By Lillian Michiko Blakey
Conceptual art is a genre that’s hard to pin down. Rather than focusing on the physical aspects of piece, conceptualism focuses on the quintessential ideas below the surface of each piece, but the questions it poses aren’t often immediately answered.
For artist Miho Sawada, her journey into this artistic mode began in the 1960s when she left Japan and joined the art world in North America. Encouraged by prominent Canadian artists such as Michael Snow and Paterson Ewen, Sawada embraced conceptual art enthusiastically.
In installation art, which is an aspect of conceptual art, ideas are often only hinted at and the response to the art exists only in the immediate experience. The message is that there is no message without the interaction between the art and the viewer.
That brings us to Miho Sawada. Her most recent outdoor installation is Man on Flagpole, currently at the Artpark 40th Anniversary Exhibition in Lewiston, New York. The work exemplifies the archetypal experience that the genre is known, but Sawada’s work is much more than the interaction between the work and the viewer; she reaches through time and space to connect with her Japanese heritage and values.
According to Miho Sawada, the creation of Man on Flagpole coincided perfectly with the Daimonji Ceremony on August 16, in Kyoto, Japan. “In the Obon season in August,” Sawada explained, “Many people pay respect to their deceased family members and ancestors in Kyoto.”
“The concept of my work, Man on Flagpole,” she explained further, “is based on Daimonji, a traditional Buddhist Fire Ceremony held on the last day of Obon.”
On the observance of this worship, Sawada continued saying that the spirits of the deceased are believed to come back during the Obon season.On the evening of August 16, DAI, constructed with wood and twigs, are placed on the slope of the mountain, is set on fire to send the spirits to heaven.
Miho Sawada states the difference between her Man on Flagpole and the Daimonji. “In my work, however, I am trying to present the state of man at the present time, by placing DAI on top of flagpoles. It is hoped that my work gives viewers an opportunity to reflect on our time and culture in North America, a place on the opposite side of the globe.”
Sawada says, “In my DAI, instead of fire, I have flags which swim along the ripple of the breeze, left, right, up and down; neither belonging to heaven nor earth.”
Aspects of the symbolism in Man on Flagpole show the deterioration which has taken place even in the culture of Japan. The flags are torn. They fade off into the future without a sense of triumph. There is little sense of achievement. Sawada sees our culture driving back to ancient times. “In everything here, you have to excel,” Sawada said during our interview. The problem is knowing which path to follow. Being competitive with your neighbour has not produced a life which is alert to spirituality, she said.
Sawada’s thoughts turn to Japan and the world. Her message is clear: we forget to preserve our culture, forget to care for others, neglect meaningful values and looking after spiritual things. We are losing so much, not just in Japan, but all over the world. “We forget that we exist because you exist,” she said.
Miho Sawada’s Japanese values and tradition were instilled in her long ago by her family of artists. Both her grandfather and great-grandfather were traditional artists. She reflects, “Before I eat, I think about my art.” She reminisces about her life in post-war Japan. “After the war, it was very hard. My mother sold kimonos and jewellery just to get a few grains of rice,” she laughed. “But our house was always full of art.”
The constant theme throughout all of her work is time and space. Success for her is to make people think of what we do to ourselves, now and in the centuries past, and to remind us to keep sight of our relationship with others. Miho Sawada has pointed us in the right direction, leaving us with a rich treasure- house of images, for which we are indebted.