Posted:Jul 25, 2013

An Interview with Shihoko Iida

Independent curator Shihoko Iida talks about her experiences in Japan, Australia and Korea, as well as her thoughts on the current state of curating in Japan today.

Currently working as an independent curator, with projects including this year’s Aichi Triennale and the Sapporo International Art Festival in 2014, Shihoko Iida was recently featured in Artinfo’s world list of cutting-edge curators. TABlog recently conducted an email interview with Iida, covering her career so far and her thoughts on the current state of contemporary art in Japan.

What motivated you to become a curator?
Society, perhaps. I never thought about becoming a curator when I started studying art in an art university in Tokyo. Rather, my interest in contemporary art at the fundamental level lies more in a sociological context, like Pierre Bourdieu wrote. It could be found, for instance, in the relationship between the structure of the society and institution of art, or in the way in which a biennial operates in a city/region.

I had an opportunity to be involved in an inauguration of Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, which opened in 1999, and I was contracted to work there as an assistant curator and then eventually became a curator of the Gallery. ‘Eventually’ means that I gradually learnt about the responsibilities of working as a curator. Engagement with contemporary art means working with artists who live in the society with us. The various experiences in TOCAG made me realise this responsibility, and I thought at a point that there was no going back. It is my belief that a curator is not a fixed profession to be aimed at but a profession that is always in the process of becoming. A curator should respond to the society as it changes.

Shihoko Iida. Photo: Ray Fulton.

Tell me about your first big achievement as a curator.
That was the first comprehensive solo show of Wolfgang Tillmans in a museum in Japan, which was at TOCAG in 2004. But I am a bit hesitated to say it as ‘my achievement’. Yes, the exhibition was very successful, and it is true that it was a big achievement for me as a curator, yet what I realised then was that I learnt a lot from the artist. Wolfgang is a very fair and sincere person, who is fully aware of the complexity of politics in art and the society, as well as the power which he has to exercise whether he likes it or not. Organising an exhibition brings power. The experience of working with Wolfgang was really eye-opening and means a lot to me in relation to the responsibility I mentioned above. So, to say correctly, it is not my achievement but our achievements, supported by many staff and people.

Curators have the power to display one artist and not another. Have you ever used your power to choose more women artists, or any other kind of imbalances?
No, because I think that the power, which curators might have possessed before, is no longer the reality. Making exhibitions today is based more on mutual negotiations between artists and curators, involving other power relations such as organisers and stakeholders, audiences and participants. Selecting and displaying one artist is not that simple.

How did you end up working at the state gallery in Brisbane, Australia?
While working in TOCAG, I came to understand that dealing with contemporary art only through the fixed exhibition programs would not be enough to engage with the society and the world; more precisely, with contemporary art in Asia including Japan. It was around the time when several major biennials/triennials of contemporary art had established in Japan and became popular. I wondered why it had been so difficult to organise contemporary art exhibitions within museum contexts, whereas there is plenty of contemporary art outside of art institutions. Besides, I had recoginised one of my curatorial interests by then, which is co-curation, through the engagement of several co-curatorial projects organised by The Japan Foundation. I wanted to work with more curators.

I consulted with Suhanya Raffel, the former acting director (and then Head of Asian, Pacific and International Art) of the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA), if there was any possibility to have me in QAGOMA. I met Suhanya for several times in Japan before moving to Brisbane as she has regularly visited the country for research for APT. In fact, she is one of the other reasons that made me decide to move to QAGOMA. Suhanya is a key person of the history of APT and the one whom I respect, and I wanted to work with her in QAGOMA through APT. I wanted to research how The Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT), organised by QAGOMA, had been able to put contemporary art as the centre of the event, what is the institutional structure to sustain the project for more than two decades, and what was the trajectory of the curatorial contexts from APT1 to APT6. Suhanya supported my proposal and generously opened up the way in which I could settle in the gallery as visiting curator. It was the first case for QAGOMA to have a visiting curator for a period of two years. Usually, the period to have such art professionals is around a week or two. My case was quite exceptional in that sense, and must have been challenging for the gallery as well. I am really thankful to the hospitality of QAGOMA and my colleagues there because everyone treated me as one of their curatorial colleagues of the gallery, not just as a guest. I left TOCAG after working there for 11 years and moved to Brisbane for that project, funded by the Agency for Cultural Affairs in Japan.

You also spent some time in Seoul, Korea. What did you do there?
I researched when and how the notion of ‘contemporary art’ was established in the context of Korean art based on interviews to contemporary Korean artists and curators. The aim was to get further understandings of various subjectivities in art history and different definitions of contemporary arts in Korea.

