Tatsuo Miyajima, "Wild Time Flower in the Courtyard" 2012, LED installation in the Han-ssi House in Gahoe-dong in Seoul

Life without Zero: An Interview with Tatsuo Miyajima

    I first saw Tatsuo Miyajima’s work in the summer of 1993 at an art exhibition held as part of Expo ’93 in Daejeon. LED was new then, and I liked the twinkling diodes in a dark room. After moving to Japan in 1995, I decided to interview Mr. Miyajima and met him in his studio north of Tokyo in 1996. The interview appeared in ART AsiaPacific (defunct, but later revived) in 1997. In 2012, I was living in Bukchon, and, on a walk in the neighborhood one day, I was pleasantly surprised to notice an exhibition of Mr. Miyajima’s work entitled Wild Time Flower in the Courtyard in the Han-ssi House, a large hanok in Bukchon that is almost never open to the public.


    Introductory Note:

    I interviewed Tatsuo Miyajima at his studio in Ibaraki Prefecture on July 12, 1996.  Mr. Miyajima was born in 1957 and holds a BFA (1984) and an MFA (1986), both from the Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music.  He has held many one-artist and has participated in numerous group exhibitions around the world.  He lives near his studio in Ibaraki Prefecture 30 kilometers north of Tokyo.

    Fouser: I always start an interview with questions about an artist’s childhood and teenage years.  What were these years like for you?

    Miyajima: I was born in a working-class area of Edogawa-ku in Tokyo.  My family had lived in the same area for generations, which makes me one of those rare “Edokko,” or natives of Tokyo.  My father was a carpenter and my mother a hairdresser.  I don’t know if it’s because were working class or not, but we were—and still are—a close family.

    Fouser: How did you become interested in art?

    Miyajima: By chance, I guess.  I had to repeat my third year of middle school because I was sick for most of the year.  I was a year older than most of the other kids, which made it difficult for me to make close friends in high school.  I spent a lot of time reading and was fascinated by the lives of famous artists.  I joined the school’s art club, and found that I liked art a lot.

    Fouser: When did you decide to become a professional artist?

    Miyajima: Throughout middle school, I had always thought that I’d go to a technical school and become a carpenter like my father; it wasn’t until the end of my high school years that I decided to become an artist.

    Fouser: What did you do after high school?

    Miyajima: Once I knew that I wanted to be an artist, I decided to try to enter Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music.  This is the most respected art school in Japan, and graduating from this school is like a passport into the art world in Japan.

    Fouser: Getting in must be extremely competitive?

    Miyajima: It is, and I failed the entrance examination for the first time around.  After I failed, I had to get a job to support myself.  I became an office worker, a so-called “salaryman” in Japan, and prepared for the entrance examination during my free time.  It was difficult because Japanese companies expect workers to socialize with each other after work.  Still, I managed to visit a lot of galleries and practice a lot on the weekends.

    Fouser: What kind of art were you interested in during these years?

    Miyajima: Post-War American art.  I remember being really impressed by an exhibition of Jackson Pollock’s work on tour in Japan in 1977.  Abstract and minimalist art was the rage in Japan at the time, particularly in academic places like the Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music.  As I prepared for the entrance exam, I became interested in expressionist painting.  I wanted to make contemporary art interesting again.  I had to keep this impulse under control to pass the exam, which I finally did after four years of practice and “salarymanhood.”

    Fouser: What was art school like?

    Miyajima: It was fine.  I entered with clear goals and was determined to use the time to my advantage.  I participated in a group exhibition in my first year, and was active in school life.  I was still groping to find my own style; I knew that I wanted to express something, but I didn’t know what that something was or how to do it.  Art school gave me the chance to play with different ideas.

    Fouser: You mentioned that Jackson Pollock was an early influence on you.  Were you influenced by any other artists while you were in art school?

    Miyajima: I remember being shocked by Joseph Bueys when I met him in Japan in 1984 during my last year of art school.  He was the first big-name foreign artist that I had met, and I was impressed by his fresh perspective on the world.  I think that meeting Bueys helped get me interested in performance art.

    Fouser: What were your first works like?

