Miho Ogai Essay
Spring 2003 Fellow
“Americans tend to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Japanese tend to say ‘okay’ even if they don’t want to do it,” observes Miho Ogai, a Spring 2003 Resident Fellow at the Creative Glass Center of America. “Like me; I’ve been here for seven years and I can’t really decide. It seems like one foot is in Japan and the other is in America.”
Ogai originally came to the U.S., to Ohio State University, to study business, but soon switched to art. Though, she has continued to work here with annual trips home to suburban Tokyo, she has not abandoned her Japanese-ness. She finds inspiration in traditional Japanese things like yukata (casual sashed cotton robes), and fireworks and the homely crafts of sewing and knitting she learned from her grandmother. The mysteries of the English language and Romanized orthography are an on-going exploration. “Language is hard, even though I’ve been here for seven years, I still don’t understand a lot of the vocabulary. If I want to explain the beauty of glass: there are so many [English] words to describe it, but nuance is missing!”
Ogai’s work is personal and subtle. It demands a close reading which matches the discipline the artist puts into making it. At CGCA, she made both cast and blown pieces, all in transparent glass — she finds colored glass unsatisfactorily “toy-like.” She sand-cast 26 fist-size cylinders with steps spiraling up the sides. The center of each is hollow to allow them to be stacked vertically and held in place by a rod. When the sequence is completed and assembled as a column, it will approximate Ogai’s height, with one cylinder representing each year of her life. The spiraling steps circle the center again and again, suggesting the artist’s never-ending search for a singular direction and the cyclic nature of growth itself.
The subject of a large almost spherical blown vessel, perhaps 10 inches in diameter, is also autobiographical: How I grew up. . . . The interior of the clear vessel is crisscrossed three-dimensionally with two precise grids of black and white elastic threads. “I play with space inside to try to describe feelings and experience.” Ogai explains the symbolism, “My parents are very strict. Everything must be in order. It must be two or one; it can’t be 2.1. My life [in Japan] is kind of like a grid. It’s kind of like a jail. Here people are very different. Sometimes I want to break loose.”
Me vs. Myself is the title of an earlier sphere-enclosed work involving suspended wafers of dark and light glass containing writing. In How I Grew Up. . . black and white threads represent alternate values or possibilities. The points of intersection might be moments of decision when one must choose one path another. The white lines, for Ogai, are related to “purity, heaven and good things.” Black is related to “death, evil and bad things.” Ironically, one must recognize that completing such an obsessive and relatively small work is demanding, even oppressive. Yet, it is beautiful, presenting ever-changing relationships to the eye.
At CGCA, Ogai investigated the possibility of a future work incorporating descriptive words. She formed English script from steel wire which she will later combine with glass: “sensitive; knowledge; talent; strength; impatient; ability; kindness; brave.” The lower case letters are executed in perfect school-girl cursive writing, like small black neon signs, with generous opening and closing strokes. “Positive” is repeated several times. Part of a vocabulary for describing personalities, the over-arching topic is error: the fallacy of judging people by what they seem to be. “I may judge people from their appearance, but as I get to know them, they are so different from the first judgment,” Ogai muses. “They are kind, for example, but also a little bit weak.” Her original plan was to place the words behind cloudy lenses, but she is still considering options.
As the grid-filled vessel and spiral staircase suggest, Ogai is at a decisive point in her career. Her choices are not between good and evil but, less clearly defined, relating to cultural bonds and affinities and to ways of using her chosen medium. She can successfully transcribe her complex inner life and the mysteries of language in glass sculpture of broad resonance. She possesses skills and insights which will facilitate her achievements at the next level of the spiral upwards.