Left: Portrait of Miya Ando by Roy Ritchie. Right: Miya Ando, The Noguchi Museum, Haku-un (White Cloud), 36 x 36 x 1 inches, Solid Glass. Images courtesy the artist.
Miya Ando is a conceptual artist whose work deals with notions of impermanence, quantum physics, Buddhism, and the natural world.
Her art takes many forms — paintings on metal, sculptures made of reclaimed wood, charred by fire and painted with silver nitrate; delicate bodhi leaves coated in nontoxic phosphorus and set adrift in bodies of water; billowing sheets of silk fabric, dyed to invoke moon-lit clouds.
A recipient of the prestigious Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant Award, Miya’s work has been exhibited worldwide, from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas, to the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany, to the renowned West Bund art fair in Shanghai, China.
In addition to her recent solo show in Tokyo, Japan at MAKI Gallery, her work has been featured in solo exhibitions at institutions such as: The Asia Society Museum, Houston; The Noguchi Museum, New York; Savannah College Of Art and Design Museum, Savannah; and The American University Museum in Washington D.C., among others.
We sat down with Miya for a virtual studio visit to discuss how she approaches new mediums, her process during the pandemic, and what she’s learned from public art commissions—such as her 2018 piece Sora Versailles, which wrapped Miami Beach’s iconic Versailles hotel for the Faena Festival during Art Basel Miami.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Miya Ando, documentation: Sora Versailles, Printed Fabric, 1596 x 1236 inches, 2018. Location: The Versailles Building, Miami Beach, FL. Image courtesy the artist and the Faena Festival.
AA: How has the conceptual framework of your artistic practice evolved over time?
MA: It's actually been very consistent for me — because, starting basically in grad school, I focused on a thing that I was very intrigued by — and that was really looking at time, as it pertains to impermanence within Buddhism. And the core principle that all constituent forms that create the universe are transitory.
Buddhism has a long, long history. My work juxtaposes — or compares and contrasts — Buddhist principles with a part of quantum physics that has been proven in the last 80 years or so; at the subatomic level, particles are composed of vibrating energy.
This means that nothing has a fixed nature, everything is in motion, everything is in a state of change.
So, there's a very similar connective thread between what some would consider “pure science” and also a philosophical idea. That's really what I’ve been looking at since graduate school—in particular, the ways that religious iconography, i.e. pictures and statues of religious things, have communicated abstract notions to the masses (or to the illiterate). So, pictures that embody really abstract things—like Grace and heaven and hell—and I'm still very interested in how a picture or an object can communicate those things in a nonverbal way.
These are ineffable notions and ideas — they're abstract notions. Each work begets the next work, the works come out of the previous work. It's a train of thought, and it's a very narrow area of focus. Each work also embodies small evolutions — when looking at a dimension or an iteration of that thought — and there's a medium that is appropriate.
Miya Ando, 72 Seasons' Moons, 2020, indigo and micronized silver on wood panel, 96 x 108 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Sundaram Tagore Gallery.
For each of my projects, there's a material that really supports and reiterates the concept. The works are concept-driven. If that body of work is talking, in particular, about impermanence, then light is the vocabulary, how it reflects and flickers off the metal—the visceral vocabulary reiterates the concept.
So the practice has not changed, except for the fact that, during COVID, I had a little bit more time to devote to a few things that are very heavily research based. I actually just got back from Japan, and I had a quarantine there for two weeks. During quarantine, I spent 14 hours a day just sitting and translating words. But, once I was out of quarantine, I also got to go to all the Japanese libraries and bookstores I needed to, in order to further my research.
So that process of slowing down during COVID has really illuminated certain parts of my practice that are important to me. As you know, I'm a New Yorker and used to being very, very busy, so it's given me a little bit of time to proceed with this project in a really calm and slower way.
These are really robust meditations— going back and looking at words that are really arcane. I’m talking about language that has not been in use for a couple hundred years at least and it’s a slower, more meditative process.
Miya Ando, installation shot: Mugetsu (Invisible Moon), solo exhibition at MAKI Gallery, Tokyo, 2021. Image courtesy the artist and MAKI Gallery, Tokyo.
AA: Your cultural heritage is quite unique and clearly informs your work. Can you talk a bit about how you reconcile your Eastern and Western backgrounds?
