"Friends, all is burning."
The Fire Sermon, Samyutta Nikaya Sutra
An interview with
multimedia artist, Miya Ando
Frank LaRue Owen
We live in a high velocity, technocratic, and a (sometimes) loud and harsh world. It is a world increasingly characterized by violence, environmental degradation, psychological stress, cultural marginalization, urban anonymity, and a mind-numbing overload of digital imagery and information. Living within such conditions can have a detrimental impact upon the human psyche. Under such duress, art -- a universal human leaning shared across all cultures -- can serve as a salve for the heart-mind.
Art, both East and West, ancient and modern, causes us to pause, to contemplate, to return -- if for just a moment -- to a slower, more natural rhythm. Art also invokes experience, specifically within the inner life of the viewer. When that art is -- by its very nature -- spacious, contemplative, minimalist, and evocatively mind-like, the viewer is naturally invited into a meditative process. Therein, one can find healing and illumination.
With such art-making, and within such art-viewing, a person may even experience a sudden flash of deeper spiritual insight. This is one of the key features of what the late Tibetan meditation master Chogyam Trungpa called "Dharma art"; and, this was my own experience the first time I saw the art featured in this article. With my first glance, something elemental and primordial reached out to me.
The year was 2010. I don't recall what I was looking for on Google, but as my eyes scanned the smorgasbord of images before me, I saw a photograph that suddenly stopped me dead in my tracks. Without knowing anything about the artist, I immediately uttered the phrase, mono no aware (pronounced mo'no, no, ah'wah'ray) -- a Zen-influenced literary concept first coined by Japanese scholar and philosopher Motoori Norinaga (1730-1831).
Mono no aware does not translate very easily into English. Languages are different because different cultures think and conceptualize differently. Yet, there is a universal human realm that connects us all and that is the realm of emotion; and, it is on that level that mono no aware gently flows in.
Some of the most widely accepted phrases used to communicate this deeply spiritual and aesthetic Japanese term suggest that it means an empathy toward things, a sensitivity to ephemera, awareness of impermanence, or a deeply felt comprehension of the transience of all phenomena. Even more so, what the term truly points to is the resulting tender feelings, including gratitude for the preciousness of things and the melancholic sadness that can result from having such a stark and precise perception that all things will eventually pass from existence.
As I gazed at some of the images you now see placed like stepping stones before you, I realized that many of the pieces stirred memories in me of landscapes I've wandered through; horizon lines I have looked out at while meditating near a shoreline, or mountain ranges that are dear to my heart. Other examples of this art conjured pure emotion, washing me in a haunting atmosphere I was unable to articulate with words. In all cases, something about this artist's work has a strong sense of mono no aware and seem to invoke -- in visual form -- something of the kensho-experience (sudden illumination) of Chan/Zen, or a quality of wabi-sabi -- another term from the Japanese tradition of aesthetics, which suggests beauty shining through a rustic sense of minimalism and simplicity.
It is no accident, then, that I first reached for contemplative and aesthetic terms from the Japanese tradition to describe these works. As it just so happens, the artist is versed in an understanding of these terms, both from an intellectual point of view and as an internal experience as an artist.
Miya Ando is part-Japanese, part-Russian, and the direct descendent of Bizen samurai sword maker Ando Yoshiro Masakatsu. She was raised in Japan by sword smiths-turned Buddhist priests, and grew up in a Nichiren temple in Okayama, Japan. After her early years in Japan, another phase of Miya's childhood was spent in the misty redwood forests around Santa Cruz, California.
Now, Ando lives in New York City, where she -- to a large degree -- continues working with the materials of her ancestors; namely, steel. However, rather than firing, pounding, bending, and shaping the steel into swords, she uses steel, pigment, brushes, and the fire of a blowtorch to express her artistic vision in contemporary forms.
I had the opportunity to connect with Miya to discuss her background, her artistry, and some of the themes and influences that find their way into her work.
FO: Frank LaRue Owen / MA: Miya Ando
FO: You have a compelling lineage, Miya; both the fact that you were raised in a Nichiren temple, and that you are a descendant of swordmakers that carried on samurai tradition. From the point of view of cultural and spiritual identity and consciousness, how do these energetic forces influence you on a day-to-day basis?
