For most of us, numbers allow us to quantify distances, volumes, time and more. The fact that the precise (or imprecise) use of these abstract entities also carries tangible consequences is also commonly known. Few, though, recognise their creative potential. There are only a handful of visual artists who use numbers in their work and Tatsuo Miyajima is one of those rare individuals. He started out as a painter, moved to performance art and then embraced the use of light emitting diodes (LEDs) to produce art that, in his view, ‘performs’. His LED based works riff on some of the lights’ practical purposes by exploring aspects of information signalling, movement, colour and rate, evoking previously unimaginable possibilities and traits.
This is the gist of ‘Sky of Time’: the title of the Saastamoinen Foundation’s new commission and an exhibition that celebrates the latest collaboration between the foundation and EMMA (Espoo Museum of Modern Art). Curated to illuminate Miyajima’s practice, the exhibition actually begins on the staircase linking EMMA’s ground floor lobby with the level above. This is where visitors encounter ‘Counter Steps’ (2019)- a series of 29 individual red LEDs on which only single numbers from 1 to 9 are shown. The units, placed on the vertical face of every step, appear to count independently of each other. The unexpected presence of these small displays temporarily halts people’s advance. The work raises questions as to the numbers’ purpose, alters the way visitors ascend and prompts a heightened awareness of the museum’s terrain.
The path to the new acquisition then takes viewers through ‘Touch’, a separate exhibition that focuses on the human condition and prominently features Miyajima’s ‘Changing Time with Changing Self No. 5’ (2001). The work, situated at the edge of both exhibitions, acts as a bridge and highlights the visual and conceptual richness of his art. It consists of multiple individual LEDs that have been fitted into a mirror so that the two components occupy the same plane. Seeing one’s reflection punctuated by the changing numbers is highly evocative. It, in addition to encouraging sustained viewing, asks us to consider how we have been marked by time. When dark, the nearby ‘Counter Falls’ (2018) looks like a roof-supporting column. Focus is drawn beyond the column’s shadowed presence to the stand of trees visible through the building’s glass wall. But when this vertical stack LED boards comes alive, red, white or blue numbers that dive, twirl, idly float and drift in and out of the work’s scope, that movement becomes the focus of attention. Given the natural background, this digital form of precipitation invariably intimates snowfall or the falling of leaves.
This allusion to natural events is carried through to the installation ‘Sky of Time’ (2019). The work bathes a massive gallery in a low-intensity green light. This glow derives from more than 300 LEDs distributed across the ceiling. While they, in effect, recall the twinkling of stars in the night sky, the hue makes reference to the Northern Lights. Floor pillows invite visitors to lie back and take stock of this canopy brimming with multiple subtle variations. One can zero in on particular zones or capture a sense of the whole work through unfocused eyes, soaking up the aura of the space.
Miyajima sees numbers as a stimulus that arouses people’s imaginative abilities and I am blithe to agree. This refined presentation draws attention to a host of factors and correlations. It urges visitors to consider their relationship to the built and natural environments, entities real and abstract, fleeting experiences and those that endure. Not only does ‘Sky of Time’’s open-ended character extend the ways we see the world, its physically tranquil bearing also proves deceptive-mainly for the way it triggers activity in the mind. The overall effect of the exhibition turns out to be a stirring and liberating experience.