To infinity and beyond

Flashing lights, moving parts, winking LED numbers. Tatsuo Miyajima's `Big Time' beguiles. But the inevitable how's-it-done queries start to nag. Forget them, and focus instead on the spiritual magnetism of his work.
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The Independent Culture
The spiritual in art: the phrase was Kandinsky's, but a lot of people like the sound of it. For myself, I don't know what to do with it. At least, I think that those who seek and find spiritual experiences in art ought to have something to say about the spiritual outside art, and how the two connect. But often, it seems, art becomes a safe haven for the spiritual, the place where it's OK for sober, secular folk to get it and appreciate it, while they wouldn't have too much time for the transcendental elsewhere. And conversely, the criteria for what counts as spirituality in art seem loose. The spiritual is likely to be sighted in any work that offers large-scale perceptual bewilderment and disorientation - effects which, if called spiritual outside an art gallery, would provoke sceptical head-shaking. But inside the gallery, we take out timeless moments, our flashes of the infinite, pretty cheap and easy.

The art of Tatsuo Miyajima, for instance, has something to do with spirituality and infinity. He also makes a fair old show. The Japanese artist was born in 1957, and for the last decade his basic component has been the LED counter. This is that neat, digit-making gadget, found in clocks and calculators and CD players, whose seven shape-elements, lighting on and off, form the 10 arabic numerals. In Miyajima's work, they flash continually from one to nine or from nine to one, though they never show the zero, but just go dark momentarily. At the Hayward Gallery now, these winking signals are arranged into several more or less complicated installations, each one displayed in enveloping darkness.

The show has one undeniable big wow. You go into the long downstairs gallery, mounting on to a grill-like metal bridge that spans the whole space (mind high heels), and in the sea of blackness beneath... Well, at first glimpse you steel yourself for something you can see at once is going to be quite a spectacle, something to lose yourself in wonder in, something to tell friends about. For in the blackness beneath, and you don't register any definite floor, there's a host of these red flashing counters, swarming everywhere, each counting up and down at different speeds, zipping along like fiery bugs and colliding and bouncing off each other into new directions. It's a breathtaking moment.

This is Running Time. The LED counters are in fact attached to little whirring bumper-buggies about the size of a book, fixed with sensors that make them change course when they hit the wall or another buggy. But hold on to that moment of breathtaking promise. There are others, not quite so striking, but still impressive. Time Go Round presents you with those counters, red and green, floating, it seems, and swimming around on a horizontal plane. Lattice has a massive static wall of tiny LED counters, arranged into 20-digit numbers, and laid out in a chevron formation, and Double Spiral has them curling in helixes around two pillars - all winking away, fast and slow, counting according to some unfathomable numerical scheme.

A wonder, then; a sense of something ungraspable. Space is disoriented with all this dark and invisible mechanism. Time is in flux. Here is a world of different rates and measures, untethered signs, elementary particles in fluid operation, some sort of microcosm of the all. Yes, it bears the unmistakable marks of the spiritual in art. Happening, now.

But wait a moment. And if you do wait too many moments you'll find that something isn't happening. The instant of wonder can't be sustained. Questions and curiosity intervene. Partly, there's a symbolism problem. These works concern time or do they? I only know that because I read it, and even having read it, the counters don't look like time being marked. They don't look like clocks or timers. They only look like counting, counting up or counting down, and counting at different rates, but they could be counting anything or nothing.

And the main temporal effect of these pieces is a disappointing one. They don't hold. The initial impact, on which you'd placed such hopes, which promised something so immersing and ungraspable, soon dispersed. The eye accustoms to the gloom. It's no longer lost in a miasma of darkness, with the little lights the only tracers. It turns to how's-it-done queries, and starts to notice the working parts. You pick out the little bumber-buggies in Running Time, and the way they tend to get stuck in the corners; the fact the counters in Time Go Round, rather than swilling free before you, are simply going in fixed circles on radial arms which, after a while, get quite visible.

The mechanism becomes transparent, and to save the first impact you begin to wish that it had been still more impressive, the installations much larger, more enveloping. Why doesn't the night-sky vision of Time in Blue cover all the walls and the ceiling of its gallery, instead of a strip on one wall? Too tricky, too expensive? But the appetite for techno-wonder is insatiably greedy. Practicalities won't fob it off. Nor does homing in on details compensate for the general comedown. Attention doesn't disclose unforeseen complications. You look to see what happens to the scurrying counters when they collide, and the rotating counters when one directly crosses another. Is their counting altered or interrupted? It's not. Nothing happens. They go on as they were.

Perhaps the mysterious theatre of it all, the light-in-darkness display, wasn't such a great idea: beguiling at first, but bound to be seen through and look like mere conjuring. Perhaps a plain-light, full-sight, exposed- wires presentation would have been better, and ultimately more mysterious because then the mystery wouldn't be located in the all-too-penetrable semi-darkness, but in the hidden "intelligence" of electronic systems going about their business. As things are, though, the best advice must be: visit, but - ironically for work that aims for the contemplative - don't hang around too long.

I can't think of an apter contrast to Miyajima than another body of work showing in London now, which also has something to do with spirituality and infinity, which also takes its effects from the arrangement of elementary particles, and which shows that for a sense of ungraspable lights and movements you don't need actual flashing lights and moving parts. I mean James Hugonin's paintings.

They're not on very public display; at least the Marlene Eleini Gallery in Paddington isn't all that open. Nor is there much point in trying to reproduce one, as just about everything would be lost. The Northumbrian artist was born in 1950, and for about 15 years he's been making abstract pictures with roughly human proportions, a bit taller than wide, and constructed on a narrow graph-paper-like grid, filled in square by square with a repeating palette of colours. The tonal range is narrow and light. They obviously take ages to do, and it takes a while to get looking at them.

They don't hit. The first glance suggests either pleasant blur or pedantic chequer-board. But if you stay to confirm it, things begin to give and shift. The blur coalesces into a patterning that seems to promise some consistent scheme, which then doesn't quite materialise, and you begin to be held by Hugonin's elusive and finely gauged luminosities.

The pictures refuse to resolve or focus. They are almost unmemorisable because they have no gist, no general idea to be parcelled up in the memory. There are no fixed parts to them. Each tiny marked oblong belongs to many different formations, waves and openings which connect and advance and recede - as you look on, as the daylight changes. They have fluid time built into them. They continue to unfold and develop, with no point at which you can say message received or show over. They could take all the time in the world.

The comparison can best be pointed by asking: what sort of spectator does each artist make? Miyajima makes a spectator who is avid and sure to be disappointed, who yearns to prolong the first stroke of wonder but who is already telling its story the moment it arrives. Your timeless moment - you've just had it. In Hugonin there's no conjuring. There's no how's-it-done bafflement, and, oddly enough, no eye-swimming optics. The process is all in clear light, but the spectator's slow absorption is apparently limitless. The only frustration is knowing that at some point you are going to stop, though with no reason to. And what to say or do about these intimations of the infinite, how to carry them over into the rest of life, I don't know. But I was grateful for the time out n

`Tatsuo Miyajima: Big Time' to 17 Aug at the Hayward Gallery, London SE1 (0171-960 4242); James Hugonin to 21 Jul at Marlene Eleini Gallery, London W2, open Wed, Thus (0171-706 0373)