Posted:Oct 19, 2022

Controversy Brews Over Rirkrit Tiravanija’s “Okayama Art Summit”: Who Does the “Communication” Exclude?

Welcoming Rirkrit Tiravanija as artistic director, “Okayama Art Summit 2022” is held in Okayama City from September 30 to November 27. The Executive Committee consists of Okayama City, Okayama Prefecture, and Ishikawa Foundation. This article introduces exhibition highlights and reports on the most recent press conference in which the organizing committee answered questions regarding the citizen’s group request for a revision of the festival’s operation. (Translated and updated by Alena Heiß)

Precious Okoyomon “Till the Sun Notices Me”

International contemporary art festival in Okayama City

Held in Okayama City every three years, this is the third time the “Okayama Art Summit” is opening its doors. From September 30 to November 27, various historical and cultural facilities surrounding Okayama Castle will become venues for a contemporary art exhibition. Twenty-eight artists from thirteen countries were selected by executive director Taro Nasu (TARO NASU owner/gallerist) and artistic director Rirkrit Tiravanija to participate this year. 

But the festival failed to escape the controversy. On November 19, 2021, a week after the festival was announced, the “Okayama Citizens’ Association for Okayama Art Summit” submitted a petition to Okayama City Council. The citizen group questioned the organizing committee's decision to appoint Yasuharu Ishikawa as an executive producer despite the multiple sexual harassment allegations and addressed the issues regarding the use of the city's public facilities. The first half of this article will introduce the exhibition’s highlights, and the second half will report on the most recent press conference held on September 29 and explain the ongoing controversy surrounding the “Okayama Art Summit 2022.”

Main venue, Former Uchisange Elementary School

One of the unique characteristics of the “Okayama Art Summit” is that the artworks are located in a relatively compact area of a regional city, and visitors can easily explore all the venues in one day, either on foot or by public transportation. Another is the emphasis on public programs for citizens and prefectural residents and the appointment of internationally acclaimed contemporary artists as artistic directors. Liam Gillick’s curation of the first exhibition strongly emphasized conceptual art from the 1960s onward. In contrast, Pierre Huyghe’s curation of the second exhibition established connections between art and science, anthropology, technology, and other disciplines and created organic links across the entire exhibition space that allowed collaboration with non-human beings.

Rirkrit Tiravanija

The theme for this year’s exhibition is “Do we dream under the same sky.” As Rirkrit Tiravanija states on the official website, “In the past years, the with Global pandemic and the exertion of White Supremacy tendencies in the US as well as Nationalists Populist in many parts of the global world, I like for the exhibition to refocus our mindset and perspectives.” 

Former Uchisange Elementary School

Former Uchisange Elementary School serves as the main venue for the exhibition. The first thing that catches the eye is Rirkrit Tiravanija’s large lawn art with the words “Do we dream under the same sky” in the schoolyard. Tiravanija realized the idea of transforming closed school space to be open to everybody with the help of crowdfunding. 

Rirkrit Tiravanija’s lawn art

Born in Buenos Aires and raised in Thai, Rirkrit Tiravanija has been drawing public attention since the 1990s and is one of the leading figures in contemporary art. He gained popularity for his method of subverting the traditional “art exhibition” by serving Thai dishes such as pad thai and curry to viewers at venues and presenting the communication born in the exhibition space as a work of art. Nicolas Bourriaud, author of “Relational Aesthetics,” praised his works, and thus Tiravanha came to be recognized as a representative artist of “relational art.”

A giant teddy bear lays in the empty pool right next to the schoolyard. This is an installation, “Till the Sun Notices Me,” by Precious Okoyomon. The teddy bear looks innocent, but the atmosphere is somehow disturbing. It is exposed and unprotected in its white underwear, and the pose suggests submission and obedience. The artist explains that the work embodies childhood emotions, a sense of fear, violence, desire, and things we lose as we grow up. 

Precious Okoyomon “Till the Sun Notices Me”

On the school’s first floor, visitors are met with video work by Cambodia-born, Taiwan-based Vandy Rattana. Born in 1980, Rattana grew up in Post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia, and his works approach the country’s horrific history of violence.

Vandy Rattana exhibition view

The mother of artist Shimabuku is from Okayama Prefecture and a graduate of Uchisange Elementary School. The video installation “Swan goes to the Sea” (2012, 2014) portrays the artist’s return to his hometown after living abroad and brings a beautiful poetic sentiment to the school building. In the video, Shimabuku finds the swan boat he played with as a child in Korakuen Garden is still there after many years and decides to take it to the sea. 

