Born in Hokkaido, Japan, in 1985, Kyoto-based artist Miyanaga Akira is renowned for moving images that shift poetically between realism and abstraction. The artist uses fragments of video filmed in both urban and rural areas of Japan – from crowds moving through subways to light gently falling over rice fields – as raw materials to create visually compelling sequences. Utilising timelapse techniques and processes of splicing and superimposition, Miyanaga merges disparate motifs within the same frame to create complex layered imagery. In some works, these effects are further accentuated by the addition of text and immersive soundscapes that together suggest a dreamlike zone where the familiar becomes unfamiliar.
On the occasion of his solo exhibition REALTIME: Miyanaga Akira, the artist spoke with Jane Devery, Curator of Contemporary Art, National Gallery of Victoria.
JD: Miyanaga, you studied in Kyoto, at the Kyoto City University of Arts, and enjoyed early recognition while still a student. Could you talk about your experience studying there and its influence on your development as an artist?
MA: The university gave me a spirit of independence and self-respect. My professors were not overprotective or prescriptive, so I developed a philosophy of deciding and doing everything on my own.
JD: Have you always worked with the moving image, or have you worked in different mediums?
MA: I sometimes try to work with still images, but regardless of whether the images are moving or still, I always use layered structures. Still images are really difficult for me to use, because they have a completely different time concept to moving images. I need to study the field of still images a little more.
JD: I have read that your work is informed by an interest in early experimental electronic music, by composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen. Could you describe these influences on your practice as an artist and the role that sound plays in many of your works?
MA: It is true that I have been influenced by music – especially classical piano composers, such as Erik Satie and Claude Debussy, because my mother often played their music at home – and I know my work has been written about in that way; however, I am not so strategic. I do not decide to shoot my video anywhere: the process starts with selecting raw video materials I’ve captured, and then I struggle to seek different solutions to make the best use of that content. I use my intuition rather than a strategy, and what kind of imagery will appear on the screen largely depends on which video materials are there to begin with.
JD: For me, the gentle pace of some of your works and their focus on everyday situations and environments connects in a formal sense to the cinematography in the films of the celebrated Japanese filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu. Are you influenced at all by filmmakers – Japanese or otherwise?
MA: Yes, I am influenced by Ozu and especially when it comes to his compositions. He loved stable compositions and rhythms, and I really respect and was influenced by his work. But the long shots in my work are much more influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s later films.
JD: The rhythm of the city appears to be a recurring motif in your work, captured through complex layering and montage techniques which remind me of the early experimental cinema of filmmakers such as Dziga Vertov or Sergei Eisenstein. Do you see your work belonging to such a lineage or are there other, more recent points of reference more influential for you?
MA: You know, I have been heavily influenced by Koyaanisqatsi (1982) by Godfrey Reggio, but I often compare this film with Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). I think both works are documentary films, but their themes and locations are very different. The early works of Vertov and Eisenstein seem to be based on representing their historical and political regime in an optimistic way, which I do not easily agree with. I tend to agree more with Godfrey Reggio’s critical view of the United States in the 1980s.
JD: Many of your works appear to employ processes and techniques borrowed from documentary filmmaking; for example, you use real footage, captured out in the field, as your raw material at a time when many video artists are using digital processes to create artificial imagery. Could you talk about this aspect of your work?
MA: The fact I am a digital native is reflected in my art, but there are many unknowns within the video production process for me. For example, I do not know how to make video editing software by myself. Video art derives from the features of the video medium itself. At this point in time, I think that the accepted function of video is to ‘document’, and that is why I use real footage. I do not know what the word ‘video’ means all over the world, but to me, at least, the word still indicates ‘footage videographed by a video camera’, which ultimately means ‘documentation’. I think I am just going along with that feeling when I use footage filmed in the real world.
JD: Some of your works contain text as a formal compositional device, interwoven with fragments of imagery. Could you talk a bit about the relationship between image and text in your work, and your choice of using words in English?
MA: For many of my videos, the titles are simply titles; they appear only at the beginning, and sometimes at the end, of the works. Recently, however, I have wanted to extend the title’s meaning and have it run continuously throughout the work. In other words, I consider the title’s meaning as a layer that can interact with the other video layers. I use English because it is a global language.
JD: Many of your works appear to disrupt the viewer’s sense of spatial perception. For example, the footage in the video See Saw, 2015, appears familiar but at the same time is spatially confounding. How do you see this playing out in your works?
MA: The spatial disruption changes the viewer’s ordinary perception. It gives insight into an incomplete perception of space.
JD: One of the defining features of your work is its ability to encourage viewers to look at the world from new perspectives. Familiar images become destabilised and fractured, and everyday scenes and environments take on new dimensions. They often appear to move from realism to abstraction: REALTIME-MATERIEL, 2015, is a good example of this. Could you talk about this effect in your work?
MA: This is exactly what I want to do through my art: ideally, I hope to relativise every possible thing featured in my work. Even if people gain a new perspective, their old perspective still remains. Both views are essential to my art.