By Jane Chung
Edited by Clara Wu
Boundaries blur as soon as we enter the gallery space. Outside, there are parallel parkers bustling in and out of narrow spaces, pedestrians loitering in and outside of Burger King and bars locked up until dusk. This scenery is available even from within the gallery. The windows lining the front of the gallery allow sun to penetrate, illuminating the white walls and white dress of Masako Miki, our host for the day.
We ask Masako to lead us through the gallery and talk us through her work. Before beginning to speak, she clears her throat thrice. We wait in anticipation. Once she begins, my eyes are immediately drawn to her hands, and the way they take shape in the air with grace and confidence. Many people, when gesticulating during conversation, are careless about their motion. Masako, on the other hand, is deliberate with each movement. She demonstrates the process of needle felting with her hands when explaining her practice; she places her hand on her heart solemnly when speaking of her childhood. Her fingers are precise and steady, and I imagine they are the result of practiced discipline. Masako’s hands are delicate, yet they have tasted hard work and long hours into the night.
There appears to be, in every stroke, thread, cut, and brushstroke of Masako’s work, this same deliberation. For Masako, process is not a means to an end; rather, the process is the end - the ultimate goal of art. We spend some time on the topic, and she describes her decision to use felt as material. "It's a repetitive, mundane, meditative process that I seem to gravitate towards," she explains. Patience and hard work are required in order to transform the felt into artwork. For Masako, this patience and hard work is expected, even celebrated. She recognizes that transformation is not instantaneous; rather, it is a slow process of renewal. This transformation, ultimately, is the goal of art. “Materials formed into something more than material,” Masako offers, is part of the meditative process she chooses to engage with each day. And that is what her show accomplishes - materials transcend to take on higher meaning.
While walking us from piece to piece in this first room, Masako introduces her cast of characters - the fox, the feather, and the ghost. First, the fox - a Shinto deity that not only straddles both the spiritual and mortal worlds, but is also tasked with liaising between the two. Then, there are the ghosts. Yokai, or ghosts, take on physical forms in order to exist in the material world. Sometimes, yokai appear in the form of ordinary household items. In Masako’s work, yokai have appropriated fist-sized, lumpy forms of saturated felt.
While Masako’s felt yokai figurines are intangibly delicate, her father’s art maintained a more prominent permanence in space. In Osaka in the 1970s, Masako’s father worked as a salesman for a company that dealt antique mid-century furnitures as well as traditional Japanese furnitures like the Kiri Wood Tansu - handcrafted artisan chests made of Paulownia wood. Masako was enamored by the ornate detail in the furniture, which included dovetail joinery and traditional iron hardware. Each piece was made by artisans, by hand. And to discover these artisan-made antique works, Masako’s father traveled often across the world to learn and perfect his craft.
After his travels, Masako’s father would recount bedtime stories about the places he went, the people he met, and the artistry he saw. A globe in Masako’s bedroom bore witness to these stories. Wanderlust affected Masako early, and as a young child, she whispered to herself, “There’s something more out there.” As she spun her globe and heard stories of cultures and communities distant from her own, she began to think about the possibility of a life without boundaries. And so Masako enrolled in Catholic high school in order to learn English, and began to plan her move abroad. It all started, she says, with the seed of her father’s stories.
“Shall we?” Masako asks, leading us through a corridor to the next piece in her show. “Please take off your shoes,” the white plaster wall reads, in schoolgirl lowercase cursive. Somewhat clumsily, we peel our shoes away and the three of us stumble into a narrow chamber through a dwarf-sized door. The space is intimate, and Masako’s voice immediately lowers, whispering as not to disturb its sanctity. “Shrine in the Sky”, the piece is titled. Shrines that we usually see and hear of, Masako explains, inspire awe with their grandeur and poise. But in households across Japan, shrines can be unassuming, even indistinguishable from their environments. Some shrines are only marked by a small wooden piece, a torii, or gate. Wherever they are, shrines serve as a dwelling pace for deities, and as such, approaching a shrine signifies approaching a portal - a meeting place at which mortal and divine convene.
Torii, Masako explains, are gates that herald the pathway to a shrine. Once you reach a torii, Masako explains, "You’re out of this material world already." And certainly, the room feels otherworldly. When one enters the space, eyes are immediately drawn to the white, vertically oriented scroll that hangs from the ceiling. The roll of paper spans the height of the room and continues onto the floor. The scroll rolls onto salt, which covers the floor like sand, and inches up towards our bare feet. Salt brings texture to the otherwise sterile surfaces of the room. It feels, indeed, as though we are floating on clouds in the sky. On the scroll is a single column of continuous, circular drops of blue watercolor. The color is distributed in gradient waves, as if a sizable pipette were filled and dropped onto the scroll, left to dry and bleed.
Upward momentum in these circles propel attention to the top of the scroll, where a single lightbulb lights the room. The circles, Masako explains, are the stairs up to the shrine. Notably, there is no shrine in the space - only stairs. It is clear that Masako’s fixation is not with the shrine itself, nor its typically impressive architectures. The stairs may descend forever on the infinite scroll that lies below the sand, below the clouds and sky. The process of ascending the stairs - of embarking - is where true transformation begins.
