On December 14th, Japan moved one step closed to taking up the sword.
After World War II, the Japanese government wrote a “Peace Clause” into its constitution that forswore a military and the use of force abroad. However, now faced with the rising power of China, some Japanese wish to reassert the martial potential of the world’s 3rd largest economy and 10th largest population. A recent election affirmed the aspirations of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to reinterpret the clause and expand the Japanese military. Now, a new generation of Japanese will soon grapple with two very different ideas of itself: a peaceful and international post-war Japan and a longer martial history that stretches from Imperial Japan to the samurai. As Japan shapes a new identity, one artist has already spent her life exploring her modern identity through her links to Japan’s identity, spiritualism, and history: Miya Ando.
Half-white and half-Japanese, from a clan of swordsmiths-turned-Buddhist priests, Ando’s complex background shapes her metal paintings and sculptures. With five solo shows this past year, and another set to open January 17th, Ando is keeping very busy. I sat down with the artist in her Long Island City studio to discuss the many currents of thought churning beneath her serene titanium, steel and aluminum works.
Top: One of Ando’s Kimonos. Image courtesy of Miya Ando and Sundaram Tagore Gallery.
Ando’s unique upbringing laid the foundations for the themes she now explores. Born to a Russian-American father and Japanese mother, Ando was raised by her mother’s side of the family in their ancestral home of Okayama. From a young age, Ando recalls the strangeness of being non-Japanese in her hometown: “I literally don’t look like anyone in my town. I knew that ever since preschool when I was the only white person in my class.” However, connections to her past were omnipresent: as priests of a Buddhists temple, the Ando family embodies a Japanese emphasis on discipline and familial responsibility. Her cousin, and her grandfather before him, began training for the priesthood as adolescents and expect to pass on their duties to the next generation. Growing up in her family’s temple, Miya was gifted with a loving but historied and disciplined environment, ever mindful of the past. “In a culture that focuses on heritage,” says Ando, “I’m the 16th generation of the family. In the Ando family registry you can see everyone’s name – my name, my sister’s name, the whole family lineage.” However, Ando was also acutely aware of a unique facet of her family’s history, one that ended in the early 19th century: swordsmithing.
Interviewing Ando, I had assumed her family’s present-day adherence to the peaceful tenets of Buddhism might contradict their 19th century bladesmithing history. However, nothing could be farther from the truth. Swordsmiths would frequently engrave bonji characters, or sanskrit specific to Japanese Buddhism, into the parts of the blade hidden underneath the handle. “Samurai culture is very nichiren Buddhist,” the same strain of Buddhism practiced at her family’s temple, and the spiritualism of her forebearers had not faded into the present. “My great-uncles have the family’s swords,” Ando said, “and I didn’t see them often but, as an adult, I learned my family buried the swords” rather than hand them over to the American forces systematically disarming Japan after WWII. “They literally wouldn’t give up their arms: because we’re sword-makers and the swords represent kokoro: spirit, backbone, foundation. Those sort of notions, because I’m mixed, became integral to my understanding of who I was.” Ando continued to explore Buddhism into adulthood, studying Buddhist iconography in undergraduate and graduate school, though she seemed to return to the kokoro of her family when she apprenticed with a sword smith in Japan.
Top, a Japanese blade with its hamon and unpolished tang. Bottom, a lacquered work by Ando. Top image courtesy of Miya Ando, bottom image courtesy Miya Ando and Sundaram Tagore Gallery.
Ando’s gender nearly precludeded her year-long apprenticeship – “It was very close to not happening” – but she began formulating a way to preserve the past traditions and even assimilate them into the present. Her metal paintings require the know-how of modern metallurgy and the focus of medieval artisan smithing. “The surfaces may look bulletproof,” says Ando, “but if you’re not focused and move your hand a bit, it can reflect light differently. Especially with fire and patinas, once second more is a different color.” Ando anodizes the metal, hardening it with acids and electrical currents as NASA and the aerospace industry does, then dyeing the surface to seal in the dazzling sapphire crystals that reveal themselves under bright light. The bespoke colors and materiality of the works are Ando’s unique innovations, ones that recall the hard-earned metallurgical expertise and experimentation that bladesmithing requires.
The hazy and reflective qualities of Ando’s work also directly recall the hamon of a Japanese sword, the cloud-like area of Japanese blades that also result from a complex metallurgical hardening process. The hamon, where life can meet death, is traditionally associated with transcendence, and Ando’s paintings carries equal spiritual weight. She describes the industrial metals as a “foundation for expressing ideas of evanescence: the fleeting light and reflectivity this material generates.” While she doesn’t label her paintings as Buddhist artwork, they aim to “offer a place of quiet or tranquility and speak to an idea of becoming aware of the present. When you have fleeting light and reductive, quiet pictures, I hope what’s put forth is one moment of reflection.” While these paintings anchor her body of work, Ando has recently expanded her metallic art to a new shape, one no less loaded with cultural meaning: the kimono.
Beginning in 2010, Ando was inspired by Samurai armor and traditional Japanese garb to craft these steel and aluminum kimonos. Historically, Samurai armor could be composed of small metallic scales that, when shaken by the wearer, formed a dynamic barrier against arrows. More than just a novel design, armor such as this was repeatedly adorned with the wearer’s family crest, turning it into a platform for self-identification. Fascinated with these ideas, Ando synthesized the armor with a traditional young woman’s kimono. This is a specific outfit that all Japanese women still receive – Ando included – at age twenty. Designed with vibrant colors, long sleeves, and also bearing the family crest, these kimonos immediately advertise a woman’s eligibility. “It delineates your position – it’s totally an identifier,” Ando observed, “You’re married or not, it’s very obvious.” Using her metallurgy to reproduce its vibrant colors, and placing her family crest in several places, Ando’s kimonos become multi-layered meditations on past and present, identity and gender, strength and vulnerability.
Talking with Ando in her studio, the tension and synergy between the past and present aren’t hard to spot. Mounted on the walls are a Buddhist sutra written in calligraphy, a dharmic wheel, and a photograph of the grandmother who fashioned her kimono, all of which preside over industrial dyes, blowtorches, and LED spotlights. Like Ando, Japan finds itself uniquely situated between two identities and eras: one of pacifism and recent history, another of martial strength that stretches back farther. However, if Ando’s studies and creative explorations have demonstrated anything, it’s that identity is a complex and rich affair, not easily boiled down to absolutes and categories. Moreover, it seems Ando’s understanding of Buddhism helped her find a new personal path where she might not have found one otherwise. She describes how her family’s adherence to nichiren Buddhism emphasizes the Lotus Sutra, or the final worlds of Buddha, which say “all being have Buddha nature.” For Ando, “being mixed, that idea became something comforting. It’s an equalizer.” If Japan is picking up the metaphorical sword, then perhaps they can find its own Buddhist bonji and perspective hidden beneath the handle.
Images courtesy of Miya Ando and Sundaram Tagore Gallery.
All text © Zachary Edelson