It's not my responsibility for my (art)work to be didactic
A conversation with Tokyo-based artist Michael Ho and the role contemporary art plays in shedding light on sociopolitical issues.
Once every few years, if you’re lucky, you come across a work of art that consumes every part of your being. It sucks you into its perplexing yet exhilarating nature, it makes you beg for more.
That’s how I felt when I first came across Michael’s work last November at his Tokyo Season 1 exhibition. I was immediately captivated by the dramatic size, the immaculate cubic shapes, and the intensity of his paintings that kept on pulling me in the more I tried to “understand” them.
After leaving his exhibition I eagerly reached out to him, keen to learn more about the person behind this art.
Michael responded and was kind enough to sit down and have a conversation with me about his work and life as an artist in Tokyo. He welcomed me into his studio where we talked about everything from art, politics, academics, and much more.
Michael was born and raised on the Big Island of Hawaii. He comes from a very academic background; his father an engineer and his mother a teacher, and as a result, he has always valued the importance of education. As a child, he used to build and create things with his father which sparked his passion for art at an early age. Though it’s uncommon for Asian families to encourage their children to go into art, Michael's family was different. They have always been supportive of Michael’s work as an artist and as a result, he chose to continue his studies at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). After graduating summa cum laude with a BA in fine arts, he moved to Tokyo at the end of 2018.
I’ve noticed that a lot of your work contains political or sometimes even religious undertones, can you tell me more about that?
“Coming from an art scene that is inherently sociopoliticized, I think that sensibility to integrate some form of sociopolitical agenda in my work has been magnified, especially since living in Japan. I’ve felt that the people around me aren’t talking about what’s going on internationally and locally, even though these are topics that very much affect them.
Japanese millennial education doesn’t really teach students about current social or political issues, and even worse they don’t encourage us to speak up about it, and that’s why it’s important to use artwork as a guiding path to start conversations about these issues.
I don’t agree that the point of contemporary art is to educate. My art can’t make any viewer investigate a topic more than they already want to investigate it themselves. A lot of political art tries to be didactic, it tries to tell you how to feel, but I want my artwork to create a point of investigation, an ambiguous investigation.
I want my artwork to create a point of investigation, an ambiguous investigation.
The way that I phrase and introduce topics within my work is intentionally absurdist and ambiguous. Nothing about my work is specifically informative, because that’s impossible. Instead, I offer the viewer disparate puzzle pieces, pieces that usually don’t go together, and that way it encourages the viewer to try and find a connection themselves.”
I can relate to a lot of what you’re saying. I touch on a lot of soiciopolitical issues through my posts on @blossomtheproject, and I feel like I always have to remind my audience that my posts are just a starting point to have a conversation about a certain topic or issue, it shouldn’t just end there.
“Exactly. What I don’t like in political art is that, if you create a consensus, then the work stops there. It’s important to further investigate a topic, and just keep on going from there.”
What’s your process like when you’re creating art? Where do your ideas come from?
“I have a list on my phone that basically expands every time I drink coffee. All of my ideas come from these random moments that I pick and feel and figure out what works together, visually and conceptually. It’s an endless list of images that I see, pop cultural references or excerpts from the Bible.”
Were you raised in a religious household?
“No, I’m just especially drawn to Christianity and religion because of the role that religion plays in society. You see, an art piece needs to be autonomous. I can’t always be there to tell my viewers how to feel, I can’t educate them about my ideas. The reality is, the boundaries of conceptual navigational work needs to be within the viewer themselves. And using pop culture and biblical references is a gateway. Art is a powerful political tool for activism but it needs to play its cards right, and its strong card is its ability to provoke.”
Art is a powerful political tool for activism but it needs to play its cards right, and its strong card is its ability to provoke.
Where do the shapes and cubes come from in your works?
“They come from this pop cultural figure of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Every civilization, every culture, has a monolith. Every religion has a monolithic use of geometry because of its simplicity but also because of its adherence to non organic form elicits some form of spiritual connection. It’s a tool to create sobriety, a sense of spirituality, it makes people think more about the unknown.”
What are your plans for the future?
“I want to have more people engage with my artwork, I want to expand my reach. Eventually I’d love to become a professor in the arts in Japan because education is such an essential part of my practice. You’re not taught how to make art, you have to be an artist first. Being an artist, to me, means making sure your intervention with your artwork aligns with the real world effect of your work.”
Being an artist, to me, means making sure your intervention with your artwork aligns with the real world effect of your work.
Thank you Michael for allowing me to interview you and share your story!
Connect with Michael
Article and photography by Meg NH