MA: I really have kind of a 50/50, Eastern/Western experience, but it's hard to kind of attribute what is Western and what is Eastern. It's rock ‘n roll— anything can happen in art, which is the freedom that I feel, perhaps as an American, as someone living in New York, and as a participant in the art world.
There are certain ingrained attitudes about things, though. I would say that I have a very, very strong conditioning, due to my environment, to look at nature in a certain way. As a child, I lived in Japan in a Buddhist temple out in the country with my grandparents, who are very traditional. It was an extremely traditional setting and household, in a temple that has a very long history. And so, when I talk about conditioning, that’s one example.
I also believe in a kind of acceptance and understanding of one's own conditioning — mine has been twofold. One part was living in a traditional setting in Japan, and then I also lived in the redwood forest, up in the Santa Cruz mountains — off the grid with a generator and a well — for half of my life. So, nature has always been a very big part of my life.
I’ve sort of selected that vocabulary — the vernacular of nature — because it's right in my heart. It's what I love.
This type of imagery also became quite important to me because, as a mixed-race person, it is a connective thing. It's not Japanese, it's not American, it belongs to all of us — the moon, for example, belongs to everyone — and there's a democracy in that. It sort of transcends things like race and heritage and culture, etc.
That being said, my background has definitely shaped my relationship with nature. My grandmother would wear her kimonos, and she would select specific colors to match that particular season. There are 72 seasons in ancient Japanese culture — one season per week, almost. To be able to show that you comprehend those slight shifts in nature requires a reverence and yearning to harmonize with nature that I find very refined and elegant.. Whatever flower would bloom that week would be the color depicted by her kimono.
This attunement to nature is highly relegated and regarded as refined, but when you really boil it down, it’s about respect. Why? Because nature is deified, number one. Number two, in an agrarian nation, nature is revered. Only a very small percentage of that mountainous land in Japan is arable, and one drought can basically wipe you out. So there are a lot of prayers to rain, showing respect — it’s a very rich tradition, and it's very deeply ingrained. And that perspective is something that I feel should be preserved.
Miya Ando, documentation: OBON (PUERTO RICO), Bodhi (Ficus Religiosa) Skeleton Leaves, Resin, Phosphorescence, Water, 1200 x 1200 inches, 2012. Location: Dorado, Puerto Rico. Image courtesy the artist.
Because of these conditions of my experience and my history, I'm privy to those things—I feel very privileged to have been introduced to some of these lenses that are just so beautiful.
Also, most of this information is on its way out. It has not been valued as much as it should. I just did an exhibition in Japan— a solo show entitled Mugetsu, which means “invisible moon.” The most beautiful moon of the whole entire year is actually in mid-autumn. There used to be parties in its honor, and poems. When the moon is covered up by clouds, however, and you can no longer see it, it's invisible, but it’s still there— this is the “invisible moon.”
For Mugetsu, I did a show of all cloud works — the clouds that are covering and obscuring the moon, to be precise. Not many people utilize the word mugetsu now though, because it's arcane. It's not used in everyday speech.
There are many non-Western ideas that are so beautiful, and I would love to preserve that and to share those ideas with my audience who are non-Japanese speakers. In intellectual history, things that are no longer valued just sort of dissipate and go away. A lot of these things from my childhood and whatnot seem to be just on the cusp—I would like to record these ideas via my work, as I deem them to have value in my belief system.
Because I’m aware of that dissipation, a lot of the art I make is looking at these intellectual gaps, cerebral gaps— thoughts that don't exist between one culture to the next, I often employ lacunae; untranslatable words, or words without a direct translation between languages.
I want to pay homage to those things. I'm the 16th generation of a family and we got here by preserving, and protecting our heritage. So, I have a really strong impetus to remember that it’s not just me, it's the house of Ando— it's the house of The Rising Wisteria Flower (Ando) that I represent and that my work represents.
Miya Ando, installation shot: 銀河 GINGA (THE SILVER RIVER IN THE SKY), Printed Fabric, Stainless Steel, 120 x 58 x 2400 inches, 2019. Location: Socrates Sculpture Park, New York. Image courtesy the artist and Socrates Sculpture Park.
