What challenges has the Japan-China Curator Exchange Program revealed?

Since FY2014, the Japan Foundation has been implementing an exchange program for curators between Japan and China, the Japan-China Curator Exchange Program. In 2015, six young curators travelled from Japan to Shanghai and Beijing in March, and eight curators were invited from China to visit cities in Japan including Tokyo, Kobe, Hiroshima, and Kanazawa in November. They visited museums and arts festivals in various regions to deepen interactions between the two countries.

In November 2015, training reports were given by the Chinese curators and discussions were held between Japan and China based on the reports at the JFIC Hall "Sakura." The details of this will be explained below in digest form.


The first report was by the Deputy Director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art Yang You, whose position involves team formation and staff management, as well as public relations and special exhibition planning at the center. He raised three points regarding curators and the different style of museums between Japan and China.

You: First, I would like to discuss the effect of economic growth on art. Over these past ten years in China, the key driver of economic growth has been the shift from manufacturing toward the process of urbanizing rural areas. Right now in China, according to research by the press, there are 300 to 500 museums opening per year in response to calls from the government and urban developers, as well as to the needs of the new citizens that have recently come to live in the cities.

Secondly, there is the institution of art. In Japan, where the environment has been arranged for study of modern art, systems are more developed than in China across a range of areas, such as qualifying curators, development for young curators, maturity in exhibition planning, and handling of attendees. This probably comes through the third point as well, the challenge of training human resources, that we in China should address going forward.

From these three points, I see a number of immediate problems that we face. In China today, the desire to build museums is strong, and emerging museums are built with the similar kind of vigor as apartment complexes and shopping malls, even the ideologies are different. Both of the art museums and malls are aimed at attracting regular local visitors and tourists, lengthening their stays at the venues, and also enhancing the loyalty to the venues. However, in the not-too-distant future, these museums will face limits in funding, a lack of planning ability and insufficient human resources.

Mr. You also considered that the way Japanese and Chinese curators turn their minds to society is quite similar. In the post-modern era, where mass consumption and commercialism cause a sense of alienation in people's hearts, should some kind of new system be built to express art? This seems to be a shared problem to the curators of both countries.

Art critic and independent curator Yanguo Xia, who is active in Beijing, said that he felt an awareness of problems regarding history among museum curators in Japan.

The exhibition Re: play 1972/2015-Restaging "Expression in Film '72" held by the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (MOMAT) was a "reproduction" of the first video installation exhibition held at the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art in 1972. Mr. Xia noted that it was fascinating as an experiment to show that the 60s and 70s were important as the period when not only the installation emerged as a form of expression but also a blooming period of media art. A system has been established in Japanese museums, not just at the MOMAT in Tokyo, in which curation based on art history, acquisition of pieces, and discovery of artists has been systematically implemented, and there seems to be much for China to learn, as the work to historicize the activity of artists lags behind. At the same time, however, he mentioned apprehension regarding the ambiguity of the historical awareness of curators in Japan.

Xia: The war paintings of Léonard Foujita (Tsuguharu Fujita) belonging to the MOMAT are wonderful, but it is clear that they are painted in admiration of the Japanese military of the time. Nevertheless, the museum's researchers seem to be in a position of leaving discussion and assessment of the work to the attendees, without actively judging it on that basis. From the perspective of a curator, I believe that they should probably explain clearly what the intention of these paintings was.

In modern art, where contemporaneousness is emphasized, the problems and effects of politics are points that require particular thought. Modern art is greatly influenced by political action in China, naturally. It is the same in South Korea, where I am staying as a visiting scholar. I do not have any materials that tell much about the political ambiguity visible in Foujita's war paintings, but I feel that it is a matter that we should all discuss.

Bruce Bo Ding is responsible for public programs at the Chronus Art Center (CAC) in Shanghai, which positioned to advance artistic innovation and cultural awareness by critically engaging with media technologies that are transforming and reshaping contemporary experiences. He proposed two keywords to reflect on the role of museum and the possibilities of a REAL culture exchange.

Ding: The first keyword I would like to suggest is "Alternative Historiography." This is a term coined to describe alternative approaches toward the construction of history. One of the most important roles of museum, as far as I am concerned, is to offer such insightful narratives of the history. Curating exhibitions and programs is to build connections with artworks and artists through in-depth investigation and research, which could and, to a certain extent, should transcend the singularity and linearity of history and reveal the multiple dimensions of our world. An important distinction is not to confuse historiography with history itself. The issue here is not about who tells the right story, rather, it's about what we choose to tell and how we tell it. I would think that museums in both China and Japan (which are loaded with complex pasts) need to take up this role, and hopefully create new space for conversations.

The second keyword is "Translation" which I think is the core of culture exchange if it's ever going to be really meaningful. It is extremely important and difficult to translate something into one culture without replacing or representing the other cultures. More often than not, we think that we understand others and are prone to take that for granted and as if it is what it is. What I want to emphasize is that culture lives in a specific time, place, and context, that it would be crucial to have this sense of distance and self-restraint in order to get closer, and that such ambiguity creates organic space of being together.

