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Milk. Cascading down faces, eddying around noses and flowing into neck creases, seeping into spectacles, saturating chests and streaming through hair and beards. Dripping, dribbling and drenching, spraying, snorting and splashing, gulping and gasping; thirty-three people count down from ten to one in various languages, before immersing their heads in bowls of milk. These actions were repeated exhaustively over fifteen minutes and videoed to create the latest collaborative work by Japanese artist, Tatsuo Miyajima, Counter Voice in Milk.
In undertaking a series of Counter Voice performance projects across cities such as Rome, Tokyo and London since 1996, Miyajima has worked with legions of volunteers, using water, wine and, in Japan, milk. When invited by the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia (CACSA) to undertake the most recent of this performance series in Adelaide, his preferred liquid was, again, milk. The irony of this choice was not lost on those acquainted with Adelaide’s public ‘face’ of mild and moral earnestness, despite the state’s more recent and sophisticated image as the grape-growing capital of Australia.
Miyajima’s large-scale performance nevertheless transcended local politics to bring together a culturally, ideologically and stylistically diverse range of practitioners, students and technicians in a collaboration between CACSA, Helpmann Academy institutions (South Australian School of Art, Adelaide Centre for the Arts, Central School of Art) and the University of South Australia. The artist’s residency had an extraordinary impact on the local scene as Miyajima re-cast conventional relations between internationally renowned artists and acquiescent local communities who provide the artist’s requirements. The focus here centred not on the artist-facilitator but on the private/public ordeals experienced by each individual performing this task; ten video monitors revealed this to be neither trivial stunt nor bland exercise in artistic control. Participating and watching involved deeply emotional encounters, including moments of absurdly undignified humour, experiences seldom available in this community.
Miyajima’s work has long been associated with, and indeed, immersed in, deeper metaphysical explorations of time, mathematics, life and death that draw upon Hindu, Buddhist and Arabic knowledge systems. In his LED installations throughout various countries, the artist has employed complex combinations of digital devices, counting between one and ten, often in random mathematical sequence. Importantly, these exclude zero, this concept providing a moment of blackness, a pause, a death and, in later performances, a dunking or dipping. Far from signifying negativity or emptiness, for this artist zero/death holds potential for regeneration. As at the moment of liquid immersion, time/the living breath is suspended, to once again resume its endless cycle. Despite the ubiquity of digital time regulating our lives, Miyajima regards time as an arbitrary flow with differing individual rhythms and rates, an idea appropriately expressed in the temporal medium of performance.
Presented on plinths throughout the rear gallery, the Adelaide project at CACSA allowed an intimate connection between work and viewer and was geo-historically contextualised within Miyajima’s broader enterprise by the inclusion of earlier large-scale Counter Voice videos. While the middle gallery screened the artist suspended, counting and ‘walking’ on air, the entrance was dominated by immersions in water by Miyajima, and in wine by other linguistically diverse performers. Hundreds of humble UHT Long Life milk cartons and the mammary-shaped vessels containing their contents thus absorbed associations of religiosity and primal nurture.
More than exhibition or weird endurance ritual, Miyajima’s milky mission was taken to the bosom of Adelaide as a significant social engagement, galvanizing previously unconnected participants to reflect upon alternative approaches to time, life, absurdity, to death and to each other. If nothing else, as the Buddhist saying goes, at least no-one breathed their last.
The project continues. Unexpected rivulets of response have sprung up locally or leaked through expanded networks in the form of collaborative interventions, writings, spontaneous ‘counter’ performances and exhibitions. Such continuity is challenging the more impermeable of local conventions and echoes the broader aspirations of Miyajima’s work, which ‘lasts forever, continues to change and has a relation with everything’.