MA: My exposure to Buddhism occurred very early. Since I was a child, Buddhism has made a strong impact on my perception of the world, as well as my art practice. I feel a deep affinity to the Japanese word otonashii (quiet). It is from a place of deep quiet that I create, and it is a place of deep quiet and reflection that I invite people to visit through my art.
The other half of my childhood was spent living in a redwood forest in Northern California, completely surrounded by nature, miles from the nearest store or gas station. I consider this experience to be equally influential and complementary to my time living in Japan. They are very different countries and cultures, but each place and each culture has offered something to me. As a result, I now see that the practice of harmonizing and finding beauty in disparate things has become an artistic and philosophical pursuit. Simple forms and non-denominationalism interests me greatly.
FO: Your spiritual and cultural roots are undoubtedly an important part of who you are. What is your artistic lineage -- your mentors, your influences, and the figures from the past that inspire you?
MA: My Japanese grandparents, with whom I lived, have always been my moral compass. My grandfather was head priest of our temple, but also my caretaker. The connection of family and religion has been significant in my life and have drawn me to make certain choices in my artistic expression.
FO: Due to your Japanese and Buddhist roots, the tendency of some could be to pigeonhole your work as "modern Japanese art" or "contemporary Buddhist art." I want to resist that because your work stands on its own as a captivating and unique manifestation. At the same time, the links with your ancestral background are undeniable. To what degree do certain principles of Japanese and Zen aesthetics influence your work such as wabi, sabi, wabi-sabi, mono no aware, etc.?
MA: I have been strongly influenced by the philosophy and aesthetics of Zen reductivism. I appreciate very much the idea of paring away all except that which is essential and I seek this also in my thinking and execution of my work. Mono no aware is a wonderful concept. I have been investigating the idea that all things in life are ephemeral and transitory and this force, being universal, has always been a subject matter of my work. Hakanai (fleeting) is one of my favorite words and is a feature of some of my installations.
FO: There is a phrase I have heard that: "Some Japanese are Buddhist, but all Japanese are Shinto." What is your own relationship to the kami and how do the ancient nature-honoring traditions of Shinto influence you and your own relationship with nature, the elements, and the seasons?
MA: In my childhood, living in the redwoods in Santa Cruz, I had a particularly close relationship with nature. This, coupled with my experiences in Japan, and being exposed to a culture that has such a deep respect and reverence for nature, has been a strong influence on my being and also my pursuits as an artist.
I have always loved the Shinto idea that stones, trees, mountains, and natural forces such as wind are sacred. When I was a child and learned that Shimenawa meant that there was a spirit present inside of a particular tree or stone, I was delighted beyond belief. (Note: The shimenawa is a large braided rice or hemp straw rope placed around certain holy trees, stones, or above archways around Shinto shrines).
Seeing the spiritual power of nature and natural forces myself, it makes perfect sense to me that Shinto would recognize the sacredness of these forces. I have such a respect for the Japanese awareness and sensitivity and adoration of nature. It's really ubiquitous in Japan, from the architecture that allows one to live with nature, to interior design elements like the tokonoma (a recessed alcove in traditional Japanese homes and teahouses), which is a place to display flowers and scrolls for that particular season. The attunement to nature and harmonizing with nature is really second nature to me, personally, but as an artist I also find it as an inspirational theme in my work.
FO: On that note, something we learn from your biography is that you divide your time between the quiet, pristine environs of the redwood forests around Santa Cruz and the vibrant pulse of New York City. How do the distinct energies of these places influence you as a person and as an artist?
MA: I lived in California when I was child. Now I am based in New York full-time. Santa Cruz is like Japan in that respect for me. They are both filled with strong, beautiful memories and they are both in my heart wherever I am. I think ontonashii, quiet, is inside the self; it doesn't truly matter what the surroundings are.
"Let the mind flow freely
without dwelling on anything."
