Masahito Ono is a Japanese-born artist living and working in Brooklyn, NY. Ono creates installations, photographs and outer space projects that capture the transience of nature and human life. He endeavors to rediscover the questions of existence and culture by intertwining poetry, science, history and philosophy. After 10 years of professional career as an international video journalist based in Asia, Ono came back to the U.S. and received his MFA from Parsons School of Design. His works have been shown extensively around the world, and Ono has been participating in several art projects for the International Space Station since 2020.
Thank you for joining us, Masahito. Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I was born in my mother’s peaceful hometown called 静間 (Shizuma) in Shimane prefecture of Japan. I was raised in Tokyo and Kobe. Went to school in the U.S. and I studied film for my undergrad. Came back to Japan and I worked in the news agencies as a producer and cameraman for about 10 years. I was always on the road somewhere in Asia filming the news stories. I spent my 20s observing firsthand the rapid changes and growth of Asia. At the age of 29, I had an urge to do something different. Perhaps, it was an urge to tell my own stories, so I came back to the U.S. and studied art. I received an MFA from Parsons School of Design in 2015 and I have been creating my own art since. I have also been working as a photographer, videographer, project manager, exhibition designer and a curator.
What brings you to art?
There are masterpieces in art. Finding them was a life changing experience, so I wanted to create something like that myself. It has to do with my personality as well. Art is how I communicate, and where I try to make sense of the world.
What ideas are you exploring in your creative practice?
I like art that is always changing, that is in the mode of becoming, therefore, living in the present moment. On the basis of it is the philosophy of embracing change, nature and letting go. I also often echo my thoughts with someone like Albert Camus. He said, “the world in its essence is unhappy that we need to create some joy, because the world is unjust we need to work towards justice, and because the world is absurd, we must provide it with all its meaning.” I think art still has a function to serve in today’s world.
You’ve been very active during the past few years. What is the most exciting thing you’ve done or accomplished so far?
I don’t think I’m a very active artist. I’m known as an artist with very few output. This is probably because I do not work with a specific medium. The idea must come first and then I look for the best medium to communicate the idea. So a lot of production time is spent inside my brain, just trying to make sense of the world (in other words, being confused).
But it is true that 2020 became a milestone for my artistic career. With the MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative and the 8 other artist groups, I brought my 3 art projects to outer space – to the International Space Station in Low-Earth Orbit. I also currently have one of the 3 projects back onboard the ISS again. So if someone asks me where he or she can see my work, I point at the sky and smile.
I am not going into the details of the projects, but it was also meaningful to me in the sense that it was a “liberation” — a freeing from all sorts of gravitational pull. It has given me the eyes to look at the world and ourselves from a cosmic perspective. It allowed me to not think about art as we know and the art market as we know. I made myself completely free from all the external pressure. I think it was a very good project and we had a truly inspiring team to work with.
Thankfully, I have been getting opportunities to exhibit my works more often in Europe these days. I just completed a new installation in Bucharest, Romania. I like being able to show work outside of the U.S. and to engage with another culture and people. I always learn a lot from the visits I make to Europe.
How do you define “success” in art?
Success is when and where your creation becomes a bridge between the past and the future. You become inspirational to the future generations and at the same time you’re engaging in a dialogue with those who came before you. Does this make sense?
If your question is about the successful quality of art, I often consider the presence and the functions of poetry in art. I think we live in a time where we are being overwhelmed with too much “in your face” art in the world. Also, the whole experience of life and art has become extremely retinal. As a result, we are losing the ability to use our other senses. I’m more interested in art that can touch people and promote empathy than art that’s telling you or showing you what to think. And to do that, poetry is the key.
What does “community” mean to you? Has your local community inspired you as a creative?
This is a difficult question. I think I am more intrigued with thinking about humanity as a whole. I know some artists are deeply rooted in a local community and I think that’s wonderful. But there also has to be artists who are looking at the world and where we all belong to rather than just where you or I belong to. It’s a bigger picture of the world.
I’m probably more of a lone wolf in the art-world. I don’t have a studio space. I rarely show up at the openings. I don’t necessarily hang out with art people all the time. I go to concerts more often than I go to museums. I don’t belong to any particular Japanese or Asian community. The art-world is a small bubble on its own. I share my time, thoughts and ideas with a few selective groups of people. I love and cherish my friends, and they are inspirational human beings. Oh, I also make friends in history.
Is there any advice that you would offer to others?
It might make you laugh to hear me say the best advice I ever received from someone is, “make good art.” This advice came to me in the early days of my career from a very well-known artist. It’s possible that he had thought my work was not good enough back then.
I would give the same advice to everyone. Because I want people to take a moment and think more carefully about his/her own art, before getting distracted by thinking about their careers and how to fit into the art market. It’s very easy to have 5 minutes of fame in your career. But if you are thinking about continuously achieving the same level of productivity over the period of 10 years, 20 years or 50 years, you really need to build your core muscles. You need patience, endurance, the ability to trust yourself and take good care of yourself. “Make good art” that he said to me was probably also meant to tell me, “Prepare yourself for a long journey ahead.” This advice is filled with love and care, so I think it’s a good one.
text & photo courtesy of Masahito Ono