric wires and microcomputers, and in thrall to the past, having a strong memorial aspect. It’s a collection that bridges technology and humanism, and you won’t be able to look away for a second.
‘Tatsuo Miyajima: Connect With Everything’ will be showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art from 3 November 2016- 5 March 2017. Book tickets here.