An interview with Yumiko Ono
Artist Leading the Way | Taipei Artist Village: Exclusive Interviews with Artists-In-Residence
This interview was carried out by Maria Dolfini (M) in conversation with the artist Yumiko Ono (Y)
Scroll down for the Chinese version.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Yumiko Ono is a Japanese-born artist based in New York. Having lived in former Soviet Union states for almost a decade, the architecture she experienced in these countries hugely informs her oeuvre. Ono’s works explore the concept of utopia through delicate and fragile materials such as porcelain, drawings and paper sculptures. By combining visual architectural elements from different cultural background, Ono attempts to build a chimeric world of unity: a utopian architecture.
M: Firstly, can you tell me a bit about yourself? You have a very interesting background, lived in several countries and studied different majors. How did your experience(s) abroad have an impact on your art practice?
Y: I studied oil painting at the Kyoto Seika University in Japan; at the time I was strongly inspired by Renaissance Italian painters such as Piero della Francesca. A rare exhibition of Balthus’ paintings in Venice was actually the incentive that brought me to Europe. Travelling around the continent, I fell in love with Eastern Europe since its culture and art seemed to share many similarities with Japan. For instance, the ‘slow’ and bleak cinema of Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr reminded me of Japanese scroll paintings, while Hungarian avant-garde painter Tivadar Csontváry Kosztkaso evoked the style of Japanese ukiyo-e. So, I decided to study in Hungary for a couple of years; then I moved to Prague and completed a master’s degree in Intermedia, experimenting with installation and casting.
I then had a hectic couple of years moving between Jerusalem in Israel and London, and eventually ended up in Russia where I embarked into my second master’s programme – this time in ceramics! I was always intrigued by porcelain as a medium, but I did not like the style of Japanese ceramics: it is too thick and heavy, and the colours overly earthy and organic. Russian ceramics are much more delicate instead. In Russia I had the chance to produce porcelain in the Imperial Porcelain Factory in Saint Petersburg alongside renowned ceramicists such as Kazimir Severinovich Malevich. I am now based in New York, although I still travel around.
My oeuvre revolves around the concept of utopia and utopian architecture, themes I gradually began to research when living in former Socialist states such as Hungary, Czech Republic and Russia and witnessing their architectural structures. However, every place and experience had an impact on my art practice. I don’t feel Japanese anymore, I don’t think that I belong to anywhere. Perhaps, I belong to everywhere. My work depicts buildings, cities and worlds real in my imagination, but non-existent in tangible reality. This is the result of my endless moving experience.
M: Going back to your origin, you often speak about Japan as a place suspended ‘between East and West’, equally influenced by East Asian traditions and American culture. On the other hand, you also assimilate Japan to former Soviet Union states. It is very interesting because Japan is usually distinguished by former Socialist and Communist states such as USSR and China, mainly because of their political history and the alliances in the Post-War.
Y: I actually consider Japan to be a ‘relatively successful version of a Socialist state’. After World War II, the United States rebuilt Japan and reformed our social structure, resulting in a loss of the super-wealthy aristocrats and the formation of a strong middle-class which narrowed the divide between rich and poor. This period was even called ‘一億総中流’: Japanese ideal of being middle-class and ordinary.
The social behaviour of the people in Eastern Europe ex-Socialist states is actually very similar to Japan: we are obedient to the system. In fact, Japanese society has a preference for formalism, order and societal standardisation which is easily to recollect in other Socialist states. Perhaps, it is something we shared about historical loss and colonisation, somehow always obeying to a stronger country. The difference lies in the fact that Japan never really had a strong dictator, everybody was instead striving to be the same.
This ideal of sameness can also be seen in daily life and architecture, I used to love to watch the parade and panel buildings in these countries! My interest in accumulating different elements within one framework was definitely influenced by seeing the standardised and ordered structures of architecture in former USSR states and Japan.
M: What do you think are the similarity between Taiwan and Japan instead? Would you also define Taiwan as a place ‘in between East and West’?
Y: I think Taiwan is more a place between the ‘East and the Far East’. When I firstly arrived in Taiwan, I mainly perceived it as a bridge between Chinese and Japan cultures, with a taste of Western heritage too. Taiwan has a complex identity due to its geographical location and colonial history; however, these foreign stimuli are beautifully merged with the local culture, unanimously engendering the uniqueness of Taiwanese culture.
