A Concise Series of Notes on the Work of the Artist Setsuko Ono

 Paul Gladston

 ‘What I do, I do not wish blamed on Zen, though without my engagement with Zen…I doubt whether I would have done what I have done.’ — John Cage



I am looking at photographs of the work of the artist Setsuko Ono. Represented are sculptures, paintings and drawings; some figurative, others abstract. The sculptures have been manufactured in steel: individual elements incised from sheets, shaped and then welded together, often by Ono herself. Many of the larger sculptures are situated outdoors. Their structures are uncertainly open/closed — absence/presence of material is a signature feature. This open/closed structuring does not correspond to that of welded metal sculptures by David Smith or Anthony Caro, whose variable aspects contribute to a deliberatively composed totality. Instead, there is a less determinate reciprocity between sculptural form and surrounding/interpenetrating space. The interwoven forms of some of Ono’s abstract metal sculptures, for example Cavorting and Tristan and Iseult (both 2006), resemble the endless non-orientable surface of a Möbius band. Ono’s metal sculptures appear heavy by association with the material used in their making, but in actuality weigh relatively little. A video of one shows tendril-like forms resonating with a passing breeze. In Ono’s own words, in the wind her sculptures ‘sing’. Sensation arises momentarily and passes. Appearance gives way by turns to signs of divergent facticity. Abstract paintings by Ono, including Welding, Melting (2006), Encounter (2006) and La Nuit (2007), share in the formal openness/closure of her metal sculptures. Seemingly non-objective combinations of pattern, line, texture and colour continually transmogrify into fugitive intimations of the human figure; their status as non-objective or figurative never resolved.



Ono’s figurative sculptures conjure dream-like visions. Rabbit Escapes Moon (2006), for example, represents human figures in a green space pursuing or, perhaps accompanying, a rabbit, their solid silhouettes reprised by correspondingly incised absences of material implying shadows or reflections by moonlight. The location of the represented scene is uncertain, suggesting an Arcady intersecting with a parallel animistic realm. Interplay between presence and absence of is also an insistent aspect of the sculpture Dreams (2012), which represents a bacchanal of animal and human figures whose shapes have been excised and folded out from juxtaposed circular and wave-like forms and are doubled by the resulting wanting of material. In both works substance and implied shadows exchange significances. Ono’s figurative sculptures have been compared to traditional Japanese Kage-E ‘shadow picture’ woodblock prints. Kage-E prints by artists such as Kunioyshi and Hiroshige typically comprise two images: on one side a projected shadow-image apparently representing an object or animal in silhouette, and on the other a depiction of the supposedly actual source of that projection, whose substance differs from the thing apparently represented by the projected shadow-image. The projected shadow-image is shown first. The ‘real’ source is then revealed to the surprise and delight of the viewer — a shadow bird translates into a crouching man; a bonsai tree into a man carrying multiple parasols. Since both images are representations, this reveal results in a Koan-like shuttling between appearances and realities that defies logical resolution. In the case of Ono’s figurative sculptures, there is no single theatrical moment of revelation, but instead continual and uncertain interplay between projections and substantive forms. The aesthetic affect is one of enchanting dislocation and unfolding subtlety of feeling rather than perplexing paradox.



Play between openness and closure and between substance and projection extends to figurative paintings by Ono, many of which signify an abiding interest in global politics and concern for the environment. Paintings such as This, My Planet (2007) and Warsaw Ghetto Uprising: Victoire D’une Defaite (2009), adapt the shifting formal qualities of Ono’s abstract works to representational allegory. In the particular case of This, My Planet representations of an Eden-like space intersect with uncertain and foreboding presentiments of human intervention. The destructive consequences of a human desire for mastery over others and the environment are not countered by didactic or historical certainty. Rather, Ono invites us to meditate on the sublimity of incomprehensible violence and in doing so enter into a divergent non-objective receptivity to otherness. Among her most arresting works on the subject of violence is Children (2016), a collage/drawing representing the suffering of children in the context of war which makes combined references to the past and present through montaging of fragments taken from Goya’s print series The Disasters of War (1810-1820) and of photographic imagery taken from contemporary media. Also striking is the imposing mural-scale painting Blackened Sun (2010), which Ono interprets  — in accordance with the implied animism of her figurative sculptures — as representing the ‘comic anger of nature against civilization’. Other paintings by Ono also echo the visions conjured by her figurative sculptures. Etat de Choses (2009), brings together in indefinite spatial relationship multiple depictions of monstrous faces, a human skull and a human skeleton, whose individual identities recede strangely with extended looking, as if recollected from a dream.



