I interviewed the artist Miya Ando by telephone on the 12th of September, 2011. She was in California, where she was anodysing some of her metal sculptures. We talked for around 40 minutes, mainly about her recentlty unveiled London memorial to the victims of the 9-11 attack and about her connections with Japan. Here are the first 25 minutes of the interview, during which she produced a commendable 22 y'knows.
CBL: Hello, is that Miya Ando?
MA: Yes, it is. Is this Colin-san?
CBL: Yes, Colin here.
CBL: Nice to speak to you.
MA: Likewise. Nice to speak to you. Thank you so much for your calling.
CBL: Yeh, yes. You seem to be quite, quite busy, moving from, between different time zones. I mean a few days ago you were in London and then back to New York and then you’re in California now, and soon I think you'll be in Tokyo, won't you?
MA: Yes I will, but, y'know, first I have to go to Korea and Seattle, so I am a nomad at the moment I think. [laughs]
CBL: How is that effecting, effecting your work?
MA: Well y'know before I left for London, I was very, very busy making all of the work for the Tokyo show and also for Korea, which is, em, an outdoor public piece, and also for Seattle, so I was doing a kind of [*lacuna*] art making this very, very busy, but actually between the time... In October and November I am going to be, em, doing some more of my aluminium works...
MA: ...that I do, em, in a facility in Santa Barbara California, so I have a little [*lacuna*] where that I can do the anodysing stuff, the new stuff.
CBL: Yeh, cos I mean, your art, em, it's quite different from somebody who's just doing sketches. It's very dependent on, eh, having the space and the materials, all ready and to hand, isn't it?
MA: That's true, but, y'know, while if I have to be travelling I usually bring something like drawings or some little things that I can work on because, y'know, even though I [*lacuna*] the metalwork, I also do a lot of work, small, middle, y’know, I work with little light things and some drawings. I put forth some scrawls and things that y'know I repetitively write things like prayers and things like that. Yeh, so I do... I've got sort of my art practice that I work on when, even if I'm not in my New York studio.
CBL: Uhuh. Now, um, like to, em, go back a few days to when you were in London and the 9-11 memorial. Em, how did that come about? Why were you, eh, selected out for what is quite a, obviously, eh, a kinda high profile thing because I mean, uh, at the unveiling there were... The mayor was there and, y'know, a few other dignitaries.
MA: Oh yes. Yes, yes. I have to say I was not the first choice.
MA: I was not the first choice for the 9-11 London Foundation. It is... The 9/11 London is a non-profit group that commissioned me to do the sculpture. The first person they approached was Richard Serra and he said no. [laughs]
MA: And then in London they met with Anish Kapoor's agent and Anish Kapoor's agent said he was interested in it but he didn't want to use the World Trade Centre steel, and the whole project was based upon the fact that the September 11 London Foundation had received... They had written to the Port Authority and they had gotten permission to receive [*lacuna*] really a piece of the World Trade Centre Steel to utilize for a memorial.
MA: So after those two very famous artists who, y'know, they are my heroes of art. Those are two of my most favourite artists.
MA: The, um, London Foundation called up the September 11 Tribute Centre, which is just across the street from Ground Zero in downtown New York.
MA: When they called the Tribute Centre, the man who was the head of that organization was a fire-fighter and his name was Lee Ielpi, and Lee Ielpi just by coincidence, but by chance had been, had known of my work because of a public commission, a small public commission that I did for a non-denominational chapel in Brooklyn.
MA: So, he had known my name and although I was nowhere near establishment... Really, just in 2009, when the London people called him, y'know, I'm an emerging artist, so he said, "You may want to look at this young lady because she works with steel and she's from a Buddhist family and, y'know, she's from a steel family," and, and, um, so the London Foundation, I get a call from them. I got an email which is followed up by an immediate call, and they just said if you had the opportunity to work with World Trade Centre Steel what would you do? And I said I would leave it exactly the way that I found it, but I would sand it to a near finish, and would reveal something that was very, very refined inside of this rusty steel and I... It would be a meditation, and, um, they said, "OK – meet us at the Hangar 17, which is a giant hangar out at JFK Airport in New York, and, um, you can select a piece. You're our girl. You are our perfect artist. We can’t think of anyone else. We’re going to give you an opportunity to do this project." So they selected me, and then, y’know, it was a week later when I went to JFK, and I looked through all the 2,000 pieces of steel that they had saved there.
