Countdown conundrum: Tatsuo Miyajima at the Lisson Gallery

    How can a room of flashing LED numerals be sentimental?

    The Japanese light artist Tatsuo Miyajima has had a happy week. His glowing set designs for Limen, the new Wayne McGregor ballet at the Royal Opera House, were met with universal delight. And if you stand outside the Lisson Gallery and listen to passers-by enjoying the current window display of Miyajima’s latest work, you will hear lots of contented cooing and clucking. At Christmas time, we are all suckers for pretty lights.

    Yet Miyajima’s electronic prettiness is deceptive. Beneath the relentless twinkling, this dark old so-and-so is actually fretting about the meaning of life. Go to his web pages attatsuomiyajima.com, wade through the tortuous Janglish explanations contained therein – I recently made a film about him and had to do just that – and you will find an artist driven by a set of surprisingly glum motivations. Miyajima’s obsession with flashing numbers is ultimately an obsession with death. The way it keeps coming. The way you cannot escape it.

    All the art he has made since 1987 has involved the use of LED digital counting devices of the sort you find on alarm clocks and terrorist devices: the sort that flash through the numbers from 9 to 1. Every Miyajima installation has such a countdown occurring in it somewhere. Often, there are hundreds of them, all counting simultaneously and furiously.

    In McGregor’s ballet, it was happening around the stage. In the Lisson, it is happening in the window and throughout the gloomy show that follows. Count, count, count. Down, down, down. Myriad tiny LEDs have been embedded in a series of waist-high lumps that emerge wonkily from the floor. A handy way of visualising it is to imagine a set of termite mounds decorated with Christmas lights. Some flashing red. Others flashing blue. The lumps come in various heights and thicknesses, and are made out of a bumpy terracotta that seems too organic for a Miyajima material.

    It turns out that the flashing monuments are modelled on the primitive Buddhist burial mounds found across eastern Asia, from China to Japan. The entire installation can be understood as an electronic recreation of a Buddhist cemetery. Pile Up Life, as the piece is officially entitled, was first shown in New Orleans in 2008, where it formed part of America’s largest biennial, Prospect, set up to commemorate the dead of Hurricane Katrina.

    This summer, at the Venice Biennale, I saw a pond piece of Miyajima in which each of the scores of numbers shimmering under the water was supposed to represent the passing of a Cuban life. The fast-moving ones were the kids. The slow-turners were the old-timers.

    By employing alarm-clock technology to say deep Buddhist things about the relentless passage of time and the unstoppable rhythms of life, Miyajima is, of course, being fully Japanese. His fusion of extreme electronics with extreme sentimentality is typically Tokyo. It takes a particular mind-set to recognise a flashing LED display as a digital self-portrait. I couldn’t manage it. As I wandered through Miyajima’s electronically gorgeous red and blue cemetery, the words screamed by Patrick McGoohan at the beginning of every episode of The Prisoner began to insinuate themselves irreverently in my mind: “I am not a number. I am a free man.”

    Also in the show, hanging lightly on the walls, are some human brains, again formed from interwoven LED displays. It’s another fusion of the electronic with the organic, but for me the brains are spookier and work better than the doomy burial mounds. As the digital cortexes zipped through their number cycles, they seemed to catch some of the quick-fire rhythms of thought. And whereas I have real gaijin difficulty accepting that the processes of life can be reduced to a set of numerical countdowns, I have no difficulty under standing thought as a sequence of illuminated eureka moments.

    What I like best about Miyajima’s work is his relentless use and reuse of the number ploy. If he had produced only one LED countdown, then moved on to other things, his oeuvre could never have attained the nagging sense of bigness and importance it now boasts. Cézanne, by painting the Mont Sainte-Victoire over and over again, endowed his project with a mountaineer’s sense of purpose.

    Miyajima, by working only with electronic countdowns, endows his output with a sense of unstoppable progress towards an unavoidable conclusion. What once seemed merely to be pretty gatherings of coloured lights take on a relentless, bullying aspect. It’s as if all the little countdowns must eventually join up to form one humongous LED progression from 1 to 9, at the end of which there will be… Apologies for sliding so fully into apocalypticism, but Miyajima’s work brings out the bomb-disposal expert in me.

    Over at the converted bank on Piccadilly that is now Hauser & Wirth, three venerable female sculptors embark on a joint exploration of suggestive blobby shapes in a show awkwardly entitled After Awkward Objects. What is it about women sculptors and blobby shapes? Somewhere within the somato sensory cortex of the distaff side, there appears to be a primitive sector of the brain that enjoys mixing up all the basic biological bulges, so that breasts become penises and mouths become… other things.

    Louise Bourgeois, Lynda Benglis and Alina Szapocznikow are all at it. Bourgeois, the best known of the exhibiting trio,produces sculptures that invariably remind you of human bits and their juices, without actually describing them. It’s always the tips of things, their inner workings, their delicate ends.

    Benglis is less mucousy, and therefore less interesting. But the big discovery at the show is Szapocznikow, a forgotten Jewish artist who grew up in prewar Poland and spent her best young years in concentration camps: Auschwitz, Belsen and Terezin. She died in 1973, from breast cancer, and the misery that was her birthright seems to have found an instinctive biological form in her pained and bitty sculpture.

    A set of human mouths sit on stalks, like a clump of chattering wartime poppies. Down in the Hauser basement, in what used to be the bank’s main vault, a series of misshapen blobs scattered about the floor turn out to have human faces hidden in their mounds and crevices. Each blob represents a different cancer tumour.

    All three sculptors seem uncommonly aware of the great human paradox that our body is both a sensuous friend and a deadly enemy. It’s an insight presented most vividly in Szapocznikow’s thoroughly memorable forgotten art.