What was your impression of the art scene in Korea, compared to Japan and Australia?
Exciting, very active and busy, more commercialised and often superficial, and heavily bureaucratic in a different way from Australia and Japan. Yet, I think that the whole mixture of good and bad proves the powerful energy of current art scene in Korea.

You’re now back in Japan working as curator for the upcoming Aichi Triennale (August 10 – October 27). How does it feel to be back working in Japan? Does it feel different now?
The difference I feel is not with the country. It is more about a different way of working as an independent curator, which is new to me. I had always been a museum curator and worked in the art institutional context. I feel freedom on the one hand, and a different type of responsibility and difficulty on the other hand. It has been challenging in a good way, and I enjoy doing it so far.

Speaking about difference, I expected and wished for more social and political changes in Japan due to 3.11 when I returned, but the reality is that nothing has been radically changed. The situation is still ongoing, and such changes might follow later. Still, it is sad that people are too good at forgetting things. What have we, Japanese people, learnt from our history? We should remember that there are things which we have missed to learn from the history. Otherwise, history repeats. People have different degrees of interests and concerns about the disaster affected areas and radiation issues, and individual voice should not be generalised in the whole mood of the country. But it is also true that you can keep your ordinary life as if nothing happened if you are not physically affected. Therefore, the theme of this year’s Aichi Triennale 2013, ‘Awakening – Where Are We Standing? – Earth, Memory and Resurrection’, is all the more important for people who do not have or forget a sense of crisis. The theme can be shared with international audiences as well because today, we all view different kinds of disasters all around the world through papers and screens. The theme questions what awoke us or whether we have not been awakened yet. The Triennial should be an enjoyable cultural event for the visitors, and at the same time, it should also be an opportunity to present, question and discuss contemporary art and society with the audiences, while contextualisig the art and culture we have here in Aichi in the international framework.

Have you been able to include some of your favorite artists in the Triennale?
Although I have favorite artists as a person, as a curator, my preference does not matter. I am working within the context of a project, and the criteria for the selection of artists are not necessarily based on my preference. I am not interested in inviting artists whom I like. How an artist and the artwork fit into in the exhibition matters. If I can eventually work with artists whom I like, that would be great.

What can audiences expect from this year’s Triennale?
You will find self-reflective attitudes and serious considerations by the participating artists in the Aichi Arts Center and Nagoya City Art Museum, while you will get exciting encounters with art outside of the museums in Nayabashi and Choja-machi districts in Nagoya as well as newly added venues in Okazaki city. You can expect contrasts and unique characteristics in each venue and in the artworks too. The world premiere performances and a commissioned opera program cannot be missed as well.

Does Aichi have something that Tokyo doesn’t when it comes to facilitating a big contemporary art festival? Any thoughts on why Tokyo doesn’t have its own biennale or triennale?
A necessity or desire of creating cultural identity motivates the city to organise the biennials/triennials. Tokyo is already filled with many things, perhaps more than the city and people need.

Will you continue working in Nagoya for the third Aichi Triennale, or do you have other plans for the future?

As I am an independent curator, my engagement with Aichi Triennale is only for 2013, the edition directed by the Artistic Director, Taro Igarashi. Although a part of the administrative staff and local curators would be better to stay for the third edition in order to pass the experiences and knowledge on the next team, changing artistic director and curators is meaningful to see Aichi from a different perspective every time. Bringing critical perspectives from the outside and presenting what the city/region originally has should be resonated and contextualised within an international framework in a biennial/triennial.
Besides Aichi Triennale 2013, I am also working for the 1st Sapporo International Art Festival 2014 as Associate Curator under the Guest Director, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and I am already pretty much occupied until 2014.

Aichi Triennnale 2013
Awakening – Where Are We Standing? – Earth, Memory and Resurrection
10 August – 27 October 2013 (79 days)
Artistic Director: Taro Igarashi

Sapporo International Art Festival 2014
City and Nature
19 July – 28 September 2014 (72 days)
Guest Director: Ryuichi Sakamoto

Emily Wakeling

Emily Wakeling

Emily Wakeling is a writer and curator who used to be based in Tokyo. Hailing from Brisbane, Australia, Emily wrote a Masters thesis on images of girls in contemporary Japanese art. She also curated some local sound art events. Her research interests cover Asian and Australian contemporary art, young women artists, globalisation and art, and new media.