Japanese artist Miya Hannan explores ideas of death in “Stories of Urns”, running until 22 November 2017 at Fort Collins’ 3 Square Art Gallery.

Art Radar interviews material-driven artist Miya Hannan, who in her latest solo exhibition dives deeper into the concept of death, and how cultural views about it affect the living.

Miya Hannan, ‘The Story of the Sphenoid Bone’, 2017, ceramics, epoxy, bone ash, ash on paper, size variable. Image courtesy the artist.

Miya Hannan, ‘The Story of the Sphenoid Bone’, 2017, ceramics, epoxy, bone ash, ash on paper, size variable. Image courtesy the artist.

3 Square Gallery’s exhibition “Stories of Urns” running until 22 November 2017, debunks two things: that the theme of death is cliché and that the use of new materials is a cover-up for an artist’s shortage of ideas. How Miya Hannan, the featured artist, manages to avoid falling into these usual traps has a lot to do with her background.

Born in Japan, Hannan first pursued medical technology and even worked in a hospital for seven years before entering the world of visual arts. According to her, this career shift was not something she foresaw; but definitely, her previous profession is not a period in her life that she regrets, as her art is profoundly nurtured by it.  

What is interesting about her experience working in the hospital is it caused the artist to have an optimistic view instead of a melancholic or traumatic one. Hannan notes that her former patients and their families were more hopeful and had a better understanding about life and death than those not dealing with tragedies.

Miya Hannan, ‘Conversations 2’, 2017, ceramics, plastic, paper 40 in x 22 in x 18 in. Image courtesy the artist.

Miya Hannan, ‘Conversations 2’, 2017, ceramics, plastic, paper, 40 x 22 x 18 in. Image courtesy the artist.

Such light mood echoes in her drawings, sculptures and installation in “Stories of Urns”. Instead of presenting death as a harsh and inevitable ending, Hannan’s black and white forms project ideas of continuation, passing-on, re-sprouting, attachment and inconclusive states.

In her conversation with Art Radar, the artist, who is also a university professor, touches on the beginnings of her art career and her process, her time dealing with hospital patients and Japanese views on death.

First of all, congratulations on your solo exhibition at the 3 Square Gallery. Could you talk a bit about the exhibited collection? We know that repetition and layering are part of your practice. What have you done differently for this exhibition and what does the venue/gallery space bring to your work?

Thank you. I appreciate Art Radar taking time to interview me. This exhibition is from my body of work “Stories of Urns”, which encompasses stories around Japanese cremation urns. I believe that every dead person, in some way, exists around us, as memories, stories, knowledge and genetic codes, creating layers of rich histories that also enhance people’s lives. This exhibition is an exploration of changing visual forms as a metaphor for the changes of states in human existence.

Repetition and layering are one of the important processes in my artwork as metaphors for lives that come and go, and for the layers of human histories. Because I am Japanese, I feel a sense of power in repetition. For example, running every morning takes stronger will than running a long distance one day. The collection or accumulation of smaller units could be powerful. I used urns this time for repeated elements, which I have never used before.

All my solo exhibitions have been in California. I have wanted to bring my idea to other areas of the United States. This is my first exhibition outside California. I thought Colorado would be a more progressive state to bring my Asian-influenced art to. Not all galleries want to show a large scale installation or my kind of theme. I would like to thank 3 Square Gallery for having my exhibition.

Miya Hannan, ‘Stories of the Urn 2’; 2017, charcoal and watercolor on paper, 41 in x 26 in. Image courtesy the artist.

Miya Hannan, ‘Stories of the Urn 2’, 2017, charcoal and watercolor on paper, 41 x 26 in. Image courtesy the artist.

Art Radar is curious about your career move from the field of medical science to the visual arts. Has this always been your career plan? Did you dabble in the arts as a young girl? What factors convinced you to become a full-time artist?

No, it was not my plan at all though I did like crafts and arts since I was young. I have loved human anatomy since I was a child, so it was natural for me to have a career in a medical field. I came to the United States to attend a community college to learn English, and I meant to go back to Japan and continue to work for a hospital after 2 years. However, I took a drawing class as a general education elective, and that was it. After 7 years, I had earned an MFA in Art.

You mentioned in your artist’s statement that your work is influenced by your interactions with patients. What are your strongest memories from your career as a medical professional?

