Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tatsuo Miyajima, the artist of our endlessly changing world

Last week in Sendai, Japan, I was enormously pleased to be able to have a public dialogue with the wonderful Japanese artist, Tatsuo Miyajima.

Most artists, or at least most of the ones I know, deny having a philosophical outlook that they try to translate into their works. Some had thought of the work of Cézanne and others as being a “painted epistemology”. But Cézanne himself denied this and Daniel-Henri Kahnwiler, the art critic and art dealer, insisted that none of the many painters he had known (which included Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, André Derain and Maurice Vlaminck among others) had a philosophical culture.

Not so with Tatsuo Miyajima. He is deeply rooted in a rich Japanese, and indeed Oriental, philosophy that can be summarized in a single line: “Nothing is permanent except change”. And he expresses this in what are visually mesmerizing displays of ever-changing variously coloured digital numbers. The numbers exclude zero, which in his culture is a metaphor for death. But in that Buddhist culture there is no real death, there is only change.

In a sense, therefore, Miyajima is using a new, electronic, medium to deliver a message rooted in ancient Oriental philosophy. And it works very well, partly because it is visually so attractive, partly because the medium is new and partly because it engages the viewer so forcefully in trying to understand the message. Indeed, Miyajima says of art that it is like a mirror, in which the viewer enquires into, and understands something about, himself. That something is the ineluctable progression of time, the inevitability of change and, by comparison, the banality of the moment.

But, of course, the moment is not banal, for it is part of the change and it is the most deeply registered and experienced in the chain.

I hope that one day soon, London will have the pleasure of seeing a larger number of his works, and I hope that the catalogue for that exhibition will include these lines from TS Eliot’s Four Quartets (Burnt Norton):

Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end
And all is always now.

which seem to me to be a very good general description of Miyajima’s approach.

His work has inspired me to think of many experiments, some of which I hope I will be able to do. At any rate, discussing his work with him in relation to the brain and its activity was a real delight.

Empty walls and a rich imagination

Some two weeks ago, I went to Tate Britain in London to view the Eadweard Muybridge exhibition when, in another part of the Gallery, I was confronted by a room with four immaculately clean white walls. Was this part of an exhibition, I wondered? It could have been. After all, one of the characteristics of contemporary art is to involve the viewer more imaginatively in what the artist is trying to depict, or for that matter cannot depict. Nor is contemporary art entirely new in this endeavour. Sandro Boticcelli ,who set out to illustrate all of the cantos of Dante’s Divine Comedy left some of them un-illustrated. The pages corresponding to these cantos are left blank – as if to engage the viewer more imaginatively in translating Dante’s difficult concepts about love and beauty, which Dante himself confessed he found difficult to render in language. But the empty walls at the Tate were not, it turned out, part of an exhibition. They were just that – empty walls, the room being decorated for another exhibition. But it did get my imagination working.

Not long after, in Tokyo last week, I stayed in a delightful hotel. Nothing luxurious, but my room was a delight to wake up in and to return to at night. What could have been the source of this delight? Well, quite simply EMPTY WALLS. There were none of these art works, sometimes in the form of posters, chosen by the management or the interior designer. Instead the bareness of the walls, decorated in white, invited the imagination to wonder, and to wander as well, and create an imaginary museum in a small room. What would I put here, or there, if allowed? What would merge best with the remaining colours of the room, mostly brown? After all, to decorate a room, you have to begin with an empty wall.

I do not know whether this baring of the walls was intentional on the part of the management. But this was Japan, and of course it could have been. For many of the beautiful prints and drawings from Japan have a compelling characteristic, which is that they are set against relatively large empty spaces that are a stimulant to the imagination. It was those empty spaces in Japanese drawings that so influenced Paul Klee in his early drawings when there was a craze for things Japanese.

The Japanese, if I understand them, are masters of the unsaid and the unstated, of subtlety and ambiguity, all of which constitute powerful stimulants to the imagination.

I can really recommend a beautifully but sparsely furnished room with empty walls!