The Diamond Sutra
FO: Are there other places to which you feel an exceedingly profound connection? If so, what makes the spirit of these places particularly important to you on the level of your heart-mind? I'm thinking of how Basho, the wandering haiku master, had a deep connection to a stretch of land near Natagiri Pass, which he explores in his various travel journals, Narrow Road to the Interior; and also some of the other "spiritual-creatives" of Japan felt a deep relationship to a specific place which they nurtured, and which nurtured them; like the Zen hermit, poet and "wisdom clown" Ryokan Daigu ("Great Fool") who felt a deep affinity to the bamboo and hardwood forests around his hut "Gogo-an", or the 'crazy wisdom' Zen master Ikkyu, who first developed the Japanese tea ceremony, or the potter, painter, poet, and martial artist Rengetsu (Lotus Moon).
MA: Yes, the redwood forests still are the most magical to me. I was just in Santa Cruz filming for a documentary that the filmmaker L. Young is making about my work. The forests are so comfortable to me. Every time I return, it takes my breath away. The fog and mist, in particular, is magical and mystical to me. That said, I also have a strong affinity to Miyajima, which is near where I lived in Japan. There are torii everywhere (gates associated with Shinto shrines that signify moving from the profane to the sacred). It is such a spiritual place to me, and for many Japanese people.
FO: One of your most well known installations is the 9/11 Memorial in London, commissioned by the 9/11 London Project Foundation as a permanent addition in England. Crafted from polished World Trade Center steel from Ground Zero and the 9/11 attacks, you were actually given the opportunity to create a piece of sculpture from the rubble.
What was your own personal experience of 9/11 and what was your experience on the artistic and emotional level working on the 9/11 Memorial in London?
MA: Creating the piece for 9/11 was very taxing on an emotional level for me. I worked for two years on the monument and the entire time I kept praying that I make something that had reverence for the victims. I prayed that I was able to make something that was respectful. My concept was simple; to polish to a mirror finish the World Trade Center steel. My hope was to create something non-denominational and put forth light into the world. So, I made a highly reflective piece.
FO: One of your most recent installations, commissioned by the Fist Art Foundation, is called "Obon (Puerto Rico)." It also deals with the theme of light. Share with us the initial inspiration of this site-specific, large-scale exploration.
MA: I was inspired by the ceremony of 'Obon,' which occurs in August in Japan. The belief is that one's departed relatives return to the home for 3 days. On the third day, the spirits return to the spirit world and small boats with candles are floated down rivers and bodies of water. I have always loved Obon, in that it is about respect and memory.
FO: Seeing the images of the long strand of leaves, each emitting an eerie luminous glow, I had my own association of a "blue spirit road" of the ancestors. Truly fascinating. Share with us a bit more about the materials you used, as it is a definite departure from your use of steel and metals of various kinds.
MA: For "Obon (Puerto Rico)," I wanted to create something in Puerto Rico which introduced some of the ideas surrounding the theme of the tradition of Obon, but I also wanted to create this using unexpected forms and materials. So, I used phosphorescence instead of candles because the phosphorescence absorbs light from its surroundings and emits a glow continuously. I love the idea of a sustainable light source and I have had interest in light as part of my vocabulary as an artist for quite some time.
Also, I used leaves from the tree known as Ficus religiosa, which is the type of tree, sometimes called the Bodhi Tree, under which the Buddha attained enlightenment.
FO: So, there is the theme of light again; the light of the ancestral festival of Obon, the light of Buddha's enlightenment, and the phosphorescence or light of nature. It's not only wonderful, artistically, I like how it really is a teaching for the eyes to behold but communicated on levels that are more visceral and primordial rather than rational.
So, what is next in the luminous, light-filled world of Miya Ando? Do you have any specific upcoming shows or gallery openings you would like to tell people about? From an artistic 'always-in-process' point of view, what is stirring for you as far as inspirations, directions, and possible creative expression?
MA: I am currently in the studio working on pieces for a solo exhibition at Sundaram Tagore gallery next spring. The work is inspired by my continued interest in states of transformation.
FO: Thank you, Miya, for your work and the light you are shining into the world.
To learn more about the work of Miya Ando, visit her website: miyaando.com
All photos (c) L. Young except where otherwise noted
This interview originally appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of Written River: The Journal of Eco-Poetics