Setsuko Ono: Her Way

Portrait of Setsuko Ono.
Setsuko Ono, Aleppo, Pastel and collage on canvas, 76 x 101, 2016.
Setsuko Ono, Victory, 1996. Apple Wood, 129.5 x 68.6 x 35.6
Setsuko Ono, Migrants, 2016, stainless steel, 67 x 79 x 79.
Setsuko Ono, Monsters of Our Civilization 1, 2009. Acrylic on butchers’ paper, 64.7 x 62.2.
Setsuko Ono, Monsters of Our Civilization 2, 2009, acrylic on butchers’ paper, 90 x 62.2
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Setsuko Ono discuss her 28-year career at the World Bank, growing up in an artistic family and seeking refuge in art.

TEXTS: Christie Lee
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist

Portrait of Setsuko Ono.

 

Setsuko Ono was one of very few who could claim that a career in the arts was the rule rather than exception. Born in Tokyo and raised in Japan and the United States, the foreign policy expert-turned-artist grew up in an culturally-inclined household: her father played the piano, an uncle was a painter, while a second one was a sculptor. Then there is her older sister, Yoko Ono, who first made headlines with Cut Piece (1964) in New York during the 60s.

But the young Ono had her eyes set for a career in politics.

“When I was a child, I was drawing with crayons, but you know, it was nothing serious,” says the artist as we meet at her serviced apartment in London. In town for her solo exhibitions at the Daiwa Foundation and Asia Foundation, Ono, still nursing a cold, was soft spoken but eloquent.

 

Setsuko Ono, Aleppo, Pastel and collage on canvas, 76 x 101, 2016.

 

After spending her high school years in New York, Ono returned to Japan, where she read English Literature at the University of the Sacred Heart in Tokyo – “it was the strongest department at my school,” she shrugs, smiling. “I don’t think I’m enjoying London because I’m sick. I can’t go out, not even to the Lake District, where some of my favourite poets resided.” But the event that was to determine her life course was closer to home – her father’s stroke. “My father was a banker, but he’d always wanted to become a pianist. All my childhood, I heard him play, but after the stroke, he couldn’t play anymore. I reacted to it very emotionally,” says Ono, whose first name translates to ‘melody child’ in Japanese. “Back then, I thought my father, being a banker, was contributing to society, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps.” A Masters in International Relations and PhD in Political Science at the Graduate Institute Geneva ensued. There, she met Piero Gleijeses, an Italian-born expert in Cuban foreign policy and future husband. “He was a genius, but very strange. Every time the teacher asks a question, he already had his hand up,” the artist fondly recalls. “You know, in Japan, he would be a real show-off.” But the two fell in love and got married in Italy. Gleijeses secured a teaching post at John Hopkins International School of Studies as an assistant professor and Ono entered the World Bank. “Well, I figured I had to do something with my life,” she chuckles lightly.

During a 28-year career, Ono climbed her way from a loan officer to senior advisor at the Vice President’s Office. To say it was challenging work would be an understatement – “you take a long time to write a good investment project, but due to political changes or other external factors, the target can’t be met.” There was also the sexism. “I was West Africa for a work trip, and there were these men from France, Italy, Africa…and you could tell that they wondered what a woman was doing in their midst.”

To combat the stressful work life, she turned to a childhood interest, signing up for art courses at the Corcoran School of Art and Design in Washington. But still, her political career came first.

It wasn’t until 2003 when, formally retired from the World Bank, did she begin to take her art seriously. The same year, she brought six sculptures to the 8th Havana Biennale in Cuba. Ono experimented with every single material there was, but saved steel for last. “I was scared of using the shearing machine. But when I started working with steel, I loved it. With wood and stone, you have to converse with the material, understanding exactly where you can or cannot chisel. With the steel sheets I was working with, I could draw whatever I like. John Cage once said, art should not be designed previous to art-making, it should be a moment’s reaction.”

“I cut, bend and wield, then I decide the next cut. It’s a real gamble but I love it.” And if she made a cut she doesn’t like? “I don’t fix it. It’s part of the ‘now’”.

 

Setsuko Ono, Victory, 1996. Apple Wood, 129.5 x 68.6 x 35.6

 

Although Ono had long hung up her diplomatic hat, international politics seeps through her artistic practice.

Amongst her displays at the Daiwa Foundation and Asia House was Acropolis Down Under and Rising Moon (2015), conceived of several curved steel sheets that appear to cut into one another. “A harvest moon is usually a full, but here, it’s broken up. There was also Migrants (2016), a steel sculpture that reflected on the traumatic experience of the Syrian boat refugees. With hollowed-out faces, the figures are enveloped by a twirly strip of steel sheet, recalling the perilous waters that asylum seekers have to cross to reach Europe.

“The faces…it’s a bit like what the migrants are facing now, right? Floating from place to place, with no set identity.”

 

Setsuko Ono, Migrants, 2016, stainless steel, 67 x 79 x 79.

 

The turmoil in the Middle East also inspired her paintings. Aleppo (2016) is a particularly grisly portrayal of war’s impact on the young: babies sporting ghoulish complexions, their eyes listless, appear to be floating across a war-torn zone. You aren’t quite sure if they’re alive or dead.

“After I finished Resistance to an overwhelming force, I felt all my fury coming out. I must have been holding it in. I felt really angry that these people were being thrown into such dire situations. And so I painted Monsters of Civilisations, one every day.”

 

Setsuko Ono, Monsters of Our Civilization 1, 2009. Acrylic on butchers’ paper, 64.7 x 62.2.
Setsuko Ono, Monsters of Our Civilization 2, 2009, acrylic on butchers’ paper, 90 x 62.2

 

What does Yoko think of her art? “I don’t think she thinks much,” the artist pauses. “You know, our art is so different.” Ono admits that they’d never been close, even as children, and it was John Lennon who suggested that she take up art. “That was a very nice comment. But you know, I stayed at the World Bank for another 20 years,” she concludes, giving a slight smile.

 

 



Christie Lee
 is a Hong Kong-based arts journalist, her articles have been published in Art + Auction, Artsy Editorial, Art in Asia, Baccarat magazine and Yishu. She has a degree in English literature and political science from McGill University.

 

 
 
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