AA: You’ve also done public art for many years. How did you develop that part of your career and what are some lessons that working in the “public art context” has taught you?
MA: I’ve had a public art practice that stretches back to the early 2000s. I really like the idea that an artwork can be in a public place, and anyone can experience it — children, for example. Public art doesn’t have any kind of pretense. Sometimes, people are intimidated to go into museums or galleries. It was very liberating for my practice to have this balance between public art, works in galleries and institutions, etc.
For the first five or six years of my practice, however, I received a lot of commissions to make nondenominational artworks in religious spaces: the San Francisco General Hospital chapel; a chapel here in Bed Stuy that was a part of a soup kitchen; one in Kentucky, Louisville, was a chapel inside of a rehab facility; etc.
Those projects made people aware that I enjoy doing public art. Not every artist does, because there are certain complexities in public art, which are not the same being in the studio, i.e. making paintings and drawings for gallery or museum spaces.
There are technical difficulties, especially when you're working with really large things. I did two September 11th memorials, for example. One was very, very large, and very, very heavy. I took salvaged steel from the trade centers and polished it into a mirror— in the name of dematerializing that very heavy (both metaphorically and physically-speaking) object and collective experience. It became like a mirror in the sky, reflecting clouds and drawing your eyes upwards.
During the course of that project, I spoke with probably 300 people. Atheists, Muslims, Jews, agnostics, everyone— and I asked every single one of them, “Where do people go when they die?” Some people looked down into the earth, but most of them said, “I don't know, but it's probably up there somewhere” (gesturing to the sky).
So because that was a memorial for all of these victims and their families, I just wanted people to look up and see an object putting light back into the earth, back to the world. It's a very, very sensitive topic, as it should be, so I wanted that piece to convey that gravitas.
Miya Ando, installation shot: 9/11 MEMORIAL, Steel salvaged from The World Trade Center, 336 x 60 x 72 inches, 2011. Location: Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Zaha Hadid Aquatic Centre, London, UK. Image courtesy the artist.
For Sora Versailles, the curators of the Faena festival reached out to me and said, “We really like your work, what would you do with the Versailles building?” This structure was literally falling apart, but it's a landmark, although the bricks were literally falling off of it.
I like the idea that something that had been so gorgeous, and something so large, could simply dematerialize. So I wrapped it in the actual imagery of the sky in Miami, which is very distinct in its coloration — intense pinks and deep purples. The sunrises and sunsets there are spectacular and, in a way, they’re unique to Miami.
Public art is really not about myself and my own art practice. My approach with public art is to go to the location and really look at the stakeholders — the people who walk by every day on their way to work— and make something that is appropriate for that actual physical, geographic location.
I don't think anyone should change their work for an audience. I don't even think it's possible to do that. But I do think that the context is important for public art and should always be considered.
Miya Ando, installation shot. Alchemy (Shou Sugi Ban), 2020, dimensions variable. Image courtesy Maki Gallery, Tokyo.
AA: Do you have any advice for artists in terms of gallery representation?
MA: To discern which gallery is suitable for your work, the question should be: “do the ideas of my work fit with the rest of this gallery’s stable of artists?” I do think there’s been a radical shift because gallery representation used to be geographic— you have your New York dealer and your LA dealer and then you've got your Berlin gallery, etc.
I think things are really rapidly changing because of Instagram — with the internet, there are almost no geographic boundaries anymore. Certain dealers may only handle a certain series of works, such as sculpture (but maybe not so much drawings, etc.).
Most important is whether your artistic concept fits with the concept of that particular gallerist. Still, things are really in flux now, and I think people are doing things in lots of different ways — I have friends who don't even have a dealer and don't want one.
I’m very interested in making work and not so interested in the very difficult part of placing works in the appropriate hands. I think that that is a necessary skill though and it’s why I partner with galleries — they work really, really hard to place my works in the appropriate collections. So, it’s also a personal choice.
AA: Any final thoughts on your studio practice?
MA: I've always worked seven days a week. I love being in the studio every single day, I've always had a really strong and disciplined approach to what I do— just a really rigorous attitude — I was just raised that way. And, I enjoy it! It's my thing.
But, during COVID, I realized that things don't have to always be at such a rapid pace. I think it's okay to have less, to make less, and to show less. In fact, I think it's better.