Japanese American artist Miya Ando channels her childhood in a Buddhist temple and her heritage as a descendant of Japanese swordsmiths to transform rough pieces of steel into tranquil art objects that reveal themselves in new ways each time we view them. The diminutive artist wields heavy machinery to bring out a Zenlike quality in the steel. Her art transforms steel in ways never seen before, whether she’s dipping aluminum blocks into big vats of dye for her Chado exhibit at Gallery ArtXchange in Pioneer Square this fall or polishing and refining a horribly twisted piece of the World Trade Center. While Ando reveres Japanese tradition and culture, she is also oh-so American in her constant questioning and willingness to experiment. The artist chatted with Ibuki on a recent trip to Seattle before the opening of her Chado exhibit, which ran through late October.
Photo by Anthony Gamboa (top photo by Drew Doggett)
|IBUKI: Could you tell us about your connection to Japan?
Miya Ando:My mom is Japanese, and her hometown is Okayama. My grandfather was the head priest in a teeny little neighborhood temple. There were rice fields on three sides, so it was kind of rural. That’s where I spent my formative years. Before there were priests, there was at least one very famous swordsmith in our family. My grandfather’s brothers – my great uncles – collected the swords. When (World War II) was finished, America disarmed Japan. They said the Japanese people had to surrender all armaments, all knives and swords. The Andos – my family said don’t tell this; this is the type of thing that gets you in trouble with the great uncles – they took the swords that our ancestors made and took them out even further into another country home and buried them. So we still have them.There was a giant show at the Met (The New York Metropolitan Art Museum) last year, a samurai show with armor and swords, and I was just noticing that about 90% of those objects came from outside of Japan because the Japanese had to surrender those things. I thought this was very interesting. This heritage at least initially was very powerful in my choice of materials.
IBUKI: Tell us about your process. I picture you at work with blowtorches at high heat making these tranquil, meditative pieces.
Miya Ando: That’s exactly right. The process is very rigorous, which is to me something very serene. I grew up in a Buddhist temple, so it must have been ingrained into my very being that whatever you’re doing should have at the basic level a compassionate element. I am not trying to be lofty with the work in putting forth what visual objects can do, but at least it is putting forth something peaceful or hopefully something that inspires reflection – and I mean that figuratively and literally. It could be a setting for quietude. That has always been the core intention of the work.
My philosophy is not denominational, but it is spiritual. I believe in transformation. I believe in ascension. Having a transformation occur on manmade, industrial, hard, cold, masculine material is a metaphor for personal transformation. Not to sound new-agey! (laughs) It’s not didactive work on any level. If it’s a sunset, it’s a sunset. One could say that my work is very Zen in that it’s very open. There’s a very disciplined, physically rigorous process in my work. Maybe the approach that I learned in temple is something I carried with me. That practice and repetition is very influential in the work.
IBUKI: You go through this rigorous process that produces such tranquil art.
Miya Ando: Right, right. It looks very serene, and no one would know that when I was working on it, there was fire and acid and respirators and heavy gloves and rubber boots and leather aprons and sweating people! I am not physically built to be a steelworking artist, but I try very hard. At the end, it’s a result of a meditative approach. One second hotter or more patina or leaving some chemical on there is going to totally change it. It’s very short working times and very high heat. And it’s dark a lot of the time because we’re using fire.
With swordmaking in Japan, you wear all white, you cleanse your soul and purify yourself. The transferral of the energy goes directly into this object. On the handle of the sword are these Buddhist prayers and Buddhist deities. The sword only has one function, and it’s a violent function, but the creating of the object is done with this reverence.
IBUKI: In September, you unveiled a piece in London commemorating the victims of the September 11, 2001, attacks on The World Trade Center.
Miya Ando:Yes. In September, we unveiled a September 11 memorial sculpture that I made out of a three-story-tall piece of the World Trade Center. This piece of steel fell over 70 stories. I took the steel and left it in the exact form in which I found it. It was all rusted. I took part of it and polished it into a mirror, an absolute reflective surface, and stood it back up. That was the memorial sculpture.
IBUKI: Some people were disturbed by the piece, how did that make you feel?
Miya Ando: Not everyone wanted it resurrected. Some people would have preferred to let that be where it was. That was a very difficult, heartbreaking project.
IBUKI: Tell us about your next show. You’re going to Tokyo?
Miya Ando: For the show in Tokyo (which began on Oct. 23), I had been thinking about the language of respectfully memorializing. Then the tsunami occurred. The Tokyo show is not a memorial show, but it is acknowledging the loss. But this is different from 9/11 because it was a natural disaster. The show is entitled “elements,” and I am doing something with earth, fire, water and air. I think the ebb and flow of nature is very powerful; in fact it’s the most powerful. It’s deified in the Shinto religion, the native religion of Japan. Mount Fuji is a deity, and stones and old trees are demarcated with rice ropes and papers saying this is a spirit. I have decided to create works that are a balance of the elements. I am hoping that it’s reflective and properly somber.
IBUKI: You split your childhood between Okayama and Santa Cruz. How has your experience in California influenced you?
Miya Ando: I feel just as American as I do Japanese. The Japanese are the people who raised me. And I also think that I live in America, and the idea of making a daguerreotype on aluminum and making things big … That spirit of running and jumping off cliffs and seeing what happens is something that I would attribute to living in Santa Cruz where there are no rules, the edge of the earth.
Miya Ando, 05.07.22.3
24” x 24” steel, patina, pigment, resin
Chado: The Way of Tea
Cast metal sculpture and steel canvases by Miya Ando
ArtXchange Gallery presents Chado: The Way of Tea, the first Seattle exhibition of internationally renowned artist Miya Ando. In Chado: The Way of Tea, Ando explores the spirit of Japanese tea ceremony through cast sculpture, wallhung steel canvases, and installation elements. Ando cast the implements of chado, such as a bamboo whisk or a pot for holding powdered tea, in graphite and aluminum. The Lumina series, four sculptures representing the seasons, use her new ‘aluzome’ technique of dyeing metal. Her signature, wall-hung ‘steel canvases’ use subtle textures and patinas on stainless steel to create contemplative, luminous voids that are at once empty and serene, while also filled with potential and possibility.
Exhibition Dates: Sept 1 – Oct 29, 2011
Location: ArtXchange Gallery, 512 First Ave South,
Seattle, WA 98104
Hours: Tues – Sat 11 AM – 5:30 PM