CBL: What were you... When you were selecting the piece of steel, what were you actually looking for? Did you have any kind of, em, sort of notion of what, what would work or, em...
MA: You see because I have been an artist who has been refining the surface of steel and metals and using them as [*lacuna*] works like a painting, but... I [*lacuna*] sanding and polishing, and working with fire and chemicals to create the very highly finished steel surfaces out of steel plates and steel sheets for several years, so when I saw the piece what I selected, it was three columns that were connected by a very big plate, and that plate folded over when it fell down and it fell about seventy stories – seven zero stories – from the World Trade Centre, but when I saw the plate, I thought that plate, I can polish that plate, I can treat that plate just like the other steel plates that I’ve been working on and sand it down and finish it so that it looks transparent, or it becomes a mirror, and it becomes very light and ethereal, and hopefully that will communicate an idea of transcendence and ascension in this tragedy, so I really, when I saw this, um, y'know, very tall... It's about thirty feet tall are the columns but as, y'know, the whole outside, the whole exoskeleton of the World Trade Centre was comprised of these columns and these big flat plates that connected the columns, and I didn't change the form. I just kept it exactly as I found it. All I did was polish it and sand it down. It didn't [*lacuna*] subtract anything from the form. So, I looked at it sort of as a continuation of my studio practice, just on a really huger scale, y’know.
CBL: Yeh. Em, also the Mayor Boris Johnson he was making a speech at the unveiling I think and he, em, he referred to, em, sort of conspiracy theories about 9-11 and how this foundation is trying to sort of counter that. I was wondering if there is any tie-in there, because your piece of work, it's sort of, em, reflecting like light in what can sometimes be a kind of murky area cos there are a lot of theories out there, and there's a lot of disbelief about what actually happened on 9-11.
MA: Yes, Yes, it's very, um, it's, it's very, um, very sensitive and complex, um. I thought that it was, um... Well, my intention was to put forth the steel at least as a relic of the tragedy, to put that object forth in a truthful manner, and, and that's the reason why I didn't want to unbend it or attach any other new materials. I really wanted to look within the material itself, to remove the rust and to try to create something that would put forth and redirect light to the viewers really in the hope that, um, that object would look transformed and would be a poem or metaphor for perhaps finding something within the tragedy that could become [*lacuna*] for peace, and this I did for the families and for those who perished in the tragedy, but also as, y'know, a symbol for this educational program. I don't know if it is, um, possible for a sculpture and the educational program to, um, counter any of these conspiracy theories, but I do, um, have hopes that this sculpture as an object, as a symbol for the educational program that teaches children about tolerance and about many different religions and many different views and how we can, em, get along with one another, that I think, ah, the reverberations of having education, uh, educational policy could very well promote peace and, um, understand… more, a deeper understanding of one another in the name of not letting something or this kind of tragedy occur again, so, I, I can't really, because...
MA: I don't, y'know, I can't... I felt my, my role was really, um, to try to make something that did stand for peace, and my, my, my responsibility was to pay homage and respect those who had perished and not let those people pass in vain, and I wanted those memories to stand for something that would, um, promote, uh, this type of tragedy to not happen again.
MA: That was what... Y'know, I’m from a family that…of Buddhist priests and I very much respect, um, my particular heritage and my, my belief of, um, being respectful to the spirits of those and memories, ah, and, and approaching this project and this material with reverence.
CBL: Well, the way you've, em, tackled this project, you've kind of preserved, em, the character of the steel, which is this piece of gnarled metal from a, a cataclysmic event, and you've kind of... So, it contains the tragedy within it, but because of that it also has a very brutalist aspect, and I think some of the people in London were kind of a little bit negative about that. They thought it looked a bit too violent and brutal, so you did get some criticism and I mean probably that's also related to the, y'know, recent events in London because, y'know, those teriible riots very recently, and so, when you have something that looks broken or vandalized or, em, in some way a kind of a symbol of something violent that's happened, it sends out a kind of, em, the signal of negativity as well, doesn't it?
