Time: endured and endurig

Jena Woodburn on Tatsuo Miyajima at CACSA

Counter Voice in Milk - Adelaide Version 2006, video stills

Counter Voice in Milk – Adelaide Version 2006, video stills

One of the most valuable and rewarding characteristics of time-based work is its capacity to create and modulate rhythm: visual and aural ebbs and flows orchestrated to respond to, and to produce a response from, its audience. The emergence of such rhythms is noticeably pleasing in the Counter Voice film works of Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima. Interestingly, the internal rhythms of the works are not only a result of the filmmaker’s sensitivity or proficient manipulation of the subject matter. Rather, they arise from the natural rhythms that emerge as each of a series of actors concentrates on performing a prescribed activity.

Tatsuo Miyajima is well-known for his large scale LED installations which tackle themes of ‘time’: life and death; permanence, impermanence and change, history and eternity. In 2003’s Death Clock viewers were confronted with a countdown to their own deaths, while Mega Death presented at the 1999 Venice Biennale, was a reaction to various historical catastrophes initiated by humankind. Here 4 Counter Voice works are presented: Counter Voice in Water (1995) and Counter Voice in Air (1995), Counter Voice in Wine (2000), and Counter Voice in Milk, filmed and produced in Adelaide in June 2005 expressly for presentation at the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia.

In the Water, Wine and Milk versions, actors each engage in the same activity. Seated before a bowl of liquid, they count backwards from nine to one before leaning forward and submerging their faces for a brief period. They then raise themselves and begin to count again, a sequence that is repeated for 15 minutes. Counter Voice in Air features Miyajima himself, suspended from a harness and dangling in space, similarly counting. This is the most overtly strenuous routine. While the others perform relatively calmly, Miyajima struggles, flailing his arms and legs, slowly expelling each number from his mouth with contorted effort. Yet while the actors in the other works do seem more inwardly focused, neither is theirs the peaceful, meditative activity—melodiously chanted countdown, calm faces descending into pools of liquid in a cleansing ritual—that one might imagine. In fact the task is obviously taxing: they splutter and cough, struggle to breathe, wince as the wine stings their eyes, and visibly tire.

The Counter Voice routine has its roots in Miyajima’s Buddhist beliefs. Immersion in the liquid follows as the counter reaches zero. In this way Miyajima rejects the concept of zero as ‘nothing’ and instead embraces it as an expectant state—the promise of new beginnings. Yet what principally arises from the works seems to be not so much a meditation on such belief, as a detailed study of the characters who appear in them. What fascinates is each person’s reaction to the gruelling exercise and their transforming demeanor as the 15 minutes pass. Initial enthusiasm wanes and is replaced by dull stares; erratic movements are calmed; the effort of breathing becomes more pronounced; and individual features are smoothed into similarity by the sheen of water, milk or wine.

In the close-up of the frame we notice every uncomfortable drip and trickle, every strand of hair plastered to the cheeks, every lick of the lips, each blink and sniff and grimace. We notice the way milk catches in a moustache, the specks of sediment on someone’s face dipped in red wine or the way it dyes burgundy a blonde woman’s eyebrows. It’s these details that mesmerise, and, while narrative is no concern—and indeed the preoccupation with eternity and the cyclical nature of history would seem to make the idea of ‘story’ insignificant—there’s still a sense of anticipation and a curiosity as to how each character will fare.

How the performers react to the task—the speed and volume at which they count, the vigour or hesitancy with which they dip their faces into the bowl, the time for which they immerse themselves—creates certain rhythms, both within each and across all the performances. This is particularly the case in Milk. While Water, Wine and Air show only one or 3 characters at any time, 10 Milk actors are constantly displayed in randomly placed freestanding boxes, surrounding the viewer with a clamour of counting and a frenzy of bobbing, dipping, dripping faces. Twenty-four actors on continuous loops create multiple combinations of characters and performances, and consequently a constant, and constantly fascinating, variation in the rhythms, energy and mood of the total work which alternately lulls and surprises.

Tatsuo Miyajima, Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, Adelaide, Sept 9-Oct 30

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 37

© Jena Woodburn; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2005