For long, the California-based Japanese artist Masako Miki has looked to blast out loud internal dichotomies and explore our shape-shifting character, turning the spotlight away from our inside-the-box individuality and more directly to aspects of fluidity that connect us all together. By heavily drawing inspiration from Japanese folklore and Shinto concepts, Miki’s work blurs the lines of identity while sharply categorising our social life as collective mythology that aches for dialogue and deeper collaboration – an idea thoroughly explored in her new series New Mythologies, now on view at Cult Aimee Friberg Exhibitions in San Francisco until September 25.
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From detailed paintings to the current larger-than-life amorphous sculptures, what made you decide on pursuing art as your way of expression?
I believe that art is one of the greatest communication tools. I still remember my struggle of not being able to communicate with others in college because of my poor English-speaking ability. I started to feel completely isolated and started to feel depressed in my early years in the United States. This changed when I took a drawing class in the art department. For the first time, I made friends because I could interact with other students through art. We connected by sharing art and its process. We painted together until late at night in the studio – there I found my community. Since then, art has been the best communication tool for me.
I started to paint my own experience after my graduate program. This developed into autobiographical work. I started to paint about my dilemmas and questions of cultural identity. I created metaphors using particular animals’ ecology – like deer, wolf, and whales. I believe that visual language expresses the relationships of image and meaning; in particular, I am interested in images that project our cultural values. As my style has evolved from the beginning of my career, I am still exploring the idea of signifier/signified in my work.
Can you talk more about the themes that you touch on through your work?
Each of my series focused on particular narratives and had specific inspirations as subject matter. For detailed paintings, it was important for me to set the context as a plot in order to portray psychological narratives. However, lately, my style has evolved into something more abstract. Setting a particular plot became less important in my current series. I started to use the specific cultural references of Japanese shapeshifters, which offer more open-ended interpretations, and these visual and conceptual references became unique signifiers of a new identity in my work.
It is known that your work is strongly influenced by Japanese folklore and the continuous exploration of the Shinto shapeshifters concept of Tsukumogami, a type of yōkai or spirits. What kind of role would you say your cultural background played on your journey to become an artist?
My cultural background played a significant role in my journey to become an artist. Firstly, Japanese animistic mythologies and folklore bring unique visual references to my work. Secondly, I am celebrating my cultural heritage, and I am also interested in re-contextualising these ancestral narratives for contemporary society.
It has been an interesting process to research and expand the idea of mythologies – I see it as starting my own traditions. I also feel connected and familiar with these ghosts/shapeshifters because these ancient mythologies are rooted in our everyday culture in Japan. We see them in TV, films, comics, landmarks, daily and communal rituals. I am intrigued by the commonality and extraordinary qualities of shapeshifters. At the same time, I wanted to explore what these mythologies and folklore meant in different periods in Japan; why these mythologies have been accepted and believed in a particular time and continue to be a part of our culture. This led me to explore and think about how these mythologies are even more relevant to our current society.
“Death has become reality for me. Now, I think about how my life will end on earth, and this question leads to the next question – what should I be doing now?”
Now, the idea of ‘dichotomies’ seems to be one of the main concepts you tend to explore; via both the techniques and materials used, as well as exhibition themes. Why do you think that this is an important topic?
I think we all have experiences of dealing with dichotomies or dualities in our lives. It is a part of life. For me, it started as a question of cultural identity. As a native of Japan who has lived in the US for more than 25 years, it has been a struggle to determine how to identify myself. Asking this question is important because it can determine my actions now and in the future.
In today’s society, we see an increasing number of non-binary spaces unique to our current situations. This, of course, relates to gender identity and fluidity, but also biracial identity and multiculturalism. Our identities have become more complex as our society has evolved. The respect for every individual has been deeply challenged in our current culture. I feel these ancient narratives offer different perspectives in contrast to the traditional views of our identities. They also ask a question of our collective identities – who we are as a community and also as a nation. I think being able to shift, change, and evolve into unique versions of ourselves is the only way for us to survive in this rapidly changing society. Shapeshifters are also signifiers of the synthesis of dichotomies. They accept contrary characteristics of being sacred/secular and animate/inanimate. Shapeshifters are inherently boundless in their nature as they blur the lines of these “barriers.” These hybrid beings embrace duality in themselves to invent new identities, instead of conforming to accepted ones.
What’s the main message you want the audience to leave a Masako Miki exhibition with?
My intent is to craft new mythologies. I want to re-contextualise these narratives to draw new metaphors. Every mythology reflects the time when it was created. There is an idiosyncrasy of the time, but also universality is embedded, which transforms timeless narratives. As an artist, I question what kind of mythologies need to be crafted now.
According to French semiologist Roland Barthes, our society asserts its values through specific cultural materials: we express collective cultural values through them. This cultural material can be the artwork and the cultural values are what people project onto the artwork. I want my work to function as what Barthes calls ‘signifiers’ – expressing our collective cultural values. And my work deals with particular narratives about connectivity and empathy – Barthes’ ‘signified.’
Did the pandemic environment of isolation have an impact on your creative process?