Shimabuku “Swan goes to the Sea”

The black fabric and decorations in the corridor invite visitors to enter a magical space, where they encounter photographs of backs, slightly illuminated in the darkness. This is an installation by Mari Katayama, an up-and-coming artist who received the Kimura Ihei Award in 2020. In this work, Katayama, who has been creating hand-stitched objects that resemble her body parts and taking self-portraits with them, shows yet another layer of expression of her body and love. In her statement, she describes experiences of being “tagged” as “handicapped,” “woman,” and “mother,” but the body that emerges in this series has a powerful presence between the passive and the active.

Mari Katayama “posession” series

Mexican artist Bárbara Sánchez-Kane is another participant whose works evoke mixed feelings about the body. She is also well known for her resistance against traditional stereotypes of Mexico and the norms of femininity and masculinity. “Versos Rancios [Rancid verse]” uses rawhide to remind viewers of the relationship between identity and the “skin” that so often provokes discrimination. Sánchez-Kane says the work also questions the life cycle from decay to rebirth, human desires, and the ways the violence loop can be broken.

Bárbara Sánchez-Kane “Versos Rancios [Rancid verse]”

Daniel Boyd, an internationally acclaimed Indigenous Australian contemporary artist, presents a series of works formed from dots. The works portray the tragic history of cultural genocide surrounding indigenous peoples from the perspective of post-colonialism.

Daniel Boyd exhibition view

New York-based artist Azif Mian portrays spiritual beings such as djinns, ghosts, and specters through technology. By breaking boundaries between the real and the imaginary, he approaches political issues of surveillance by authority.

Azif Mian exhibition view

In the gymnasium, visitors are met by the giant slide-shaped installation “Amusement Romane” by Yutaka Sone. It is possible to enter and slide down from the structure.

Yutaka Sone “Amusement Romane”

Behind the structure stands “Untitled 2017 (Oil drum stage)” by Rirkrit Tiravanija. The stage was created in Yutaka Sone’s studio in Fujian, a province well known for its stone carving techniques, and is scheduled to host 150 bands during the exhibition period. Untitled Band (Shun Owada and friends) performed during the press preview on September 29. 

Tenjinyama Cultural Plaza of Okayama Prefecture

The first floor of Tenjinyama Cultural Plaza is filled with works by David Medalla from the Philippines, American contemporary artist Jacolby Satterwhite and Abraham Cruzvillegas from Mexico. Cruzvillega’s work was the most striking of them all. The large, bold black ink characters for “bond,” “glory,” and “struggle” are not at all what one would expect from contemporary art. This piece, “Untitled calligraphy contest,” was created in collaboration with local calligraphers and high school students.

Abraham Cruzvillegas “Untitled calligraphy contest”

The underground floor hosts the “Index Exhibition” curated by Rirkrit Tiravanija. The small booths display small works by the participating artists and serve as an index, or table of contents, that offers a panoramic view of the exhibition. 

Index Exhibition

Okayama Orient Museum

The Okayama Orient Museum was designed by architect Shinichi Okada, who traveled throughout the Middle East and obtained clues for the design from the mosque in northern Baghdad. For the exhibition period, its alluring halls became a home for the works of contemporary artists and Enku’s Buddha sculptures. 

Okayama Orient Museum
Enku exhibition view

Bangladesh-born artist Rasel Ahmed presented his video work “Who Killed Taniya.” The piece was inspired by personal archive footage of a queer drag show in Dhaka and is based on the murder of his friend in an al-Qaeda raid. The fictionalized film portrays characters preparing for a queer drag show while overlaying monologues revealing persecuted refugees’ struggles, doubts, and fears towards each other.

Rasel Ahmed “Who Killed Taniya”

Frida Orupabo was raised by a Norwegian mother and a Nigerian father. Her collages are composed of images taken from various online platforms and expose the history of the sexualization of black women through the intersectional perspective. 

Frida Orupabo exhibition view

Also on display are small objects by Brazilian artist Lygia Clark, who is known as a central figure in the neo-concretism movement, and “Sonic Cosmic Ropes” by South Korean artist Haegue Yang.

Lygia Clark exhibition view
Haegue Yang “Sonic Cosmic Ropes Gold Dogecagon Straight Weave”

Okayama Shrine

Haegue Yang also exhibits her paper-cut work at the Okayama Shrine, along with a short film created in collaboration with local dancers by My-Linh Lee and an installation by Abraham Cruzvillegas

My-Linh Lee
Abraham Cruzvillegas exhibition view

Hayashibara Museum of Art

Hayashibara Museum of Art greets visitors with an exhibition of Wang Bing, one of China’s leading video artists, and a sound installation by Art Labor in collaboration with Jrai artists, a collective based in Ho Chi Minh City. 