The strongest influence I had from working in a medical field were the words that came out from patients who struggled. Many people who had to deal with difficult health conditions changed the way they viewed the world. They still found happiness regardless of their disadvantages, and said such valuable comments to me that would not have come from healthy people. After recognising these people’s strong mentality, I quit making excuses for anything. Their tough, mature attitudes also made me grow.

Did you find the transition difficult, considering that your previous career involved daily interactions with patients as opposed to an artist’s life which has many moments of isolation?

I loved interacting with patients, but my nature is anti-social. It felt great to be in my studio alone as soon as I became an artist. I very much enjoy quiet time alone. I am human, so, of course, I do need some interaction with people. I teach at a university, and interacting with students and colleagues gives me enough socialisation.

Miya Hannan, “Stories of Urns”, 31 October – 22 November 2017, installation view at 3 Square Gallery. Image courtesy the artist.

Miya Hannan, “Stories of Urns”, 31 October – 22 November 2017, installation view at 3 Square Gallery. Image courtesy the artist.

Could you talk a bit about the materials and techniques you work with? Through the years, you have integrated bone ash, phonebook pages, tree branches and fabric in your art. Do you have a set criteria for choosing materials? Are you always on the lookout for new materials as an artist? How do you know if your materials are in sync with the narratives you would like to convey?

I am very material driven. Materials have personality and many times have a connection to locations, history and space. I like the idea that each material has its own unique voice and that I can work with that specific voice. As an artist, I constantly keep myself open to new materials having my concept in mind. For example, I knew that I wanted to use a list of actual people in my work to represent identities of numerous people. None of the lists satisfied me for a while. One day, I saw telephone books sitting in front of my studio, and it clicked. I also use materials that are valued in my culture such as bone ash and cremation urns. When researching why these are important for Japanese people, I start having interest in them.

Could you share with our readers a Japanese death-related superstition that you often replay and question in your head? Does this directly influence any of your works in the 3 Square Gallery show?

My grandfather died on my birthday. Subsequently, my relatives often told me that he was with me or he was protecting me. They believe in the soul or spirit of the dead and are connected with their ancestors through this idea. The souls go to the land of the dead, but in the middle of every August, they come back to this world and stay with the living for three days. This is one of the biggest holidays in Japan. Even though my scientific background might lead me to doubt these superstitions, growing up with the culture and relatives seeing my grandfather on my shoulder, I have never questioned my respect for my ancestors. I often have conversations with my grandfather. I view these death-related superstitions as a way of making people respect and remember their ancestors. I recently lost my grandmother too, and when preparing this exhibition, I was thinking of my grandparents and how they still exist in me.

Installation view of Miya Hannan, ‘The Story of the Sphenoid Bone’, 2017, ceramics, epoxy, bone ash, ash on paper, size variable. Image courtesy the artist.

Miya Hannan, ‘The Story of the Sphenoid Bone’, 2017, ceramics, epoxy, bone ash, ash on paper, size variable. Image courtesy the artist.

We want to know how you begin your sculptures and installations. Do you start with some form of a sketch or study? Or are you more of a spontaneous artist, who lets forms grow organically – which is the impression we get from most of your pieces?

The quick answer is “both”. My exhibitions always contain drawings, sculptures and an installation. Normally, I start a body of work with drawings. The spontaneous and casual qualities of drawings allow me to do problem-solving quickly and clarify my concept. I would like to have a clearer idea by the time I move on to sculptures, since they take time for me to see the results. For this body of work, however, I had a vision of urns within a field of bone ash, so both the drawings and the installation happened at the same time and both fed each other during development. I spend a good deal of time researching my subjects before starting studio work. The vision for the installation came to me while reading about urns and bones.

What are your upcoming projects and what would you like audiences to take away from your 3 Square Gallery exhibition?

I have two more solo exhibitions after this, and I’m showing the same body of work. However, I would like to develop this body of work further by adding another element to the installation and making more drawings.

My artwork, for the last 12 years, has been driven from my experiences working within the medical field in Japan, and it represents my understanding of the importance of accepting death on a larger level. According to Sok K Lee, MD, MA, many immigrants from East Asian cultures in the United States feel uncomfortable near death, because their American physicians are not familiar with their traditions.

In this diverse country, respect for each other’s cultures and beliefs has become more important than ever. My goal in my exhibitions is to deliver to people an idea that there are various ways of dealing with death in the world and to allow them a moment to think about human fate.

Javelyn Ramos


Related Topics: Japanese artists, painting, installation, gallery shows, events in the USA

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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