Tatsuo Miyajima:

Counter Groups

at Richard Gray Gallery,

through September 28

Michael Paha at Perimeter Gallery, through August 31, and at Morlen Sinoway Atelier, through August 31

By Fred Camper

Tatsuo Miyajima and Michael Paha both make installations mostly of purchased, not artist-created, materials. Both make the viewer aware of passing time, since their works constantly change. And both create works meditative to the point of being spiritual: both evoke a feeling of being surrounded by a realm without limits, a realm that makes the physical artwork seem only a tiny part of a vast cosmos.

Yet in other ways these artists are absolute opposites. Where Paha makes large environments of flowing water, algae, moss, plants, guppies, and leeches, Miyajima creates sculptures out of tiny LED digital counters. Paha’s organic forms are complex and curved, while Miyajima arranges his rectilinear counters in grids or circles. Miyajima’s counters go up at a fixed speed, one number at a time, while the slower changes in Paha’s work–algae accumulates, plants grow–are impossible to predict. And while Paha’s works thrive in daylight, Miyajima’s arrays of counters are at their best in darkened rooms.

When I first came across Miyajima’s work five years ago I thought, “Oh, great–another contemporary artist who’s managed to find a cute idea.” His elegant displays are not exactly beautiful–at least not in the gentle, painterly way of an Alfred Jensen or Jasper Johns number painting. Miyajima’s works don’t so much grab you as allow you to focus on them.

But when you do, the results are kind of amazing. His five pieces at Richard Gray made me feel at once divided and unified, intelligent and stupefied, present and absent. The key aspect of two almost identical works titled Oblique Three–three connected bars of counters, each consisting of ten red LEDs in a horizontal line, mounted on the wall–is that the counters go at different speeds: we see three lines of up to 20 digits moving–except that whenever a counter gets to zero it goes blank. Miyajima writes that he omits the zero because it’s “like a site that contains all the possibilities of creation….In the philosophy of Buddhism this is called ku (the void).” At first each band looks like a chaotic jumble, but eventually one makes out the individual counters and sees that each contains two digits that move together: 49 becomes 50, but when 99 becomes zero it doesn’t affect the counter to its left, which goes its own way at its own speed.

Watching this process for a long time can be both meditative, almost to the point of hypnotic, and troubling. The quiet, constant rhythm of the changing LED displays follows the most common number pattern of all–counting by ones. I thought of the insomniac’s cure, counting sheep. But as the viewer realizes how different the pace of each counter is, the work divides against itself, almost to the point of fragmenting or disengaging one’s attention. It’s not as if one LED goes at one-half or one-third the speed of the adjacent one; their speeds seem incommensurate. As changes in adjacent counters disrupt the rhythms of ones nearby and the numbers assert their different rhythms, it begins to seem that each counter comes from a different universe. What was becoming comprehensible becomes bewildering again.

Even more than with most art, these works take place largely in the viewer’s mind. Far less sensual or tactile than traditional painting and sculpture, these digits shine like disembodied symbols; it takes an effort to focus on the details of the counter surfaces behind. At the same time there’s more movement than in traditional art, making the viewer more aware of the passage of time and of time as a mental construct: Miyajima’s counters become metaphors for our own inner clocks. Though Miyajima’s arrangements are sometimes spatially complex, the oddly nonphysical quality of the LED numbers–you cannot tell the source of the light–makes them seem like markers of mental processes, disconnected from measurable space.

Miyajima, whose work is widely exhibited internationally, was born in Tokyo in 1957 and still lives in Japan. He writes of drawing inspiration from modern science as well as from Eastern and Western culture: “Exceptional arts, sciences, philosophies and ideas know no national boundaries because they have not been devised for specific countries and individuals but rather for the whole of humankind.” He relates “the Buddhist concept [that] all things are in flux” to the early Greek philosopher Heraclitus’ “everything is flux.” Miyajima also writes that his “LED gadgets…are based on three concepts: 1. Keep Changing 2. Connect with Everything 3. Continue Forever.” These concepts can be seen most clearly in his largest piece, the room-sized Counter Circle No. 19, which has 184 green LEDs arrayed in a circle on the floor. The circle suggests numerous cultural references, including early astronomical sites such as Stonehenge and religious concepts like the yin-yang symbol. But what gives this work its greatest power is its “continue forever” feeling.

It’s hard to avoid seeing many counters at once and registering their different speeds, even if only through peripheral vision. Their rates of change suggest that two adjacent counters may never sync up–or that if they do switch to the same number at once it won’t happen again. This very simple, apparently repetitive display of identical counters in a circle becomes a vibrant instance of nonrepetition, as one’s perception of it becomes atomized by its different rhythms. After a while I thought of the night sky, whose stars twinkle unpredictably, producing similar-looking skies that are never quite the same–old as time itself but slowly changing as the stars move through space. Miyajima’s principles are not separate but linked in his works: constant change suggests eternity.