Art Labor in collaboration with Jrai artists “JUA-Sound In The Spacesound”

Okayama Castle Middle Level

The grounds of Okayama Castle feature artwork by Ryoji Ikeda, an internationally acclaimed electronic music composer and artist. The installation sounds echo across the castle, and it is recommended to see it at sunset when the area gets dark.

Ryoji Ikeda data.flux [LEDversion]

Other venues include Ishiyama Park, Cinema Clair Marunouchi, Okayama Korakuen Garden Kanki-tei, and Okayama Tenmaya Omotecho shopping street (sideshow window). Special public programs, such as artist talks, guided tours, newspaper publishing by student groups, and many others, are scheduled during the exhibition. Please visit the official website for additional information.

Citizen's petition for revision of the festival's operation

On September 29, a press conference took place at the Okayama Orient Museum, where executive director Taro Nasu, artistic director Rirkrit Tiravanija, and public program director Chieko Kinoshita (associate professor at Osaka University’s Kaitokudo for the 21st Century) addressed the civic organization’s request for a revision of the festival’s operation.

Press conference. From left, Chieko Kinoshita, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Taro Nasu

Tokyo Art Beat has previously reported that the group “Okayama Citizens’ Association for Okayama Art Summit” had submitted a petition and request to Okayama City Council on November 19, 2021 (Japanese article). The request entitled “Petition to Appoint an Expert as Executive Producer of ‘Okayama Art Summit 2022’” called for a revision of the basic concept of the festival in terms of the appointment of an executive producer, Yasuharu Ishikawa (President of the Ishikawa Foundation for Cultural Promotion), and the use of the city's facilities (*). 

There are two main concerns raised in the petition. The first is the wrongful use of the Tenjinyama Cultural Plaza of Okayama Prefecture, which has been a venue for the festival since the first year. The petition claims that various civic groups often use Tenjinyama Cultural Plaza, and the festival’s two-month occupation of the venue is a “neglect of the cultural activities of citizens and residents of Okayama prefecture.” The organization also raises questions considering the “festival’s occupation of public spaces such as parking space and building’s pilotis despite other facilities in the building being in operation, and hosting reception parties with alcoholic beverages.”

The second concern refers to the appointment of Yasuharu Ishikawa as an executive producer despite previous accusations of sexual misconduct and harassment by multiple women. The CEO of a popular fashion brand, “earth music & ecology,” which is operated by Okayama-based Stripe International Inc., was accused of multiple harassments that allegedly occurred between August 2015 and May 2018. The Asahi Shimbun and other media reported in 2020 that Yasuharu Ishikawa was given a “stern warning” after a discussion at the company in December 2018, but no disciplinary action was taken. Although Ishikawa did not admit to sexual harassment, he resigned as president of the company in March 2020, saying that he wanted to do so in consideration of the impact on the company.

In the request, the civic organization claims that they “cannot accept that Okayama Art Summit Executive Committee (*) is appointing Yasuharu Ishikawa to the position without any explanation of the reported incidents.” Their petition concludes, “The current executive producer is not the most qualified candidate for the job. Therefore, we ask that an expert with knowledge and experience related to Okayama be appointed instead and that the basic concept of the event be reviewed and improved to ensure that the prefecture’s citizens accept it”.

On November 24, 2021, the civic organization retreated the petition to improve it and collect more signatures. The group began gathering more signatures on January 25, 2022, and re-submitted the petition to the Okayama City Council and Okayama Prefectural Assembly on February 25. In March, the petition was discussed and declined. 

On July 8, the “Okayama Citizens’ Association for Okayama Art Summit” once again submitted a request to Okayama City with an attached list of 400 signatures and received a response on July 15. The reply stated that the city was aware of the problems regarding Tenjinyama Cultural Plaza and would “do its best to find an alternative venue.” However, the city did not mention or comment on the executive producer’s sexual harassment allegations. 

On September 21, Tokyo Art Beat contacted the Okayama Art Summit Executive Committee and attempted to get answers regarding the civic organization requests. On September 27, we received responses in which the committee stated that no changes or further explanations for the public are planned at the moment and that there is no need to brief the citizens or participating artists on the current situation. 

During the press conference on September 29, Tokyo Art Beat once again addressed the issues and gained the following response from the executive director Taro Nasu and artistic director Rirkrit Tiravanija. 

“At the beginning of the press conference, the executive director said, 'our goal this year is to create an exhibition that emphasizes communication with the audience' and that 'the exhibition is open to the local community.' However, it is known that civic organization submitted the request for a revision of the festival. I believe this is not unrelated to the idea of programs and artworks seeking public participation. What can you tell us about this?”