    Miyajima: I didn’t make objects, but I started out with performances and video art.  I would go to a crowded shopping areas of Tokyo, such as Shibuya or Shinjuku, and yell at random in the street.  I had these outbursts of yelling video-taped.  I wanted to shock the crowds, which seems to have worked.  Most people expressed their shock by moving quickly away from me—few had the courage to stand and watch.

    Fouser: What happened to your painting?   Did you just give it up?

    Miyajima: Nothing really happened to it.  I guess that my interest in expressionist painting turned into an interest in expression through performances.  Expression is expression whether it’s done through painting, performances, or installations.

    Fouser: You are now known more for your objects and installations.  Why did you move from performance to objects and installations?

    Miyajima: Performances are temporary.  They were a lot of fun, and I still do performances from time to time.  I guess I made the change because I wanted to make my performances last; objects and installations are tangible.

    Fouser: What were your first objects and installations like?

    Miyajima: In the early 1980s, I became interested in the Junk Art movement.  One of my first objects, a work entitled Human Stone (1983), was a concrete box with light and sound coming from inside it.  I used light-emitting diodes (LED’s) for the first time in this work.

    Fouser: Why did you use LED’s in this work?

    Miyajima: Because they were a source of light that could be placed inside the concrete box easily.

    Fouser: That’s it?

    Miyajima: A lot of critics talk about technology in my work.  I was more interested mechanical things than in technology.

    Fouser: Interesting.  Could you give another example?

    Miyajima:  Sure.  In one of my early installations, entitled Time (1986), various objects were parts of a clock that filled the gallery.  All the objects in the installation were used goods, and they were all moving rapidly.  I used a lot of scrap and garbage in an installation entitled It of the Future (1986).  I was interested in the shape and movement of mechanical things rather than in exploring the sociology of technology.

    Fouser: When did LED’s become dominant in your work?

    Miyajima: In 1987.  I had just opened a small studio in a crowded working-class area of Tokyo.  Rents in Tokyo are expensive, so I was lucky to have a studio at all.  I found it nearly impossible to keep a stock of junk and used goods in such a small space, so I had to make a decision about what materials to use within the space limitations.  I had already used LED’s and liked them.  They’re easy to store because they don’t take up much space.

    Fouser: Many works from this period have the word “esu” in the Japanese title.  What does “esu” mean?

    Miyajima: “Esu” is the Japanese pronunciation of the German word “es.”  “Es” means “it” in English, which is why “it” appears in many English titles.  I started using the word because it has no gender and no specific meaning in the German language.  My art at the time had no specific meaning because I didn’t know what I wanted to express.  I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the “es” in my art was and finally came up with the following three concepts: one, “es” keeps changing; two, “es” connects with everything; three, “es” continues forever.  I made a work for each of these concepts.

    Fouser: In works from this time, such as Clock for 300 Thousand Years (1987), you used LED counters.  What are these?

    Miyajima: I connected to the LED’s to integrated circuits (IC) to make digital counters that can be adjusted for speed.  The digital counting changes at various rates: some devices move so fast that you can hardly see the numbers; others move very slowly.  Regardless of the speed, the movement is always continuous.  Sea of Time (1988), my contribution to the Venice Biennale Aperto ’88, was my first large installation using digital counters.

    Fouser:  What does all this mean?

    Miyajima: I think the continuously moving digital counters embody the concepts of “es” that I want to express in my work.  Ultimately, these three concepts come together to express human life, which is always changing, is part of nature, and is endless.  “Es” really means “the essence of human life.”

    Fouser: A few technical questions, if I may.  Why did you only use red and green LED’s in your work from this time?

    Miyajima: Because these were the only colors available at the time and because the contrast with each other.  Orange and blue LED’s have only come on the market in the last few years.  I first used blue LED’s in recent works such as Time in Blue No. 16 (1996).

    Fouser: Do the digital counters make any noise?

    Miyajima: No.  They’re completely silent, but many people think that they hear something.  I think we’re conditioned to expect mechanical noise when we see moving numbers.

    Fouser: You use simple patterns–circles, lines, triangles, squares–in arranging the digital counters.  What does this mean?