Michael Paha’s “living installations”–one at Morlen Sinoway, one at Perimeter–also constantly change. The water flowing through them, the streams and bubbles and eddies, transforms their appearances at every moment: Paha might also quote Heraclitus, who wrote that one can never step twice in the same stream because the stream is different at each moment. Another, slower kind of change takes place in his work: over weeks and months, as algae grow and soil erodes at nature’s pace.

A-Goon River, at Sinoway, has been up for about a year. Its four main elements extend almost 30 feet against a wall. At left water flows through a plastic tube into a glass tank on a high wooden platform; trickling over sloping rocks and soil and past small green plants, it exits through a plastic tube at the lower right that leads to a longer tank divided by glass partitions. A mound of clay is heaped at the bottom of each box, while at the top there are dark, strange-looking growths looming and hovering, sometimes flapping near the top where the water flow is fastest. Another outlet tube leads to a wooden bench in which a curved two-inch-deep “river” has been carved, sometimes with steep banks and sometimes with gently graded ones; ferns grow in a shallow layer of soil alongside. Finally, at far right, is a tank near the floor with a pump that sends the water upward and through a pipe until it reenters the high tank, forming a closed loop.

Morlen Sinoway told me that when this piece was first installed no growing things were visible. Paha seeded some of the plants; the algae appeared on their own. The bottom right tank, which now has small amounts of soil at the bottom, was originally clean. The clear plastic pipes reveal sand deposits left by flowing water. Just as Miyajima can never know exactly what numbers will appear together in any of his pieces, Paha has surrendered control–but to nature.

Paha cites Barnett Newman as an influence, which gave me one clue to why I like these works. Newman’s color field paintings, with narrow vertical stripes dividing large areas of color, suggest much larger realms than the expanse of the picture. The biggest ones, hard to take in at a glance, almost become environments. A-Goon River similarly forms a large rectangle against the wall, its upper borders defined by the pipe. Its composition, four descending rectangles, helps unify it into a single image–an image that bursts the boundaries of rectilinear art. Too large to be encompassed in a single look, this work has three dimensions and incorporates real objects and movement in time. Indeed, the tensions between the organic forms and their containers are what lead the imagination out of the work, giving Paha’s piece its emotional impact.

Paha constructs each component himself, carving riverbeds, joining glass plates, installing standard plumbing joints to connect the plastic piping. The separate modules of the long tank are of different dimensions, each holding a different shape of clay and green muck. The water loop suggests aesthetic self-enclosure, but of course water has to be added occasionally because of evaporation, and the chaotic patterns created by the flow of water are the very opposite of euclidean forms. Paha’s boxy modules are like frames, but the natural materials within don’t conform to their borders the way Newman’s stripes parallel the edges of the canvas. Instead they sprawl about every which way–leading the mind out of the rectangles, toward memories of actual streams and trees and forests, toward processes of growth and erosion.

Paha’s evocation of unbounded nature is even stronger in his larger installation at Perimeter, Memories of a Place I Think I’ve Been or Wanted to Be. Stretching around three walls, its multiple parts form three separate closed loops, with pumps at the lowest levels, almost like three different ecosystems. In one loop the water occasionally divides, entering an algae-filled sink from a tube and a spigot–it’s a bit like the branchings of a model train set, and indeed there’s something of the model builder’s enthusiasm for materials in Paha’s installations (in fact he’s the chief exhibit preparator at the Field Museum, where he’s worked for years).

On a shelf amid all this water and greenery are some old nature books, suggesting that this is the world of a specimen collector, not a nature-worshiping druid. But the placement of one of the floor tanks by a window, where sunlight seems to have resulted in a particularly rich bloom, also suggests Paha’s desire to align his work with the natural world outside. The two riverbeds here have not only smooth-flowing sections but also carved drops–little rapids and waterfalls where the channel narrows–which could have been created only by someone who’s carefully observed rivers. A guppy swims in one tank; leeches occupy another. Paha’s created world refocuses one’s attention on the diverse rhythms of nature, from the quick flow of water to the slow growth of plants. Seeing these things in boxes made me think of a planet rapidly being paved and painted over with parking-lot lines.

Both these artists create transcendent art, art that leads away from its physical materials toward something larger that can only be imagined. But I couldn’t help noticing another common feature, an unintentionally ironic reminder of our industrial culture: whether invoking Buddhist eternity or aeons of natural time, both artists make works that need to be plugged in.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos of “Memories of a Place I Think I’ve Been or Wanted to Be,” by Michael Paha/ “Oblique Three” by Tatsuo Miyajima.