Interview with Masako Ando

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Hara Documents 9 Masako Ando: The Garden of Belly Button has begun on July 12.
The curator in charge of the exhibition conducted an email-interview with the artist, which we present in three parts. Read on to learn about the background and ideas behind the work of this very gifted artist.

To form a landscape in her mind

Masami Tsubouchi (Curator of the exhibition, Hara Museum):
Since your first solo exhibition in 2004, we’ve been waiting for your new work. It is wonderful to be able to present them as part of the Hara Documents series at the Hara Museum. I hope you don’t mind me asking, but I wonder about the very slow pace at which you create your work. Is it because it takes time for a picture to germinate, like a seed? Or is it because of the way you make them? Masako Ando:
I work as fast as I am able. I have never had any problem with seeds. On the contrary, there is always a plethora of them and the ground is thickly covered with growth.
The reason it takes so long lies in the process. To give visual form to things which exist only in my mind is quite a tough job. It was during my first solo exhibition that I felt I had finally grasped the tail of my own pictures, but was still groping along. Then I found a path from pencil drawing to painting, which was like first making sandals with the grass in the area, then asking for directions from the people that I met along the way.
It takes a long time especially for painting. Controlling the picture as I am adding colors to form the image is a process of trial and error. I naturally proceed with an aim in mind, but I have to adjust the entire image according to each modification that I make to a facial expression or color of a motif.
So the work is a constant alternation between details and overall image. Each time I harmonize the image with a brush or finger, about half of the image disappears. It repeats like this for each step: paint a little, harmonize the rest, paint a little, harmonize the rest. This was the routine I used for the leaves of the Morning Glory and the peacock feathers. It makes me tired just thinking about it again (laughs). I’ve been working while raising a baby now for three and a half years, and so I must be working faster than I was before.
As for pencil drawings, you might compare that pace to going somewhere on a bicycle, while paintings is like walking in sneakers.

Hearing the voice of the picture

I now see how making progress involves an incredible amount of trial and error. I felt overwhelmed just by listening to you But in concrete terms, how do you produce that special porcelain quality in the surface of your works?

First, I stretch the canvas onto a panel. Then I brush gray onto foundation white as a base.
I apply this in layers, which I dry one at a time until every pore over the entire surface of the canvas is sealed and invisible to the eye. After the surface has dried completely, I polish it, trace the pencil drawing onto the canvas and gradually apply color. As I paint, I listen to the voice of the painting. I hear a voice telling me to “Paint here!” or “Do this part next!” As the voice is quite adamant, I reply “Yes! I’ll do it!” When I am working, I’m a servant to the picture. It is this process that produces the surface that you mentioned.
Specifically, there are two types of oil colors: transparent and opaque. I cannot create my pictures with only one or the other. Putting it more precisely, with each addition, such as a human face or leaves, the picture becomes more rigid and the different elements separate from each other. Because I want the details to return to the whole, I glaze the entire image with transparent color. A glaze is made by dissolving color in linseed oil and applying it in very thin layers with a brush or the palm of the hand. It’s like covering the canvas with light-colored cellophane.
When the whole image is unified, one can go forward. If the transparent color becomes too noticeable, the image becomes indecisive and lacks resistance, so I add opaque pigment of almost the same color as the transparent one. If the surface feels rough, I polish it with sandpaper. If I want to add texture, I glaze or add details in only a part of the canvas. I do all this intuitively, in every part of the picture. This intuition of mine is like an eel with a slippery tail that I do my best to hold on to as I run along. In the end, I achieve the texture that I want, the picture becomes mine for better or for worse, and the canvas that was once loud slowly quiets down and says “I think that’s enough.”

A painting like a world

I can imagine how fussy the voice of your pictures can be. How do you come up with your subject matter? You mentioned having lot of seeds that grow into a thick growth. But in the beginning, what interests you the most?

I am interested in all things. These things elicit many kinds of feelings in me, which are scattered in my mind.

I suppose it’s the same for everyone.

Things that happened this morning. Words that I recall. Things that I read in the paper.
The white of the milk, the straight line of the chopstick, the expressions my family makes, or snippets of conversation, photos or letters stuck to the refrigerator door.

The things that humans do.
Synchronized swimming makes me laugh.
Why do people do such strange things? Things like the growing business of freeze-drying your pets after they have died. Lonely people. The cheerful sound of the words “freeze dry.” Knitted woolen socks for chair legs. The look of manicured dogs and fields. Dreams, poems, novels, songs. Then there’s war and torture.

Things that nature does The wonderful shapes of plants and animals, their beauty and grace.
Natural disasters. Catastrophes.

And so on.
Commingling various events and feelings. Borrowing the shapes of various motifs.
Bringing them together in one tight form. It is such a heavenly feeling!
Beautifully strange, unemotionally humorous.
Abstract, yet concrete. A picture that resembles the world. This is what I want to make, and I break my back and wrack my brains doing it.

Wanting to stand clear

Motifs seem to arise from each word that you speak. I guess each of your pictures is the “world” that you are feeling at the time. I wonder if they are inseparable—your dazzling technique and the way you create your “worlds”? In the end, by polishing the surface of your pictures so smoothly, you seem to encapsulate those worlds within enamel or highly luminous liquid crystal. How do you feel about this?

