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SCAN report: ‘Japan: Reflections on the Archipelago’ 15 January 2019

by Chris Sharratt

Perhaps more so than at any point for a generation, the importance of cross-cultural conversations and international dialogue is uppermost in the minds of many artists, curators and other creative practitioners. Brexit, Trump, the refugee crisis – the need for art to make connections and inspire collaboration rather than competition is urgent and real. The recent ‘Japan: Reflections on the Archipelago’ event, then, with its focus on Scotland’s visual arts community learning from that country’s practitioners and organisations, felt particularly timely. Such research trips are an increasingly vital tool for curators to better understand contemporary art from an international perspective, and as the politics of ‘us and them’ and inward-looking nationalism gain traction across so much of the world, their value is perhaps clearer than ever.

While the event was organised by SCAN and hosted by DCA, the visit itself was made possible by the support of the British Council and Creative Scotland. Eight curators – four from organisations, four independent – made the journey to Japan in late 2017, coinciding with the Yokohama Triennial but also involving trips to other cities – studio visits were undertaken and the country’s artist-led scene explored.

As outlined by British Council Scotland’s Head of Arts Norah Campbell in her introduction, the organisation’s support for the scoping trip comes in the context of a much wider cultural exchange between the UK and Japan, agreed on in 2016 and announced in August 2017. The UK-Japan Season of Culture will launch in September 2019 to coincide with the Rugby World Cup in Japan, concluding a year later with the Tokyo Olympics and the Paralympic Games. The British Council will take the lead on presenting UK cultural activities in Japan while the Japanese government will be presenting activity in the UK. An open call for projects from Scotland for the season will be announced soon.

Lesley Young from Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop explained that as part of the season, Cove Park, Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop and Hospitalfield are collaborating with a number of partners in Japan to deliver a new residency programme for visual artists, makers/designers and curators based in Scotland and in Japan, supported by British Council Scotland/Creative Scotland, The Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation and The Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation. It will take place over two years. The first residencies for practitioners based in Scotland have been awarded to the Glasgow-based artist Florence Dwyer and the Edinburgh-based design curator, writer and producer Stacey Hunter. In 2019 the Scottish partners will welcome artists from Japan to their own residency programmes and, in 2020, a further two artists from Scotland will have the opportunity to work in Japan.

The whole team on their visit to Japan, image curtesy of Naoko Mabon
The whole team on their visit to Japan, image curtesy of Naoko Mabon

Of those who participated in the October 2017 trip, five were present at DCA to share their experiences in a series of quick-fire 15 minute presentations. While each presentation revealed diverging interests, what was clearly shared was a sense of the huge value of the trip both for specific research interests and more generally in terms of the dialogue it enabled. The need for discussion, to see the world from a different cultural perspective, to develop new and evolving networks – these were recurring themes across each presentation.

Naoko Mabon, the first of the event’s speakers, is an independent Japanese curator based in Aberdeen who works internationally, including in her country of birth. Part of the Peacock Associates programme in Aberdeen, she spoke with clarity and vision about her experiences on the trip, providing a clearly structured talk which she helpfully broke down into four key benefits: developing her existing network in Japan; developing a new network in Scotland; facilitating “deep and ongoing conversations”; and starting new conversations.

To a great extent Mabon’s presentation distilled the key take homes from this roving curatorial visit which, in different ways, were then reinforced by the other speakers. In particular, though, as someone with a perspective on both Japan and her current home in Scotland, Mabon cut through the cultural differences of each country and instead honed in on the similarities, the shared challenges. On visiting the former coal mining city of Yubari on the country’s northernmost island of Hokkaido, for instance, Mabon was struck by how the story of the city’s decline from Japan’s key coal producer to something resembling a ghost town – the last colliery closed in 1990 and Yubari was declared bankrupt in 2007 – “resonates with Aberdeen” as the need to look beyond oil and gas becomes more pressing. A visit to Yubari’s Shimizusawa Project, which runs an artists’ residency programme and arts centre for the local community, resulted in the project’s director being invited to Aberdeen to talk about the organisation’s work – part of a longterm aim to forge an exchange programme between Aberdeen and Japan.

While Mabon’s trip to Japan took in a number of locations with a particular focus on artists’ residencies and forging curatorial links, for DCA curator Eoin Dara it was the opportunity to discover new artists that was most significant. It was a focus on one particular Japanese artist, Chikako Yamashiro, that informed Dara’s presentation. He began, however, by making an important point about the value of the support provided by Creative Scotland and British Council Scotland, stressing that it was “the only way that arts workers in Scotland can do international research because of the scarcity of research resources”.