    Miyajima: Yes.  These are the most basic of all shapes.  The human body is composed of lines and circles of varying dimensions.  In recent works, I have also arranged the digital counters randomly using statistically calculated randomness.

    Fouser: And how about the zero, why don’t you use it in your work?

    Miyajima: That’s not a technical question, but a philosophical one.  The zero was imported to the West from India in the sixth century A.D., where it was used in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy to symbolize emptiness, or śūnyatā in Sanskrit.  To use zero would have contradicted the emphasis on the dynamic energy of human life in my work because zero refers to unrealized potential energy.  Instead, I use dark spaces to represent emptiness.  This allows me to highlight the contrast between energy of human life and the emptiness of non-existence.  Opposite Circle (1991) is an example of this type of work.

    Fouser: I was just going to ask you about the dark space that appears in you work in the 1990s, but let me go back to the philosophy of zero.  Where does your interest in Buddhist and Hindu philosophy come from?

    Miyajima: I’m not an active Buddhist or very knowledgeable about Indian philosophy.  Many Western critics jump to the conclusion that any Buddhist references in art produced by a Japanese artist must come from Zen Buddhism.  My work is not influenced by Zen, which is introspective.  I’m more influenced by the Buddhist emphasis on the permanence of human life and the energy flowing within.  I’ve also explored this concept in the installation Revive Time in the River (1995) in the Uragami River in Nagasaki.

    Fouser: Could you please tell me more about this work?

    Miyajima: The Uragami River flows nearby the site of the atomic bombing.  I placed digital counters wrapped in plastic at various points in the river.  The digital counters represent the eternal, the “timeless,” life of those who died in the bombing.  Like the river, their souls keep on flowing.

    Fouser: In your early work, you focused on self-expression.  How do viewers fit into to your work?

    Miyajima: Without viewers, art wouldn’t exist.  People create meaning from art when they interact with it.  I like to give viewers lots of empty space and clear images so that they have enough mental space to relax in.

    Fouser: Earlier in this interview, you seemed a little upset with critics who focus on technology in your work.  Why does this bother you?

    Miyajima: It doesn’t bother me that much because critics are free to write whatever they like.  I’m just tired of the notion that “Miyajima equals technology.”  Technology is only a tool, not a goal.  I use technology as a tool in my work to express my views on human life just as painters use oil paint to express themselves.  Technology itself is neutral; how people use it is important.

    Fouser: In Japan, I feel that people worship technology because they think that it makes life more convenient.  What do you think of this?

    Miyajima: It comes from the emphasis on material goods in post-War Japan.  Everybody wants the latest fashions, and high-tech gadgets are just another thing that people want.  Many people in Japan buy expensive computers to play games or manage addresses to make it easier to send New Year’s greeting cards.  Everybody wants to save time, but for what?  Japanese people have lost the ability to express themselves in conversation.  Maybe that’s why there aren’t that many good artists in Japan.  Art is an expression of something inside, but if there’s nothing inside, then it’s impossible to make good art.

    Fouser: You sound pessimistic about contemporary art in Japan.  Am I right?

    Miyajima: No, because I think that contemporary art in Japan is part of global contemporary art.  I don’t understand why Westerners classify artists working in Japan as a group.  There isn’t a common thread of “Japaneseness” that links artist working here together.  Each artist expresses him or herself as an individual, not as a member of some sort of nation state.

    Fouser: But how about locality in art, don’t you think that art comes from sociocultural roots as well as from individual creation?

    Miyajima: Of course I recognize differences among cultures, but I think that these lie at the surface.  At a deep level, we’re all human beings.  I think that artists who try to find the essence of human life are able to go beyond these differences and express what makes us all human.  Scientists say that the structure of the human brain hasn’t changed in 50,000 years.  That’s a long time before “Japan” or any other country came into existence.

    Fouser: Well, I guess I’ve run out of questions.  Thank you for your detailed answers.

    Miyajima: You’re welcome.  Thank you for taking the trouble to come here from Tokyo.


    Original Article: Fouser, Robert J., “Life without Zero: An Interview with Miyajima Tatsuo,” ART AsiaPacific, No. 17, 1997.

    © 2015 Robert J. Fouser

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