Art Department

Back to Contents of Issue: May 2000

The Universal Number

by Andrew Pothecary

Three years ago, at a solo exhibit of his in London's Hayward Gallery, I stood before one of Tatsuo Miyajima's Time in Blue works with the feeling that it changed the very air around it.

There might still be those who argue that art, to be considered great, must involve paint on canvas, chisel on stone, et cetera, but surely times have changed enough that they are few and far between. Besides, Miyajima argues, when Van Dyke painted in oils he used the technology of the time. And a thousand years before that mosaics were similarly utilizing contemporary technology.

Miyajima's technology is primarily number-displaying LEDs -- "counter gadgets," as he calls them. The numbers in his work are always changing, and displayed in darkness -- spiralling around a gallery pillar, leading from an entrance to an exit, on top of motorized vehicles crossing the floor, or 2,450 of them covering an entire gallery wall. But whether they're changing randomly or sequentially, one number never appears: zero.

To Western minds, Miyajima says, zero is easy to grasp -- nothingness. But he prefers the more poetical meaning granted by Buddhist philosophy, where zero (ku) encompasses all -- it is life and death. Leaving it out is a deliberate avoidance of the delineated, of the start or end of time or being. The whole is still open and undefined.

At its best, Miyajima's work hints at something else -- after all, the universe (according to some) can be described with numbers. Stand like I did before what seems a beautifully described night sky and that feeling is only heightened by the numbers, blinking slowly like stars. Chapel-like, as a London friend of his told Miyajima.

The artist's latest exhibition continues to May 14 in the Art Gallery at Tokyo Opera City (where you'll also find his LEDs permanently part of the architecture at the building entrance). The show includes his performance art and a new computer-generated projection where you can walk among the numbers. The often-present lighter side of the work is more prominent in the performance art, and it's a playful side that lends itself to the Web: make your own numbers at and see if you can stop yourself from making nothing.

Tokyo Opera City (+81-3-5353-0756)

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