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Countless LED Signal-lights, Spinning Green and Red Modules, and Digital Numbers, But Nowhere to Go

"Tatsuo Miyajima: Arrow of Time (Unfinished Life)" (All images courtesy of the artist.)


Tatsuo Miyajima: Arrow of Time (Unfinished Life)
Tony and Amie James Gallery
The Met Breuer
Madison Avenue and 75th Street
April 19th - September 25th 2016

“Arrow of Time” is a term developed by British astronomer Arthur Stanley Eddington to describe the irreversibility of linier time. Created especially for the current group show Unfinished at The Met Breuer, Japanese techno artist Tatsuo Miyajima is presenting a very large overhead installation in a darkened gallery which deals with the abstract constitution of this flow of time within our flourishing digital age. Digital light-emitting diode (LED) counters, that are hung overhead and face down, count from 1 to 9, never scrolling all the way to zero. Instead of zero, the light goes off for a moment. The counting then resumes. This piece, which is called “Arrow of Time (Unfinished Life),” is intended as a wink to Buddhist Samsara, the endless cycle of birth and death.

That sounds better than it looked however. Perhaps I was there at a ‘down’ time, but with “Arrow of Time (Unfinished Life)” I discerned a disappointing and mystifying stillness, particularly when compared in my mind to Miyajima’s 1996 installation at La Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain. I had enjoyed very much that show for its all-over energy and conceptual relevance. So I had to ask myself with “Arrow of Time (Unfinished Life)” why must Samsar be so boring? In 1996 Miyajima had made two large installations that consisted of abundant LED signal-lights that flashed a countless bevy of over-excited digital numbers in what appeared to be a random order. One installation, “Time Go Round,” had twenty green and red digital modules spinning in various circular orbits against an imposing dark wall. It was reminiscent of passages from Mona Lisa Overdrive, the cyberpunk novel by William Gibson published in 1988 and the final novel of the Sprawl trilogy, following Neuromancer and Count Zero. It seemed to me that “Time Go Round” was an attempt to delineate the crisis of time in relationship to the dispersed ontological self we recognize within the information age’s computational work environment. As such, it encouraged me to value the freedom of my own interior sense of time.

"Tatsuo Miyajima: Arrow of Time (Unfinished Life)"

But “Arrow of Time (Unfinished Life)” is closer in form to the very simple performance Miyajima presented in Paris the night of the opening where he instructed six people to repeatedly count down in French from nine to zero. Zero became a silent count at which point the performers plunged their heads into bowls of water obtained from the Mururoa in the South Pacific, the controversial site where nuclear explosions took place to test French nuclear weapons. Likewise, for “Arrow of Time (Unfinished Life)” the artist programmed each LED device to count from one to nine repeatedly, then go dark momentarily, then repeat the sequence. When I lingered there, the room mostly stayed dark, with only a very few counters counting. Thus the climactic question posed to me by Miyajima’s New York work is: What am I doing looking at this? Am I wasting my time? For in a time when most people’s daily life have never been more over-regulated by time constraints and the demands made upon them, Miyajima’s ticking-down art raises this basic question of personal freedom within the context of digital time. Where the arrow of time feels rounded, and, almost non-linier — while simultaneously, there still are setting suns and closing hours enforced at art museums, and so much more exciting things to see. WM


Joseph Nechvatal

Joseph Nechvatal is an American artist and writer currently living in Paris. His The Viral Tempest limited edition art LP was recently published by Pentiments Records and his newest book of poetry, Styling Sagaciousness: Oh Great No!, by Punctum Books. His 1995 cyber-sex farce novella ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~venus©~Ñ~vibrator, even was published by Orbis Tertius Press in 2023.

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