Mi Huang is an assistant curator and Assistant to Director of the Power Station of Art in Shanghai, a new public museum opened in October 2012. It is the first state-run museum dedicated to contemporary art in mainland China, and also home to the Shanghai Biennale. She explained the emergence of contemporary art in China and gave a presentation on the process by which the museum came about.

Huang: In 1989, the first official avant-garde art exhibition was held at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing, but it was immediately shut down after one of the participants, Xiao Lu fired two gunshots at her own installation as a performance. After that, Chinese contemporary art turned underground. When the Power Station of Art was founded by the Shanghai municipal government in 2012, more than 20 years' time had passed.

The Power Station of Art was established in response to calls for a museum-system in Shanghai that covered history from ancient times to the present. It was finally established by three institutes in 2012, the Shanghai Museum, the China Art Museum and the Power Station of Art, specified to ancient, modern, and contemporary art, respectively. Compared with the ancient and modern, for which a degree of historicization has taken place, contemporary art is strongly affected by contemporaneousness and globalization, and there are many aspects that are difficult for visitors to understand. The question of how to fuse a global viewpoint with regionality is a substantial issue.

However, I was deeply impressed by the exhibition 'Tokyo' - Sensing the Cultural Magma of the Metropolis. It cast the history and culture of the Tokyo area in a new light, and I feel the same as the curator Yuko Hasegawa, who said "let's hold a living exhibition." In my view, public museums should not settle for a static image; they need more creative ideas in terms of research, the selection of exhibits, the ways of display/performance, and so forth.

Shan Huang, Executive Vice President of the Beijing Contemporary Art Foundation discussed her view of international exchange from a different perspective than curators and critics.

Huang: I had the opportunity to speak to the former director of the Goethe-Institut, Peking, who mentioned that "there is no point in exchange just for the sake of exchange." By this, I think the curator meant that we should collaborate and produce fruit. Our foundation supports a number of fields in addition to modern art, such as dance. As a part of this, we have achieved great success in our engagement with India in particular, and we are presently collaborating with Jawaharlal Nehru University to frequently send and receive artists between our two countries.

Rather than end with just a symposium, I think we should create a continuous mechanism of exchange, through the current discussion.

The curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Shanghai (MoCA, Shanghai), Weiwei Wang was very impressed with the unique characters and the concepts of the museums and exhibitions that she saw in Japan and the organizations that run them. In the case of the Mori Art Museum for example, she took notice of the fact that Roppongi Crossing, held once every three years, as well as the special-themed MAM Project and MAM Research, maintain a system of collaboration between curators and artists from within and outside of the country.

Wang: The MoCA, Shanghai is the oldest privately-run museum in Shanghai, and yet only has a ten-year history. At present, it simply cannot realize plans for exhibitions that have a sense of continuity in terms of art education and so forth, even if they are highly newsworthy. As other people mentioned, a substantial challenge to the museum is addressing the question of how to introduce artists with a background in international art history.

Under these circumstances, Ms. Wang introduced several bold experiments. One of these is Animamix, an international exhibition focused on the works of modern artists who are influenced by animation and comics. This biennale started in 2006 and was held at six museums in 2013 through 2014.

There have already been 11 projects implemented at the MoCA Pavilion, a space opened in March 2015, and going forward, there are plans to continue with exchange projects, between artists, curators and museums in China and overseas.

Left and right: The participants were divided into two groups and had a discussion after the reports from the Chinese curators

After the reports and problems were presented by the above Chinese curators (Session 1), the curators from Japan and China were divided into two groups for Session 2, specifically for (1) "management, infrastructure/frameworks, continuity," and for (2) "cultural representation," in which discussions were explored that kept future exchanges in mind.

In Group (1), the discussion began with issues including the difficulties museums face in obtaining sponsorship from businesses and external organizations, as well as the differences in management methods between private and public museums. The example they raised for a privately-run museum was the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa. They noted that it has a management policy that focuses on more than simple visitor numbers and earnings. Thanks to the unique character of the building, the free zones inside, and other efforts, visitors travel to the museum from all over the city. The activities the museum is implementing take into account the benefits of their economic effects. Because the museum functions as a symbol and incentive for the city, it continues to strive to bring visitors from far and wide. Establishing and developing museum activities from this kind of wide-ranging perspective perhaps also aids in ensuring the independence of its exhibition details.

Systems for invigorating activities by running them concurrently within and outside of the museum, within the context of such an economic cycle that takes advantage of art tourism, appears to be a fascinating case study not only for Japanese museums but also for Chinese ones.

Through an exchange of views and discussion, the possibility of collaborative projects between museums in Japan and China (research, workshops, symposiums, exhibitions, etc.) was raised, along with examples of exchanges that have already been realized, such as systems of cooperation with art spaces overseas in a Mori Art Museum project, "MAM Research." Meng Cai, Associate Professor, Curatorial Research Department, China Academy of Fine Arts Museum (CAFA Art Museum [CAFAM]), wrapped up as a representative of the group.

