FictionFinder: A conversation with Masahito Ono
Masahito Ono (b. 1983, Japan) is an artist who lives and works in New York. Ono creates works that investigate and represent the process of transformation of nature and human life. His projects examine structures of time, memory, and the production of experience and knowledge by engaging with: archival materials; individual and collective narratives; poetry and history that span cultural and national borders. He received his MFA from Parsons School of Design in 2015. Prior to moving to New York, he was an international video journalist based in Asia, working for global media organizations for a decade. Ono has received awards including: NYFA IAP, New York (2018); Triangle Arts Association Artists-in-Residence, New York (2017); 2nd place winner - International Photographer of the Year (2015); 1st place and Gold Star Award in Fine Art - Neutral Density Photography Awards (2015). His works have been shown extensively around the world including: Wild, Wild Earth - Ford Foundation Live Gallery, New York (2019); 38th EVA International - Ireland's Biennial of Contemporary Art, Limerick (2018); Push Pull - Arnold and Sheila Aronson Gallery, New York (2015); Auckland Festival of Photography, NZ (2014, 2015); So Many Things Don't Know - MUSEE F for The Month of Photography Tokyo (2014); Ping Yao International Photo Festival, China (2013); among many others.
I had the opportunity to interview Masahito on his latest project for which he collaborated with the MIT Space Exploration Initiative.
[FICTIONMAPPER] Thank you Masahito Ono, for this interview. Could you share something about your latest project? [MO] Just two weeks before Covid-19 lockdown in New York, I was once again standing at Kennedy Space Center, where I previously saw the space shuttle Endeavor STS-130 launched into the sky in 2010. Exactly 10 years later, this time I watched the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched into the cloudless starry night sky, sitting on a bench 3.4 miles away from the Launch Complex 40, with my friend and my artist colleagues. As the second stage of the rocket disappeared from my eyesight, I said, “have a safe trip” to the artworks on board the spacecraft. I wanted to go home and cry, but we decided to gather for a drink. I had one of the most beautiful evenings in my life being surrounded by the beautiful souls. Those who warm my heart, remind me that Arts matters and talk about the dreams and the future.
Nothing, Something, Everything (2020) is my most recent project that I collaborated with MIT Media Lab’s Space Exploration Initiative that went on board SpaceX CRS-20 to and from the International Space Station in low Earth orbit. This project imagines the future of the Earth's climate and our behavior on this planet. A cylinder-shaped magnet that points back to Earth’s magnetic North and South in absence of gravity, regardless of its location, is a metaphor of longing and belonging. A roll of Minox subminiature camera film containing the 2016 Paris Agreement and other climate documents reveal more about ourselves than the messages Voyager spacecraft could carry. 1cc of Parisian air that I sampled at the city where the COP 21 delegates had met, invisible inside a capsule, is never to be unsealed by the people on Earth. Under the ongoing stay-at-home order in New York, until the Dragon spacecraft returned to Earth on April 7th, I gazed up at the night sky from my balcony in Queens and followed the moving star with my eyes and with my camera until it disappeared into darkness of the night sky. I have not been able to concentrate on making works or talking about art, but I am preparing for the day I can share the story.
[FICTIONMAPPER] What is your background as an artist? [MO] When I moved to New York in 2013, I was not an artist. I had been working as a news cameraman/producer in Japan for a decade and I traveled around Asia covering natural disasters to heavy political topics. Looking back, I think it was a privilege that I had spent my 20s in such an environment. Asia was changing rapidly at the time and it still is. But it remains true that I had been feeling uneasy about covering stories for the news agencies. I wanted to explore the other way of storytelling and that is how I came to be an artist. Now it feels like I am living in a different world; more painful, more difficult, emotionally more consuming and financially poorer but emotionally richer? I hope so. Yet, I cannot forget the encounters I had with the artworks that made my heart pound or ache and changed my way of life. Very few, but there are works that do that.
[FICTIONMAPPER] What was your inspiration behind your work Alone Together?
[MO] “1. The Earth and Moon are linked together by a force of mutual attraction called gravity; thus, behave as a single system.
2. This system could be compared to a dumbbell with a heavy weight on one end and a lighter weight on the other end (illustrated above). A dumbbell weighted in this manner would have a center of balance (or center of gravity) closer to the heavier end. For the unbalanced dumbbell to spin smoothly, it must be rotated about the center of balance.
3. The Earth-Moon system resembles the unbalanced dumbbell. The Earth compares to the heavy weight and the Moon to the lighter weight. Gravitational force replaces the connecting bar.”
I quoted these three paragraphs from an Apollo era NASA document explaining the Earth-Moon system. It was at first not meant to be an artwork. I saw myself in these three paragraphs after losing someone forever. This is about losing. Losing someone, something or losing yourself. But that was how it began and not what I wanted to write the story about.
[FICTIONMAPPER] Who are your biggest influences?
[MO] Felix Gonzales-Torres and On Kawara are the two artists I was strongly influenced by. Presence of both - presence and absence is what interests me. Beyond that, I am not going to mention the name, but there is a person who is a mentor/father like figure to me. It is not exaggerating to say that all the important things I know about art and art making I learned from him.
[FICTIONMAPPER] What is the best advice you’ve received? [MO] “Make a good work” remains the best advice I have received. I have received an MFA education myself and I still have occasional encounters with current art students. While especially at school, we are all keen to figure out the way to become a professional artist (those who make a living out of creating, showing and selling artworks) but making good work comes first and people tend to forget this. So I remember this advice as a reminder to myself. I believe the person who said this also wanted to remind us of that.
[FICTIONMAPPER] Which was the most challenging/ favorite project?
[MO] Nothing, Something, Everything (2020) was particularly challenging. Since they were a spacecraft payload, we could not just use anything to create an artwork. The itemized and broken down to every detail payload data (materials, dimensions, mass properties, safety data and more) had to be submitted to NASA for a review. For an artist like myself who does not have a scientific or aerospace engineering background in particular, this project could not have been possible without working together with The Media Lab’s Space Exploration Initiative that has prior knowledge and experiences with spacecraft payload. It was in a true sense, a collaboration between art and science.
I spend a lot of time thinking and therefore I do not have a large volume of works. This sometimes becomes a problem because it is not economical. My favorite project is the one in which we launched into space in March. Now at this postflight moment, I am thinking how best it could be presented this time on Earth to the Earthlings. I always tend to like the most recent work, because I am never satisfied.