Embarking, for Masako, was the act of pursuing her fascinations with the world unknown. During high school, Masako decided to study abroad in British Columbia. While away from Japan, Masako had a significant realization: despite the commandments she had inherited from Japanese political, cultural and religious institutions, Masako learned that there is more than one way to live. “That’s when I knew that I was going to leave Japan some day,” she declares. With this decision, Masako greeted the torii and began to climb the stairs towards the work that defines her life today - cultural transliteration through art.
Masako leaves us for a few moments to greet a gallery guest. We stand, facing the stairs. The space is solitary, as the lights and sounds outside of the temporary plaster walls are obscured. We linger for some time, and Masako allows us that time. Spending time in that space and imagining oneself being lifted towards the sky, one cannot orient oneself on a map, but simply feels miles and realms away from San Francisco.
When we climb out of the room, Masako is waiting, patiently, to carry us onwards toward the last pieces of her show. Upon entrance into the final space of the gallery, all senses confirm that we have entered into an altogether different realm. Darkness pervades, punctured only by concentric beams of light emanating from low-hanging lanterns. A few more guests join us to hear Masako speak about the work. Immediately, she takes on a more formal role as guide, making eye contact with each party to detail the event of Obon. Obon, Masako explains, is a yearly Japanese festival that marks the descent of spirits upon the earth. They arrive to visit their relative from lives already past. Lanterns light and guide the spirits back home.
As such, the work is called “A Way Home”. And what Masako doesn’t express, but becomes quickly evident, is that the lanterns, the foxes, the shrines, ghosts, and feathers- these forms and the processes which create these forms, are all a way home, too, for Masako. When I ask Masako about where home is, she replies, “I don’t think I will ever have the answer.” Masako has been living in the Bay area longer than she’s lived in Japan, and jokes that while she slowly loses her grasp of the Japanese language, her English skills remain intermediate at best. San Francisco Bay or small subsidiary suburb of Osaka, Masako has built a home for herself (she chooses the word “build”), somewhere in between, but also in her art.
But it’s difficult to be away from her roots. Masako confides, “The more I’m away from where I’m from, I miss the country so much. That’s part of the reason why I’m making this.” I take “all of this” to mean her art, which has become, and forced Masako, as well, to become a foreign ambassador of Japanese culture.
Suddenly, we discover a fox peeking out from the far wall. It appears translucent, almost as if an apparition, and rests on a sheet of paper that visibly protrudes from the wall, with the texture of paper once dyed, now dried. Masako takes advantage of the opportunity to gives us another lesson in material. Japanese paper, in particular, which she used to house her lanterns, is fragile but durable. I cannot help but conclude that Masako’s fascination with Japanese paper is rooted in the resonance its qualities have with her own character. Masako’s disposition is kind and gentle, but if I have learned anything from her in the three hours she graciously spent with us that day, Masako Miki is a formidable woman. I am fiercely inspired by the will of a young person who, at only 18 years of age, decided to leave her home in pursuit of a foreign land of foreign people speaking a foreign language. Masako, when describing many elements of her work, but particularly paper, delights in what she calls “the synthesis of two different ideas that exist in characters.” Paper is delicate, but durable - as is Masako.
Proof of Masako's strength is her resolute desire to connect with others, despite obvious obstacles. During college, art became a tool, or a language, through which Masako could communicate to others with whom she had no connecting tissue. It is no wonder that Masako is drawn to the fox in her art work. Over time, Masako Miki has become a fox, a messenger that straddles two different cultures, carrying thought and understanding to and from the two realms.
It is difficult to believe the consistency of Masako across her character, her philosophies, cultures, process, materials and content of her art work. But it is because her philosophies and cultures are so firmly grounded in her being, that they are amplified so strongly in her craft. Perhaps the consistency of her culture and philosophy in her process and work is proof of Masako’s theory that the metaphysical and physical worlds are inextricably linked - that one cannot exist without the other. Masako cannot produce material which does not contain the ideas she holds dear. At the same time, she cannot maintain ideas and philosophy without manifesting it in her physicality, character, and work. In Masako's art, boundaries between the spiritual and material realms are permanently blurred. “When there are less boundaries, you get to connect with place and people,” she says.
A will to connect with place and people is what drew Masako to the United States, and later, to art. And to connect with place and people, Masako believes, is to be human. In her work and her character, Masako succeeds in not only connecting to places and to people, but also in connecting people to places far outside of their imagination. Certainly, she succeeds in doing so on this day.
Special thanks to Aimee and Alia at CULT|Aimee Friberg Exhibitions.
about the artist
Masako Miki is a mixed media artist whose work is inspired by nature, animals, and their relationship. She explores themes of metamorphosis, evolution, and transformation through animal motifs using their behaviors as metaphors for human psyche. Miki has exhibited throughout the Bay area at venues including Headlands Center for the Arts, the Berkeley Art Museum, Kala Art Institute, and Root Division Gallery. She has been a resident artist at The Wassaic Project (Wassaic, NY), Vermont Studio Center (Johnson, VT), Project 387 (Gualala, CA), Kamiyama Artists in Residency (Tokushima, Japan), Facebook Artist in Residence (Menlo Park, CA). Miki is scheduled for the Artist in Residence Program at the de Young Museum in 2016. Miki is a native of Japan, now living and working in Berkeley, California. She received her MFA from San Jose State University, and is an adjunct faculty at University of California, Berkeley. Miki is represented by CULT|Aimee Friberg Exhibitions in San Francisco.