I don’t intentionally try to make the surface so smooth. I do it because a smooth surface is easier to draw on. For the sake of the feel.
It’s the same for drawings. I use a Japanese paper called “matto sandasu,” a slightly yellowish paper. I use the back side to draw on because it’s smoother than the front.
If I’m not careful, a picture can quickly become gloomy, inward-looking and rather unpleasant. If the surface is rough, its character becomes immediately obvious.
All of this can easily happen with a motif, a facial expression, or a combination of both. When it does, I want to escape from that. To stand clear of it.
As I was answering your question, I made a discovery. That is, the content of what I paint and the texture that I create come from the same place within me, within my intuition.
It’s like having different Japanese names for the same part of the chicken—mune and seseri—both refer to meat in the breast area. Of course, this is probably an obvious point.

A world and a prayer at the same time

I now want to turn to the motifs in your works. Of all the things that interest you, why do you choose to paint children (or what appears to be children), insects and plants? Also, can you talk about the vague sense of depth that I noticed in your backgrounds?

Perhaps I can say the image borrows its shape from the human figure?

It is like a child standing with such and such an expression, in such and such a location.

There is an aspect like that of a natural phenomenon, like a human giving birth to another human.
It’s like this from the beginning, so it cannot be separated even if you try to cut it.
If there is a human, then there exists a place, and at that place other creatures exist as well. All things come with the other.

Human are able to express feelings through facial expressions and hand gestures, and it might be easier to empathize with other people than with animals and plants. You can express much more complicated things with human motifs. You can express even more with the figure of a child.
People are more accepting of a child as a motif.
A face with wrinkles, on the other hand, is a much stronger element, so if I’m going to include such a face, it will have had to come to me from the very beginning. I wonder if I might paint such a face when my own has become wrinkled.

When I am drawing, I sometimes feel as if I were making something like a Buddhist statue or temple. I can only call the picture a “world” and a prayer at the same time, but it also assumes something similar to those in form.
The child in the center is something like Sakyamuni or Bodhisattva, the grass at his feet is his flanking attendants, and the insects, flowers and rocks around him are like the four heavenly kings, eight legions, twelve divine generals and ten great disciples. Even if it isn’t that clear what surrounds a Bodhisattva or Amitabha, a Japanese would intuitively know there would be a couple of Nio figures (Deva kings) at the gate of a temple, a main Buddha at the center of the temple, a small-size Buddha or human figures representing those beings of the Buddhist world, and some plants and animals. Also, that the landscape in the background would not be real and the characters would all be on pedestals.
In my paintings, the flowers and plants seem to take the form of pedestals. Furthermore, figures of the Buddha from ancient times must have been created to express images and prayer by borrowing from the human figure.

A Trinity of Image, Spirit and Words

Perhaps you are like the sculptor who carves wood to reveal the Buddha that resides within. The way you paint while listening to the loud voice of the picture seems to overlap with how Enku, the Buddhist sculptor of the Edo period, used to work.
By the way, when you first started to attract attention, your works were described as “paintings that tell a story.” Regardless of whether the phrase “tell a story” describes your pictures precisely or not, your titles, some of which are quotes from novels, seem to be saying a lot (laughs). Can you tell us how you title your works and what role titles serve?

For me, the title is exactly the same as the image and motif. Words are one of the members that sit at the table from the very start, sipping tea (laughs). The images in my pictures are contiguous with my life; there is no starting or finishing point.
Titles are both a part and the whole at the same time. It is like a trinity consisting of image, spirit and word. I think the idea of a trinity might be the most natural explanation. At any rate, the title is very important.

Words and motifs arise and disappear within my conscious and unconscious on a daily basis. My own words, as well as the words that I quote, seem to be sinking into the same river bed.

Some titles are assemblages of words that have combined in a hazy fashion inside of my brain, while others consist of one specific word. Kai no Hi (fire of the seashell) is taken from Kenji Miyazawa, while Like a fiend hid in a cloud is quoted from Kenzaburo Oe’s novel. Some titles come from songs, such as Where Have All the Flowers Gone? and Zawawa. It’s like diving into the water in search of a small, shining stone, an important stone that once existed there, but which I had almost forgotten. I search for words by going back to the novel, the song or the dictionary.

I consider whether the title is abstract and concrete, in the same way as the painting.
I consider various things about the title: Is there a good balance between the image or technique and the meaning of the words or their sounds. Is it simple? Does it say too much? Most of the time I settled on the first thing that came to me.

Sometimes, I think a picture can exist without a title since it is perceived by the eye. But in the same way that giving a child a name or calling it by that name everyday acts to form the character of that child, so does the title of a picture. So perhaps it is an essential element in the picture’s realization.

Pictures are truly wondrous things

Lastly, there is something I’ve wanted to ask you for a long time. You always call your works “pictures,” not “paintings”. Why is that?

I call them “pictures” because it is easier to say, and I think the word suits them.
Calling them “paintings” is rather snobbish, I think (laughs). But I use the word “picture” to refer to my works, as well as those done by Picasso or by children.

But no matter how you refer to them, pictures are really wondrous to me. They are almost like a god. A picture, even if drawn well, sometimes does not impress us at all. A deformed image sometimes becomes admired throughout the world. An image, even if reproduced exactly from real life or a photograph, sometimes does not work as a picture. With my passion ignited, with one eye on reality and the other on the image, I approach my goal a little at a time, certain that between the acts of nature and the acts of humans lies a picture.

Masako Ando Born in 1976 in Aichi prefecture, Ando received a BA (1999) and MFA (2001) from the Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts and Music. She had her first solo exhibition at Tomio Koyama Gallery in 2004. In 2009, she was invited to participate in the group exhibition Little Playground – Hitsuda Nobuya and His Students at the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art and Nagoya City Art Museum. She currently lives and works in Nagoya.