The Setsuko Ono Conversation

24 April 2018

You have just completed your inaugural London Exhibition at Asia House. Can you tell us how it went?

I think the exhibit went well. A large number of people attended the private view and the talk I had with Professor Gladstone. We did not keep a record of how many people came to the exhibit on average, but it felt as though we had a good turnout.

We have read that you were encouraged to pursue an art career by your brother-in-law, John Lennon. Is this true and if so how did it come about?

Yes. It is true. John came to visit me with my sister and his son. When he saw my sculptures, he said that I should seriously pursue my passion. He meant that I should leave the World Bank. I did not leave my job, but it encouraged me to pursue my “hobby” then with even more passion.


Do you think that the artistic thread is a natural for your family?

I do not know if artistic thread is natural for my family. Certainly, my family had many artists. My father’s regret of becoming a banker instead of a professional pianist. My mother’s sadness for not being able to become a professional painter although her teacher, a famous painter, thought she could. Art was something that was respected in our household almost as much as life.

There are two major aspects to your current work – fine steel sculptures and colourful oil and acrylics. Steel initially seems like a very masculine substance – heavy and solid – we think of Richard Serra or Antony Gormley. What was your attraction?

My attraction to steel was that instead of representing “strength, solidity, and weight” it can represent fragility, lightness, and movement. It does not carve out space for itself, but it can be made to melt into the environment.


Do you have a specifically female approach to the physicality of the material?

That is possible because I am a woman, and I love to be a woman. This was especially taught to me by my mother… the beauty and strength of women.


Do you enjoy getting ‘down and dirty’ with all the metal-working tools? Have you found some new muscles you didn’t know about!?

Yes, I enjoy working with steel. In the beginning I did a lot of weight lifting in the gym because my arms were very fragile.

Your paintings vary from abstract through to surreal and figurative. Can you describe to us what currently inspires you.

I am inspired by my everyday life: my emotions, my reaction to local and international news, my delight in changing seasons. The light, the smell, of outdoors.

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Many works make political comments with references to the conflicts in Syria and the Middle East. Is it important to you to make your art relevant?

It is the viewers who make my art relevant. Since I do not know who the viewers would be, I paint only what I feel deeply.

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Another John that has been an influence is John Cage. Can you describe how meeting him and attending his concerts has influenced how you work?

The first time and the only time I met John Cage, I may have been 13 years old. I attended a concert, 4minutes 33seconds. I was on the first row looking at a big orchestra on the stage. There was total silence except for coughs, shuffling of the audience. Toshi Ichiyanagi, a Japanese composer, explained to me later, that the music was the sound of the environment, happening then and there. I was very impressed, looking at the stage with completely still musicians and turning around and seeing the audience, slightly uneasy.

Then I forgot all about it until years later when I started my artwork.  For some reason, I kept on telling myself that art work must be created by chance, happenstance, and involving what was happening now. But I did not know where this conviction came from since no one told me about this and I had not read any books about it. Only when I went to see Gerhard Richter’s retrospective exhibit in Paris, I understood. He was also influenced by John Cage.


Have these acts of chance and happenstance led you in new directions that have surprised you?

As soon as I mastered the different techniques of painting and sculpture, I began to rely on chance and happenstance.

What is the next important event we should look out for?

True to my tendency not to plan ahead I do not know. I have been asked to do a sculpture in a park in New York in 2019.

For more information visit Setsuko Ono’s website here