Emi Kusano Explores Buddhist Desire in “The Altar of Bonnō” Series

BY Mika Bar-On Nesher

June 11, 2024

In Emi Kusano’s new series, “The Altar of Bonnō,” the renowned Japanese artist and musician utilizes artificial intelligence image-making processes, traditional photographic techniques, and digital painting to capture a surreal and sensitive study of human desire. Working in the tradition of retro-futurism, anime, and science fiction, Kusano’s new body of work pushes the central themes of her practice: transience and the digital self into deeper territories. 

Every photograph in the series is a kind of portal into the inner workings of the imagined subject’s mind. The setting of the works takes place out of the bounds of time and space, revealing both an imagined future and old-world relics like chord telephones and souvenirs. Our memories and dreams are often like this: magical, mixing places, years, and even dimensions. 

The subjects appear lonely, their desires locking them away from the world. Desires and obsessions are often kept private. In Western culture and monotheistic religions, desires are judged harshly, and since they cannot actually be willed away, people end up feeling guilty for them, which only deepens their hold. Kusano’s new series creates altars out of these desires, inviting the viewer to participate in practices of integration of those things that blind the mind. 

Credit: Emi Kusano

By drawing from elements of Japanese culture, Buddhist traditions, the chaotic streets of Tokyo, and pop art aesthetics, Kusano can create a reflective refuge from the pervasive material desires that dominate modern life. To uncover the ancient wisdom imbued in this new body of work, we must first look at the definition of the Buddhist term bonnō and the significance of altars. 

The Japanese term “bonnō” derives from the Sanskrit word Klesha, which translates into mental defilements, a blind passion that arises when desires go unchecked. Buddhism has at least three kinds of desires: negative, neutral, and positive. A wise desire, for example, would be to feel safe, to help others, and so on. A neutral desire would be to eat lunch. A negative desire is more like revenge or ill will. There is a misunderstanding that in Buddhism all desire is unwelcome, which is incorrect. It’s not very dramatic, when they arise in the mind they should be pulled from the root out like weeds. It’s a simple act of purification but hard to remember because all this happens in the mind; the physical world is busy, and sometimes we are lazy mind gardeners. 

Anyone who’s ever looked at the mechanics of a screenplay says the same thing: every character needs a desire, which drives the plot. Maybe we can conclude from this that desire infuses the human sense of self; it’s the source of many pleasurable and painful events. Desires are mysterious and powerful things, a kind exoskeleton of human consciousness, but what is it protecting? For example, we can want someone so badly but not know why; it can be frustrating. Or we can say this is a good person for me to be with, but why aren’t I in love with them? Why do we want what we want? Desire dominates common sense. Classifying and judging our desires won’t ease their fevers. They can’t be willed away, but neutralizing and integrating them through a non-dual perspective might. Kusano’s characters do not give in to their vices, but they sit with them, observe without shame, and, in doing so, cut through them. This goes back to ancient Tibetan Buddhist practice called Chöd, a practice of tantric integration, a tool for mental liberation where a practitioner befriends them instead of resisting one’s demons.

Credit: Emi Kusano

While Buddhism is an inherent part of Japanese culture, only a fortunate few in the West are fully clued in how their favorite anime shows, movies, and science fiction books are rooted in Buddhist scriptures, concepts, and practices. Before delving into explaining what bonnō is, it’s important to note Buddhism is not a religion in the Western sense, rather it’s an ancient system of the study of mind. Buddha means “awakened one” so there is no God that comes to intervene or punish based on your sins or how much faith you have or don’t have, instead it’s a study of waking up. There is no one with a pad-keeping score, but deep down inside, everyone knows what they did or ought to do. This knowledge can be conscious or subconscious, but either way, it has implications in the body, speech, and mind, in the manifestation of karma, if you will. There is no single book or way to mediate, as far religions go it’s truly decentralized. The point is to get the dust out of your eyes and put forth effort to move things forward. 