M: You are undertaking an artist residency at the Taipei Artist Village (TAV) and just opened an impressive solo show, titled Epitomes 縮影, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei (MOCA). Can you introduce your art project in Taiwan, as well as the main art pieces you are exhibiting?
Y: Initially my project was to employ Taiwanese architectural elements in order to create a utopian place, an imaginary building. However, after several field trips observing historical buildings, I realised that there is not a unitary, cohesive and absolute ‘Taiwanese architecture’; that was just the wrong approach to it! Taiwanese architecture developed through different phases which unanimously create Taiwanese-ness. As a response to these thoughts, the drawings of the series Cloud City and the paper sculptures Façade in the exhibition are a hybrid of buildings that I saw in Taiwan. While Pan City 10 compares and combines elements from brutalist architecture in the US with Soviet architecture.
The exhibition does not have a main piece: drawings, paper sculptures, porcelain castings are all conversing and supporting each other. I not only deconstruct architecture by depicting different elements of architectural complexes within a single work, but every artwork is a section that builds the exhibition as if it was an architectural piece itself! The funny thing is that there is not actual proper architecture involved, I use other mediums. It is about deconstructing and reconstructing different elements, cultures and identities to re-create a utopic and elusive world. It is a utopia because it only exists in my imagination and art.
M: How does utopian architecture represent an artistic solution and/or representation of contemporary Taiwan and its identity? How does the structures of Zhizha, funerary paper models made for the deceased in the afterlife, feed into it?
Y: As I mentioned above, due to its colonial history and geographical location, Taiwan has many layers of cultural influences as well as a strong aboriginal presence. I wanted to overlap the idea of Taiwanese-ness and utopia, working with concepts of hybridity and nowhereness. I do not mean to deny the existence and uniqueness of Taiwan, my work is more about presence than absence! It is about re-creating this multifarious space and culture, patching together its multiple facets. I obviously have no authority to seriously speak about Taiwan since I am a foreigner; in fact, the exhibition is more a realisation of a personal topic than a historical and politic assertion. Since I see myself as belonging to different geographical spaces and identities, Taiwan is a very good space for me to explore these issues and the notion of utopian space.
The Zhizha 紙紮 which inspired my work Façades (2019), is a good example of Taiwanese ephemeral architecture. Zhiza consists in the Taoist custom of building a paper house for the deceased and burning it; I was truly fascinated by this practice! Initially I was interested in the colourful local paper houses, but I didn’t actually like the quality and patterns. So, I collaborated with a Taipei-based modern Zhizha company in order to build less traditional, but more architecturally refined samples. I created these drawings out of different facades, and they made them into paper structures. I chose to use white because I like to keep the original colour of the material and it evinces a sense of neutrality. More importantly, white resembles the notion of utopia in my head: it’s delicate, dynamic and futuristic.
M: I am very interested in your choice of mediums, why do you choose to represent architecture through paper and porcelain? While architecture is a discipline that values stability, power and order, porcelain conveys the idea of fragile purity, always on the verge of being shattered. What do you want to express in deconstructing and transforming architecture into imperfect and hybrid porcelain structures? It seems to me that you are almost trying to expose the impure concepts of fragility hidden within different cultures and the rigid forms of architecture.
Y: I love and admire powerful mediums such as architecture: it’s so overwhelming, imposing, rigid and rational. However, I am not an architect, I am not trained to design buildings, and I actually don’t really want to! In fact, if I constructed a building then it would exist, while I am interested in capturing the world that cannot exist – a utopia. This is the reason why I used non-architectural materials and non-architectural sizes. By employing porcelain and paper as mediums, I intend to create soft architecture, which conveys a sense of fragility and dynamicity, as opposed to the rigidity of architecture. It chimes with the utopian feeling of a chimeric world.
Moreover, using other mediums gives me more freedom: I take what I like from a building and fuse different perspectives into the same structure. So, my imaginary architectural structure becomes purely not possible to build: an unbuildable architecture.
M: The process of construction and deconstruction of elements from different buildings and cultures is especially evident in your drawing series Cloud City (2019), currently on show at MOCA in Taipei. The drawings are so precise and almost envisions futuristic utopian structures; they are gorgeous! Can you tell me more about the artistic process of this work? Why do you only focus on the surface of the building as opposed to its internal structure?
