Aki Onda is not an occultist. Or at least not a professional one.
He stressed this more than once during a Skype interview in July, 2020, just days before moving his home and studio from New York City — where he’s lived for the last 17 years — to Mito in the Japanese prefecture of Ibaraki.
“I’m not into being a cult star. A mystic is fine, but I hate being a cult star,” he said with a laugh — Onda laughs a lot in conversation — but emphatically all the same. “It doesn’t make much money, and it’s connected to being an authority.”
While he’s not a purveyor of the supernatural, Onda is open to such ideas. If he weren’t, he wouldn’t have made — or, rather, wouldn’t have been able to receive — his new album, a collection of messages from the late Korean artist Nam June Paik.
“I always have something that’s hard to explain with language,” he continued. “When I do a performance or when I make something, I always feel like it comes from somewhere else, and I don’t know what it is. It’s something spiritual — but like I said, I don’t like to mystify things. I want to leave it open and share it with other people. I have the system, and I know how it works, but it’s hard to explain.”
Onda’s systems aren’t any easier to explain for the observer. His art is as varied as it is unusual, from experimental projects with the likes of avant-garde cinema virtuoso Ken Jacobs and French jazz guitarist Noël Akchoté to atmospheric, improvised recordings with New York guitarist Alan Licht and Canadian sound- and filmmaker Michael Snow to film and photography, installation and performance.
And Onda, too, is an observer, a filmmaker and photographer, a curator and a freeform documentarian. He deals more in ideas than forms or formats, and ideas come in different shapes and sizes.
Which is where Nam June Paik comes in. Onda had long been an admirer of the multimedia artist Paik, whose work with the New York Fluxus school in the 1960s anticipated installation and video art, and in a sense presaged Onda’s own, eclectic art.
“His work is always interdisciplinary, he always combines different media,” Onda said of Paik. “The way he used imagination interests me. He was really into TV. He can transport ideas, and he doesn’t really care if the meaning behind them changes. He’s elusive, hard to pin down. He uses pop culture, but sometimes his work is really esoteric.”