An altar is a kind of rip or refuge in the matrix, a place to put down what’s important and place it out of everyday business so it can be remembered and cherished. It’s a pause. One can spot them in Buddhist temples and homes, but they can also be found in Japanese subculture, where fans display their beloved characters and items like religious altars. It’s a place for whatever is sacred to someone. Kusano creates shrines out of the mental defilements and desires and brings forth a gesture of liberation. We live in a world of hyper consumerism and information overload, our minds are not built to process this amount of data daily, it causes a degradation in the quality of mind as its reflexive qualities weaken. It’s a kind of mental prison of information where the skill of discernment becomes harder and harder to practice. The figures in the images are generated by AI, and as with AI photography no one is quite standing behind the lens. In this way, they are like a mind watching itself. 

Mika Bar-On Nesher: How did you get the idea for the series? What was the research and creative process like?

Emi Kusano: Growing up in Japan, where Shinto and Buddhism are ingrained in our culture, I was culturally Buddhist without much thought—celebrating Christmas yet having Buddhist funerals. During my time in a religiously vibrant town in the U.S., I started to embrace my Buddhist roots consciously. Initially, I thought overcoming earthly desires (Bonno) might be peaceful, but then AI emerged, and I found these human imperfections interesting—perhaps even what differentiates us from AI. I spoke with a Shingon Buddhist monk, Ryugen Matsunami, and was intrigued by how closely linked our human flaws are to compassion.

Can you give an example of one or two works you love that people might be surprised to have Buddhist roots? One I can think of is Ghost in the Shell and transcending into higher programs at the price of abandoning the self. 

Absolutely. For instance, Osamu Tezuka’s lesser-known masterpiece “Buddha” beautifully depicts the life of Siddhartha Gautama and is a favorite of mine. More subtly, many anime incorporate Buddhist teachings. Shows like “Yu Yu Hakusho” and “Sailor Moon” crafted much of my childhood identity, featuring reincarnation prominently. Even in “Dragon Ball,” characters’ fates are directly influenced by their deeds, reflecting the Buddhist concept of karma.

Credit: Emi Kusano

What did you learn while making this series?

The process with Adam from Tender was incredibly interesting. He helped verbalize what I initially wanted to express, significantly aiding my work’s conceptual side. With its various interpretations, Buddhism allowed me great freedom in my approach. I wasn’t strictly bound by research, which enabled me to create freely and visually within my own imagination, driven by the visuals I envisioned.

We live in an insane time of information, how do you think this is affecting us? What role does art play in slowing down time and providing refuge?

While I’m fascinated by AI and new technologies, I’ve decided to dedicate myself solely to art—it’s a more sustainable way for me to pursue what I love, beyond mere business. Art is often seen as non-essential, but with current technology’s support, it reassesses its value as a crucial element of human fulfillment. I believe art will continue to inspire imagination, whether created by humans or AI, with the creator’s thoughts and philosophies gaining importance.

Credit: Emi Kusano

What are some other releases and exciting drops you have coming that your fans can look out for? 

It’s been a year since I ventured solo into NFTs, and the past six months have been filled with exhibits at art centers and museums worldwide. The latter half of the year looks promising, with scheduled appearances at traditional art fairs and beyond. I’m eager to explore new expressions that transcend the boundaries of NFTs.

If there’s one thing you’d want viewers to walk away when encountering these works, what would that be? 

Please see the Japanese motifs in my work as something that speaks to you personally. I’m often asked why I use Japanese elements, even though the characters and themes are universal. Just as Western works often feature white protagonists without question, my work uses these motifs to highlight universal human experiences. Whether it’s like Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup or the neon streets of Tokyo, these elements are meant to show that, fundamentally, we are all the same.

Edior’s note: Mika Bar-On Nesheris a curator and filmmaker based in New York. She currently works as director of exhibitions and creative strategist at Botto. Previously she was a curator at SuperRare building a practice around AI. Her work has been featured in Yahoo, Artnet, Hypebeast amongst other outlets. 

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