Y: The drawing series Cloud City originates from the photographs I took of buildings in Taiwan as well as different textures and patterns. I then used these different samples to draw a fusion of architectures on paper. I firstly drew the structure, then fill it with textures and patterns inspired by Taiwan aesthetics.
Actually, all of the works in the show only reproduce the façades of buildings without the inside. This is mainly because of my background in 2D painting and casting – an art form in between 2D and 3D. Porcelain is also about surfaces, since I deploy only slip casting techniques, which consist in copying the surface of an object and then applying a thin layer of liquid porcelain.
The focus on surface also has to do with the viewing experience of architecture: we are only exposed to the surface of a building from the outside. Moreover, in Taiwan I also started focusing on the ornamental side of architecture. I think surfaces and ornaments are more of an ‘East Asian approach’ to art; even in paintings we focus on the surface rather than the spatial depth and perspective rules that define Western paintings. My drawings Cloud City are more ornamental and decorative than my usual practice. I normally take inspiration from marble, stone or mineral patterns, while this time I wanted to make more ornamental drawings, inspired by Taiwanese decorative patterns such as the traditional flowery textiles.
M: Utopia is a concept that features strongly in your research and oeuvre. Its etymology derives from the ancient Greek ou-topos (no-place) as well eu-topos (good place). Utopia thus stands for an ideal society that cannot be realised, an impossible dream or a nowhereness. In your recent work, Utopia (2018) you seem to give structure and solidity to this concept. Can you tell me more about this work and your personal understanding of utopia?
Y: Utopia (2018) is a work consisting of 196 abstract porcelain cubes which stands for the number of countries in the world according to the Japanese government. I made all of the cubes in the same size and weight by precisely controlling the thickness of the porcelain. Perhaps because I am from Japan, a small and isolated country with little influence in global politics, my ideal world entails no power balance.
My idea of utopia was highly influenced by Soviet architecture and the writings of Thomas More as well as Chinese poet Tao Yuanming. In a nutshell, utopia is an imaginary place which does not exist; however I relentlessly keep looking for it.
M: I am extremely fascinated by the relationship between utopia and architecture, so I apologise if I might linger a bit on this one! The buildings of ex-Soviet states convey a vision of utopian equality and promised happiness. However, as you mentioned before, these buildings also promote societal standardisations, being often symbols of coercive and oppressive regimes. In fact, we cannot deny that architecture is entrenched into the machinery of power and represent the emblem of the ‘body politic’. What is the relationship between architecture, politics and utopian space in your oeuvre?
Y: I think architecture is the grandest art format, so it is certainly related to politics. Especially in former USSR states, architecture represented the embodiment of the socialist ideal and the leader.
I wouldn’t say my oeuvre necessarily focuses on politics, but I do include political elements into account. For instance, I made a porcelain series titled Lenin (2017-2019). However, I was mainly interested in the idealisation of his persona since he was the first individual to realise the political concept of utopia. What is interesting to me is that despite statues of Lenin ubiquitously occupy many public spaces in Russia, his memory is gradually fading. It is the same for buildings: they exist but, devoid of original meaning, their historical significance falters. They are like ghosts or clouds.
I also employ political elements in order to highlight similarities between different countries. For instance, Pan City 10 draws on the correspondences between architecture in the US and ex-USSR states. I am more interested in associating these historical adversaries by recreating a harmonious fusion instead of an opposition.
M: In my understanding, utopian visions often resemble dystopian thought. The idea of dystopia developed in response to utopia; it envisions a society which only on the surface appears as utopia while its people actually live under repressive social control systems, government coercion, standardisation and technological manipulation. I am thinking, for instance, of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World which unites utopia and dystopia without clear boundaries between the two: one entails the other. How do you understand the boundary between utopia and dystopia in your art practice? Do you also intend to represent dystopia?
Y: This is actually a Western understanding of utopia, which originates from the socialist political idea that utopia and dystopia are two faces of the same coin: control. In East Asia, the notion of utopia originates instead from the tale of the Peach Blossom Spring by Chinese poet Tao Yuanming: a heavenly place of harmony and happiness divorced from political and mundane matters. I am more interested in representing this dreamy and fictitious sensation in my art. This kind of utopia also entails a negative side since it cannot exist in reality. However, I wouldn’t call it a ‘dystopia’, as dystopia only happens if someone tries to actualise the ideal of utopia – and I have no intention to do so.