MA: Well, I think, yes, I, I, I completely understand and I felt very, very, um, both heartbroken and empathetic to the voices that opposed the sculpture and I wanted very much to put forth a message to those people who had, uh, an opposition to this artwork and the material and I, I wanted to say that, um, in leaving the form of this object in an unchanged form, I was, my hope was to... It... Even though it is very violent, it is very brutal, it is, it is the truth. It is a... It has the memory of this terrible tragedy, and to stand this object up after it has fallen, I hope it would give a message of a symbol of the resilience of humankind and our ability to stand up again and be tall and transcend this and to look to the future with this highly reflective, uh, surface, and to optimistically, um, stand again. That was my hope of taking something that, that was brutally gnawed and... To see the effect on, on such a object of materiality is a very intense, ah, looking object, but I also think that, um, as sort of, um, as difficult an object as it is, it is also quite powerful because it is undeniably a relic of a terrible tragedy.
MA: And I think sometimes that sort of, um, that an object of intensity could very much be put forth with the right intention, could symbolize especially to onlookers and young people that we cannot let something like this occur. I mean this is one-inch thick steel that has really, am, gone through this horrible event so I pose... I very much... I try to proceed with an intention of respect and reverence, especially for the victims' families and in my mind, um, they were... and the victims, the actual, the people who perished, am, it was most important to me to honour them with the piece.
CBL: Yeh, well, I hope it's understood in that way, but London being London I'm sure, eh, a lot of people will take it in different way, because it's such a diverse city, but anyway you’re mentioning your Buddhist background and, em, of course, this is going to be in CNNgo Tokyo, so I'd like to sort of delve a little bit into your Japanese background. First of all could you tell me a little bit about where you were born and grew up and when you moved to America and your family background and your ancestry?
MA: Yes, of course. Well, my mother is from Japan and is Japanese. My father is American of Russian... He's Russian American, ah, but I was, um, born in America and I went first time to Japan when I was an infant and spent some time...
CBL: Could I ask how old you were?
MA: I think I was months old. I can ask my mother.
MA: My mother is here. I can ask my mom. I know I was in diapers. [laughs] I was a little baby when I was in Japan but, um, and primarily, y'know, when I was a very little girl, um... My mother is, ah... The family lives in Okayama City.
MA: And Okayama City, my mother's father, so my grandfather was the head priest of a Nichiren Buddhist temple, so the Nichiren is a very, very old sect. It's [*lacuna*] a very old sect, the lotus [*lacuna*] and that...
CBL: Is he still around?
MA: No, he passed away, unfortunately, and his... Now the head priest of the temple is my cousin. My cousin, he, when my grandfather passed away a few years ago, em, my eldest male cousin became the new, ah, priest.
MA: And, um, that is the environment in which I was, in which I lived. Ah, it's a small temple in Okayama, and, uh, y'know, my aunts and uncles and my cousins and everyone sort of lives... My grandparents lived in the temple and my cousins and everyone lived next door, so that is the environment, um, that is, has had a great impact in my, well on many things in my life.
MA: I would [*lacuna*] that, um, y'know, I spent all of my summers, I spent time kind of going back and forth and bouncing back and forth. It's was basically when I was, uh, before, y'know, young, but high school, all of my, y'know, high school and college was in America. Um, as soon as I finished high school I went back to Japan...
CBL: So, was it, was it a kind of thing where you were living in America but then during the summer holidays, you'd come to Japan frequently
MA: Yes, exactly. Exactle. Um, and, y'know, I spend, y'know it was, y'know, there was some schedule but it was [*lacuna*] more high, y'know [*lacuna*] back and forth I would say, but a bit more...
[There is a silent pause]
CBL: It went quiet for a moment. Sorry.
MA: No, in my [*lacuna*] I’m the sixteenth generation of the, my mom's side so that is the Ando family.
MA: And, but several generations before the, the family went into the Buddhist priesthood. There is, there were some ancestors who made katana swords, so this, uh...
CBL: How many generations ago is that?
MA: Well the most famous of these Ando sword makers is a person called Yoshiro Masakatsu Ando Yoshiro Masakatsu and that was in eighteen, early eighteen-hundreds, up until then.
MA: And I have some photos of his swords and things, and, and y’know [*lacuna*] visit his grave, uh, not last year, but [*lacuna*] the year before but he is sort of the most renowned of the, ah, Ando sword, ah, makers, and...
CBL: Do you have any of his swords in your possession?
MA: I don't personally. Um, my great uncle, who am... In my grandfather's generation, they have some and so they took a picture. They took a photograph of one and they emailed it to me not so long ago and they say [*lacuna*] just got a Japanese book, uh, like, talks about, uh, this person...
[The rest of this interview will be posted at some future date.]