Chim Pom Studio. Image curtesy of Richard Parry
Chim Pom Studio. Image curtesy of Richard Parry

DCA’s exhibition remit is to produce a programme with a 50/50 split between Scotland-based artists and international practitioners. Additional to that, though, Dara expressed his desire to work with artists who challenge the dominant culture, “prodding at and exposing their society; retelling stories, challenging accepted norms”. Yamashiro does just that, specifically within the context of Japan’s historic and present-day relationship with the USA. Born on the island of Okinawa, part of the East China Sea prefecture of the same name, 20% of the island’s land is still occupied by the US military. Dara provided a brief introduction to Yamashiro’s work, from 2004’s Okinawa Tourist – a series of three short performance pieces including one showing the artist greedily enjoying an ice-cream as she stands next to a US base – to the three-channel film installation Mud Man (2016), which focuses both on Okinawa and the Korean island Jeju: “A surreal, beautiful piece,” said Dara. Working with the Glasgow-based independent curator Kirsteen Macdonald (who also went on the trip) he hopes to bring Yamashiro’s work to DCA in the near future.

One of the many refreshing things about this trip was the varied backgrounds of those who went on it, both in terms of their roles and their geographical spread; others who went to Japan but weren’t able to attend the DCA event were Neil Firth, director of Pier Arts Centre in Stromness, and Tako Taal, artist and a committee member at Glasgow’s Market Gallery from 2016-18. For Black Isle-based curator and producer Susan Christie, the October 2017 trip was the first of two journeys to the country. On returning to Scotland following the initial British Council/Creative Scotland-supported visit, and inspired by the numerous artists’ collectives she came across in Japan, Christie set up the Soft Shadows artists’ collective in January 2018.

Joining Christie on her second trip in October-November of last year, and co-presenting at DCA, was the artist filmmaker and Soft Shadows member Emma Dove. Their joint presentation was notable for the extent to which the Japan experience is continuing to inform their work in Scotland, as well as how quickly they have acted on the research undertaken while in the country. Christie is, for example, working with Lux Scotland to present a preview of Japanese artists’ film work alongside that of Scottish practitioners, which will take place in Inverness on 24 February 2019. They have dubbed their ongoing cultural conversation with the country ‘Ittarikitari’, Japanese for ‘back and forwards/to and fro’ – a beautifully simple summation of the ongoing nature of this kind of exchange.

Image curtesy of Gordon Douglas
Image curtesy of Gordon Douglas

A recurring point in Christie’s talk, and one that was also mentioned by other speakers, was the huge shift in Japan since the tsunami of 2011 and the resulting Fukushima nuclear disaster. Glasgow International director Richard Parry talked in his presentation about “a moment of national trauma” that is being reflected in the contemporary work of many artists in the country. Like Dara earlier, Parry valued the opportunity to connect with art and artists who operate in a different cultural sphere; to be able to shift the centre of gravity from a UK/Euro-centric perspective and “re-drop the pin”. In particular, the ‘Sun Shower’ exhibition, held simultaneously at Mori Art Museum and the National Art Center in Tokyo in 2017, provided an overview of work made in south-east Asia from the 1980s to the present day, with input from 14 curators and featuring 86 artists.

Parry also talked about how seeing the innovative ways groups such as Tokyo’s Ongoing Collective maintain their lively exhibition programme had provided useful reference points for his own organisation. He concluded by acknowledging what he described as the “courtesy and attention to detail” of the people he met – and by saying that he hoped to be working with Japanese artists in the future.

The last of the afternoon’s speakers provided a take on the trip which was very much informed by his own performance-based art practice. Yet while the Glasgow-based artist and independent curator Gordon Douglas pursued, over two trips, a line of research rooted in the collaborative nature of his own work, what led him to undertake this research echoed the points made by Parry and Dara: namely the recognition that so much of what he thought of as the performance art canon was in fact filtered through an art education skewed towards a narrow western view.

Douglas talked about, amongst other things, visiting the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Fukuoka city on the northern shore of Kyushu Island; about historical Japanese reference points for performance art such as Zero Jigen (Zero Dimension) and their work with other artists’ collectives in protest at the 1970 Osaka Expo; of visiting the Expo site where he “absorbed the psychic vibes”; and of going to the remote Mount Aso prefecture to research the rural artists’ residency programme in this “incredibly beautiful place”. He has documented in detail much of his Japanese encounters in a series of fascinating articles for MAP magazine.

The richness of the experiences and depth of knowledge gained from the research was evident across all five presentations. But what also came through strongly was just how useful the trip (trips in some cases) was, and how tangible the outcomes already are, with more in the pipeline. These ‘Reflections on the Archipelago’ were alive with actions, too – and with connections made, networks developed and, ultimately, understanding deepened.