M: Your art is so inspiring, it conveys very interesting concepts while revealing a gracious understanding of the materials. The show orchestrates an ethereal dialogue between architectural structures, taking the viewer into a journey to virtual space. You are the first artist selected for the programme Taipei Artist Village X MOCA. How would you comment on this experience? What are your future plans?
Y: It was a great programme! It is a collaboration between Taipei Artist Village (TAV) and the Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei (MOCA) and consisted in an artist residency at TAV for three months, while working with curators at MOCA towards a solo exhibition in the museum. I actually just had a month and a half to prepare the show and had to meet several deadlines, so initially it was pretty stressful. But it was a fantastic achievement since it didn’t just entail the outcome of my residency but a wider perspective on my art. For instance, I had the time to reflect deeply on the curatorial aspect and the way to present my works into a museum space. It was really good for my practice. It was my first solo show in a museum, so I feel very excited for it!
I am now preparing a show in Vietnam for January, so I am still working hard. I will then go back to New York.
藝術家帶路 | 台北國際藝術村: 駐地藝術家專訪
採訪人: Maria Dolfini( 以下簡稱M )
藝術家: 大野由美子( 以下簡稱Y )
Y: 我曾在日本京都靜岡大學學習油畫，當時我受到文藝復興時期義大利畫家如皮耶羅·德拉·弗朗切斯卡（ Piero della Francesca）的強烈啟發。而有次在威尼斯舉辦的一場罕見巴爾蒂斯（Balthus）畫展則是我來到歐洲的動力。在環遊歐洲大陸之後，我愛上了東歐，因為東歐的文化和藝術似乎與日本有著許多相似之處。例如，匈牙利電影導演貝拉塔爾（Béla Tarr）緩慢又淒涼的電影風格讓我想起日本的卷軸畫；而匈牙利前衛畫家蒂沃道爾·克斯客卡·客奇瓦里（Tivadar Csontvéry Kosztkaso）則喚起了我對日本浮世繪風格的記憶。因此，我決定留在在匈牙利學習幾年。之後我搬到布拉格，完成了一個前衛藝術相關的碩士學位，在攻讀碩士期間我主要以裝置藝術與鑄件技法來試驗我的藝術創作。
接著，我在以色列的耶路撒冷和倫敦之間忙碌了幾年時間，最後在俄羅斯開始了我人生第二個碩士課程，而這次則是陶藝！我一直對瓷器這一個媒介很感興趣，但我不是那麼喜歡日本陶器的風格：它太厚太重，而且總是接近自然的大地色。但俄羅斯則是相反，俄羅斯的陶器非常精緻。在俄羅斯，我曾經在聖彼得堡的帝國瓷器製造場（ Imperial Porcelain Factory）與有名的陶藝家卡濟米爾·謝韋里諾維奇·馬列維奇（Kazimir Severinovich Malevich）一起製作瓷器。而現在我則是住在紐約，儘管我仍然四處旅行。
M: 烏托邦是一個在你的研究和作品中反覆出現的強烈概念。它的詞源來自古希臘的ou-topos（無地）和eu-topos （好地）。因此烏托邦其實是代表著一個無法實現的理想社會，一個不可能實現的夢想或是一個沒有的地方。在你近期的作品〈烏托邦〉中你似乎給這個概念賦予了結構以及堅實性，能跟我們分享更多關於妳個人對烏托邦的理解以及這件作品嗎？
M: 在我的理解中，烏托邦也常常與反烏托邦的思想相關。反烏托邦思想是基於烏托邦的概念發展起來的，它設想的是一個表面上看起來是烏托邦的社會，但其人民實際上是生活在壓制性的社會控制系統、受到政府的脅迫、標準化及技術控制之下。例如，我想到的是阿道斯·赫胥黎（ Aldous Huxley）的〈美麗新世界〉（Brave New World），它把烏托邦和反烏托邦結合起來，兩者之間沒有明確的界線，也就是一個包含了另一個。在你的藝術實踐中，你如何理解兩者之間的界線呢？你也試圖去代表反烏托邦嗎？
M: 你的藝術非常具啟發性，不只傳遞了有趣的概念，同時也揭示了你對各種媒材的雅緻理解。你的展覽就像在建築的架構之間安排了一場空靈的談話，並邀請觀眾一同進入虛擬空間旅行。你也是第一位入選台北國際藝術村x MOCA台北當代藝術館共同專案的藝術家，你對這次的經驗有什麼感想呢？未來還有什麼其他計畫？