Yumiko Ono’s work confronts the idea of ‘utopia’, presenting us with structures that evade the ideas of typical architecture. Her use of ceramics and paper in uncommon and unique formations means that her buildings exist in the imaginative, artistic realm, rather than a practical one.
Could you explain the thought process behind these materials? Are you trying to create a reversal, almost turning buildings inside out?
I’m not an architect. I love seeing plans, for example, but I see them as pictures and architecture almost as a gigantic sculpture. My central theme is ‘utopia’, a place which doesn’t exist in the real world, but only exists in art. By combining two opposite elements, which is architecture and anti-architectural materials, I can express the fictionality and fragility of the utopia itself. It looks like architecture but it’s not at all: it’s contrary to architecture.
When I think of utopia I think of a dream place, an ideal. You put it as a place that doesn’t exist, which makes it seem almost unachievable. Are you saying that in a pessimistic way?
When you say ‘utopia’ in the Western way, people compare it with ‘dystopia’, and it has socialist connotations. In the East, we have a similar type of utopia, but it comes from an old Chinese fable which has nothing to do with socialism but is about an imaginary, beautiful place. I am combining this socialist element visually, but it’s based on the understanding that it is only happening in artwork.
How do you grapple with the distinction between practicality and emotion when linking architecture with art?
Well for me, architecture is like the ultimate form of art. Imagine a big church – it has everything going on inside. It’s not only a building but it combines paintings, music and religion all in one space. So I believe that architecture is just a very extravagant sort of art form. It is true that it is very practical at the same time, but mine isn’t.
You’ve created art all over the world and often use materials that are specific to the region. Did you pick up anything specific in Edinburgh that helped you with this piece?
First of all, this composition series is the first one I have done on such a large scale. Before this I was slowly enlarging my work, but had no knowledge of building things. In the Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop they had amazing staff who knew a lot about wood, and artists who knew how to make structures, so it was really fascinating to learn how to build big things. Something else I started doing here was experimenting with a more free style, instead of using moulds.
So your art has had the same sort of theme – but have you changed the way you approach it?
Yeah, I’ve started to be more tolerant of nonperfection. I think it’s quite nice. Recently, my work has not been so ‘perfect’ but still contains a sense of order – between order and disorder.
Have your goals and motivations changed too?
Yeah, I started as a painter. I came to Scotland twenty years ago as an exchange student, actually as a painter! I always thought I could never do anything in 3D. The biggest difference between painting and installation work is that if it’s painting, whatever you create only exists within that painting and you can create whatever comes into your imagination. But if it’s a real object, there are so many complexities, right? There’s the gravity issue, what kind of materials you use, how you hang it, it’s just much more connected to reality and to other people as well. It’s not something you can do by yourself.
So how come you prefer sculpture?
I found that painting was too limited for me. Sculpture was exciting. I loved being connected to so many different factors. It’s kind of nice to be restricted in a way. You can’t let your imagination run wild – you have to have some control. That’s more challenging than letting yourself be totally free to create whatever. I just found painting kind of boring in the end.
Seeing as you work in a lot of different places and create art all over the world, what does belonging mean to you?
Belonging was actually my theme eight years ago, because I had been moving from one country to another for quite a few years. Then I actually lost my home when one of my parents passed away, and I had such a huge urge to find a new one. Eventually I realised that I had been moving from place to place to find an ideal as an artist. I didn’t feel comfortable living in Japan because it’s a very conservative country, and I was an outsider anyway so nobody really treated me as a real Japanese citizen. Then I hit upon this idea: what about just making this ideal place by myself, rather than finding it in the real world?
Do you have any plans moving forward?
I just want to go bigger and bigger and continue enlarging my work. I want to do pseudo architecture on a larger scale, not just with ceramic and paper, but on a real-life scale.
Yumiko’s exhibition, Composition IV, will be shown at Summerhall as part of FORM: a season of exhibitions by contemporary female sculptors.
All photo credits: Ross Fraser McLean