Openness/closure of form is typical of modern as well as traditional art/design in Japan. In that context openness/closure of form signifies a durable Japanese-cultural desire for harmonious reciprocity between humanity and nature and between past and present associated with Shinto (kami-no-michi) and Zen Buddhism. Exemplary of which is the traditional use of so-called ‘Zen’ rock gardens in Japan as non-objective representations of the essence of nature and as a focus for meditation. Zen is a localised variation of Chan, a school of Mahayana Buddhism first developed in China during the Tang dynasty that incorporates beliefs and practices taken from Daoism. Crucial to Daoism is the idea of a fundamental reciprocity between the otherwise opposed cosmological forces of yin and yang as well as spontaneity in accordance with the Dao(‘way of nature’), referred to in Daoist thought as wu wei (often translated somewhat erroneously into English as ‘non-action’).  The Dao resists the hubris of human mastery.  It seeks harmony while enfolding the possibility of disruption; combines appearance and reality, and is, consequently, neither.



Setsuko Ono was born in Japan, but much of her education and early development took place in Europe and the United States. While in the US during the 1950s she attended performances of works by the composer John Cage, including the ‘silent’ three movement composition 4’33”, which, like Ono’s metal sculptures, activates aesthetically through an invited attention to its ambient surroundings. Cage made explicit use of chance-divinatory techniques associated with the Daoist classic the I Ching as part of his musical composition. He is also known to have attended a series of lectures by D. T. Suzuki on Zen Buddhism during the early 1950s. Cage’s description of a series of ‘white paintings’ produced by his student Robert Rauschenberg in 1951 as ‘landing strips’ for ambient light and shadow has been interpreted as a reflection of the former’s interest in Zen. Cage premiered his equivalent musical work, 4’33” in 1952. At the age of 17, Ono spent time at the Myoshinji Temple in Kyoto studying shikantaza meditation techniques associated with Zazen soto Zen Buddhism. Torn between Catholicism and Zen (Ono attended a Catholic school), she eventually chose the former as more ‘romantic’. Openness/closure of form and continual translation between substance and projection in Ono’s work may be taken as an index of her own (enchanting) traversal of cultures in reversal of the direction of travel of Cage’s artistic-cultural development. In contrast to Cage, Ono’s experience is that of a Japanese-born artist re-encountering Zen in dislocating western translation.



Can cultural associations with Zen be projected substantively onto Ono’s work as an artist? Is the open/closed formal interplay of her sculptures and paintings indicative of a durable Japanese Zen-inflected cultural habitus? I cannot be sure. Associations of this sort are, of course, always tenuous even in relation to well-established tradition — they are ultimately attributions (closings) of meaning by custom or assertion rather than reflections of any actual/transferable essence. Moreover, their translation from one cultural context to another is unavoidably refractive. And yet, while Ono makes no explicit reference to Zen, nor Daoism in relation to her work, she does confess to an avoidance of planning, of a desire to employ chance and an obsession with momentary significances commensurate with both. What remains is susceptible to indefinite construal…


Paul Gladston is Professor of Contemporary Visual Cultures and Critical Theory and Director of the Centre for Contemporary East-Asian Cultural Studies at the University of Nottingham. His recent book-length publications include Contemporary Chinese Art: a Critical History (2014), which received ‘best publication’ at the Award of Art China 2015. He was founding principal editor of the Journal of Contemporary Chinese Artfrom 2014 to 2016 and an academic adviser to the internationally acclaimed exhibition Art of Change: New Directions from China, staged at the Hayward Gallery-South Bank Centre London in 2012. He is also author of Yu Youhan (2015), the first comprehensive monograph on the work of the artist.