It did, I am still processing the new normal. I had several projects cancelled or postponed due to the pandemic, some of which are coming back, but not all. Being isolated was helpful for me to reflect on what has been happening in our society. It’s been an interesting time to deeply assess what I should be making as an artist. I should say, I was also very lucky that for the past 2 years I was working on my first public art project – Holographic Entities Reminding of the Universe – for Uber’s new campus in San Francisco. It has been such an exciting process to create work for the public and collaborating with Artworks Foundry in Berkeley (California) for these large-scale sculptures.
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How is New Mythologies different from your previous works?
As I continue to explore cultural identity questions, the exhibition reflects largely on the idea of life and death. The recent pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, racial injustice, and hate crimes, especially to the Asian community throughout the last year, made me reflect deeply on these issues.
As a society, we experienced death as a collective. Simultaneously, the personal experience of losing my father last year made a significant impact on my perspective on life and death. It was one of the most difficult experiences to see him passing while we took him home with hospice care. I was fortunate to be with my father until the end of his life, but it was also extremely difficult. The rituals in Buddhist traditions made quite an impact on me. I saw my father coming out as a skeleton from the crematory furnace, and we followed the ritual of collecting his bones with my family. The ritual reminds living ones to help the deceased in their next journey of the afterlife. It was an intense experience for me to see him that way. Death has become reality for me. Now, I think about how my life will end on earth, and this question leads to the next question – what should I be doing now?
The exhibition also shares the grieving process. We lost so many loved ones through the pandemic and through violence – I painted an offering series with many flowers for this show. It started with my experience last year in Japan. I bought so many flowers last year, as my mother was obsessed with leaving fresh flowers every day for my father’s altar. The room was occupied with so many flowers for a long time. It helped her and me grieve and heal from the ache of missing him. These bright flowers are an offering to everyone who visits the exhibition
What else informed your exhibition?
If I may share, I just finished reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. Harari’s idea resonated deeply with what I have been exploring. I always believe our perception is our reality, but our perceptions are not necessarily informed by truth. Harari proposes that sapiens out-ruled other species because of our ability to believe fictions – collective mythologies, which we call ideology in modern times. And believing the same stories allowed sapiens to form large-scale human corporations, establish a capitalist society, religions and the nation itself. If stories are the only way for us to connect and trust each other, I feel that building new mythologies is a relevant issue for our time.
You tend to explore very different techniques, which results in a more unique feeling for each new exhibition. What made you decide on watercolour painting and bronze sculptures as the primary techniques used in New Mythologies?
Watercolour is an ongoing medium for me, which I continue to explore in this new body of work. The loose and transparent quality of the medium expresses the most important characteristic of the shapeshifter – fluidity.
I first explored bronze for my public art project at Uber, consisting of nine sculptures for the pathway at Uber’s campus, which is accessible to the public. They range from three to twenty feet tall. They greet and welcome visitors. I wanted to continue exploring the new medium in this show on a smaller scale. I also experimented with the finish of the bronze surface. I combined the centuries-old technique of traditional patina with the modern invention of automobile paint. Returning to Barthes’ theory, the synthesis of the contrasting finishes has become a signifier of the signified – new identity of bronze work.
“I feel responsible to continue the dialogue about celebrating and accepting our new identities in contemporary society. Collaboration and connectivity play an important role in navigating our society to a more just, equitable future.”
In the past year, we’ve seen a global tension in the social sphere, leaving nations – more than ever – in desperate need of collaboration. In addition to that, 2020 was a very tumultuous year for American politics, with a noticeable desire for change. Your work, visually very colourful and inviting, has the power to transmit an empathetic feeling and an acute sense of connection between public and piece; characteristics that seem extremely relevant and desirable in this environment. With that in mind, would you say your new series indeed carries a direct relation to the current political and social climate?
Yes, absolutely. It is my intention to use bright colours and playfulness to invoke a sense of inclusivity and accessibility. In my 2019 exhibition Matrix 273 at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, I responded to our political situation by creating a space that was overtly uplifting and inviting when we were experiencing exclusiveness and disconnect in American politics. The new series continues to carry the message. I am also responding to racial injustice, ongoing hate crimes and the devastating violence in our society. I feel responsible to continue the dialogue about celebrating and accepting our new identities in contemporary society.
Collaboration and connectivity play an important role in navigating our society to a more just, equitable future. 
Your pieces have a very clear uniqueness while also presenting an atemporal feeling. Would you say in terms of message that atemporality also remains?
The presence of atemporality in my work comes from my thoughts on cosmology. As we have evolved and changed social mythologies or ideologies over time, I still feel the fundamental parts of us have not changed much. We are still living on Earth and seeking answers to the perpetual questions of where we come from and where we go after life on the earth ends. Our relationships and connections to the natural world are emphasised by animistic beliefs, particularly Shinto animism, which presents themes of nostalgia.
This can be further illuminated by the etymology of the word ‘nostalgia’ itself: in Greek, ‘nostos’ means return or home, ‘algos’ means ache and pain. It is our collective feelings of aching to be home in the natural world. Though we live every day in the natural world, we have become distant and disconnected due to our exploitative relationship with nature. My work explores how everything in the universe is sacred and spirited. Thinking about this from a non-human-centric perspective can remind us more about our humanity and the future identity of ourselves as species.
Finally, if you could give one advice to your younger self, what would that be?
Not being afraid to accept new identities for myself. I want to continue being fluid, and always in the process of becoming throughout the rest of my life. I want to encourage myself to continue pushing forward the important dialogue around our identities as individuals, communities, and as a nation.
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