Cai: How can museums learn to relate with local residents and artists? How can they obtain sponsorship? How can they cultivate audiences? I feel that we debated many rewarding matters, such as the idea that museums may be striving toward the goal of serving a more comprehensive function than exhibitions alone. For artists and curators alike, health is of the utmost importance, so we came up with a unique proposal...exercising daily (laughs).

Something that we felt through Sessions 1 and 2, and during our stays in Japan, was that there are a great diversity of qualitative differences between China and Japan in areas from culture to economics. In my view, however, it is this disparity that can be our starting line.

After that, Shihoko Iida, Independent Curator and Associate Professor of the Department of Inter-Media Art, Faculty of Fine Arts, Tokyo University of the Arts, spoke for Group (2). The groups then engaged in a discussion over the issue of the "content" of international and local exhibition curation, and so forth.

Iida: In our group, Mr. Xia gave examples from South Korea, and Hiroyuki Hattori, Curator of Aichi Triennale 2016, gave examples regarding the triennale, so that we could discuss the matter of cultural representation.

According to Mr. Hattori, curators from Turkey and Brazil have been invited to form a team, which is now developing ideas together. He told us about the issues they have been debating. For instance, when works associated with the specificity of a region are introduced in an international exhibition, somewhere with different history and culture, what is the result of that movement, and what responsibilities arise for the curators that introduce the works?

This may link closely with the issues of "cultural representation," which is also one of the subjects for the current discussion. The question of how regional, historical and political issues are observed and interpreted by curators and artists, and reflected in their curation, is one of great importance. We concluded that geopolitical problems that are read differently depending on which aspect serves as the basic standpoint, and which induce certain biases must be continuously discussed.

During our discussion, Kaori Tada, the Assistant Curator of Yebisu International Festival for Art & Alternative Visions, highlighted the fact that the audience might be able to take a neutral stance in their engagement with a work without the subjective interpretation of a curator, if video archives and other resources are made available. This could be a plausible proposal associated with the "do not represent" concept mentioned earlier by Mr. Ding. Hence, we discussed the question of whether it is possible to create a place for thinking/an alternative public sphere that permits ambiguity, where the curator or artist provides no representation of any kind, and the exhibition does not take a didactic position. This would be the creation of a "living space" through collaboration, distinct from an "exhibition."

That being said, Ms. Iida added that there may already be historical precedents for such an experiment. Candidates for pioneering examples of just this kind include "Utopia Station" (2003) at the 50th Venice Biennale, co-curated by Hans-Ulrich Obrist and a trailblazing artist of Relational Aesthetics, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and "Cities on the Move" (1997-99), which was co-curated by Obrist and Hanru Hou. Perhaps what is important is that certain existing archives in history (including the history of exhibitions) should be shared first, and then a flexible position taken with respect to the often-limited references available.

As pointed out by the Chinese curator group, whether people involved with museums and art spaces are able to create opportunities and places (spheres) for international collaboration, which do not take the form of exhibitions, could be considered a question of shared interest of all of those who attended the report meeting. Perhaps this meeting has become the starting point for its consideration and practical application.

In March 2016, four Japanese curators visited Beijing and Shanghai to make an inspection. This exchange program is to be carried out continuously.

Participating Curators (November 13, 2015)
Meng Cai (Associate Professor, Curatorial Research Department, China Academy of Fine Arts Museum (CAFA Art Museum [CAFAM]))
Bruce Bo Ding (Pubic Programs, Chronus Art Center)
Mi Huang (Assistant Curator and Assistant to Director, Power Station of Art in Shanghai)
Shan Huang, (Executive Vice President of the Beijing Contemporary Art Foundation)
Weiwei Wang (Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art Shanghai)
Xiaoyan Wang (Japanese-Chinese interpreter)
Yanguo Xia (Art Critic/Independent Curator)
Yang You (Deputy Director, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art)

Shihoko Iida (Independent Curator / Associate Professor, Department of Inter-Media Art, Faculty of Fine Arts, Tokyo University of the Arts)
Daigo Ushijima (Assistant, Department of Inter-Media Art, Faculty of Fine Arts, Tokyo University of the Arts)
Gentaro Sasaki (Curator, Contemporary Art Museum, Kumamoto)
Eise Shiraki (Educator, Mori Art Museum)
Yuichiroh Takashima (Curator, The Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura & Hayama)
Kaori Tada (Assistant Curator, Yebisu International Festival for Art & Alternative Visions)
Kyongfa Che (Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo)
Hanae Nakao (Curator, Kurumaya Museum of Art, Oyama)
Hiroyuki Hattori (Curator, Aomori Contemporary Art Centre [ACAC])

*The participants' titles and organizations are as of November 2015

Editor: Taisuke Shimanuki (Art writer/Editor); Interpreters at the discussion: Xiaoyan Wang (Japanese-Chinese interpreter) and ChenRan Lily Ikeda (Japanese-Chinese Translator / Interpreter); Transcriber at the discussion: Ayako Koide (Writer/Japanese-English translator)

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