Tiravanha responded, “I am not aware of a group in Okayama, so I couldn’t speak for that,” but continued with his thoughts on the exhibition’s theme, “Do we dream under the same sky.”

“If we are speaking about the idea of 'dream,' then we have to look at all the other dreams, on the otherness, and think about and discuss the other places we are not comfortable with.”

“We approach people we know, I go to eat, and I meet people, and I do things every day that maybe bring me closer to people or people closer to me. I do it one person at a time, and maybe this exhibition is one step toward getting closer. I think that art has a lot to offer, and that’s what I’m trying to do in my work too. Art should be much more in life, and life should be much more in art, but there are a lot of distractions. But I hope this will happen at this show, and what artists are trying to do. I think that Okayama being outside of the center is good. I like being here since there are no other distractions from the art world. It’s just me, just in Okayama… I’m happy that people come, and I appreciate it. But I would be happy if the people of Okayama enjoyed the show too.” 

Following Tiravanha, the executive director Taro Nasu responded, “I personally do not know any details regarding the citizen's group, but I know that many people have various opinions about such a big event. Therefore, communication is important, and I think we should listen to each opinion individually and try to find the best way to reach a mutual understanding.”

Although the “Okayama Citizens' Association for Okayama Art Summit” has been consistent and forthcoming in its approach, the executive director claimed that he was “unaware” of any details. If this is the case, how can the existence and voices of citizens be “recognized?” How, indeed, can interactive communication begin?

And if we need to “listen to each opinion individually and try to find the best way to reach a mutual understanding,” why was there no response or action for the past seven months after the petition submission? Does this mean that reconciliation will take place from now on? Or does it mean that the civil organization does not deserve to be the subject of communication?

The petition states, “The fact that the executive committee has appointed Yasuharu Ishikawa as the executive producer without any explanation regarding his widely reported sexual harassment allegations is not acceptable. The citizens and residents of Okayama City and Okayama Prefecture are embarrassed by the damage caused by tolerating this issue.” Unless one doubts that the “news reports” are false, it would be natural to assume that there is indeed a person who was subjected to harassment. 

Ironically, the presence of those who have spoken out against such psychological and physical violence and the accompanying pain repeatedly crossed the author’s mind during the visit to this exhibition. Indeed, many outstanding works in this exhibition addressed issues of violence, body, and power.

The civic organization is not the only one driven away by the executive committee’s choices. Many people have expressed their disappointment through social media, saying they have no choice but to give up visiting the exhibition due to insufficient explanations. Will the current administration’s response lead to the exclusion of socially and politically concerned viewers from the exhibition? If so, it is a great disappointment, and for the honor of the exhibiting artists, we hope they will listen to the various voices.

In conclusion, I would like to add that such matters should be discussed as structural rather than personal. For example, although the artistic director of the “Okayama Art Summit” has changed each time, the executive committee, the executive producer, the executive director, and the public program director, as well as other key personnel and organizations, have remained mostly the same throughout the past three years. While a solid organizational structure may be a significant aspect that allows continued operations with long-term goals, becoming a more flexible organization that attracts new perspectives may also lead to greater responsiveness to the voices of citizens and a higher level of public interest.

*──Timeline of the events
November 8: “Okayama Art Summit 2022” is announced by the Okayama Art Summit Executive Committee (hereafter referred to as the executive committee)
November 19: Petition submitted to the Okayama City Council by “Okayama Citizens' Association for Okayama Art Summit” (hereafter referred to as civic organization)
November 24: Petition withdrawn by the civic organization

January 25: Signature collection begins (civic organization)
February 22: Petition re-submitted to Okayama Prefectural Assembly (civic organization)
February 25: Petition re-submitted to Okayama City Council (civic organization)
March 9: Petition discussed and rejected by the City Council’s Citizen and Industry Committee
April 10: Online petition started on (civic organization)
April 21: Artistic director Rirkrit Tiravanija and participating artists visit venues
May 18: Additional artists, logo, and withdrawing artists announced (executive committee)
July 8: A request submitted to Okayama City with a list of 400 signatures (civic organization). The group posted details on the Facebook page (posted on July 8).
July 15: Okayama City responds to the request (Okayama City). The response is published on the group’s Facebook page (posted on July 22).
August 1: Advance tickets for “Okayama Art Summit” are on sale (executive committee)
September 30: Opening of “Okayama Art Summit 2022”

*──Okayama Art Summit Executive Committee consists mainly of Okayama City, Ishikawa Foundation, and Okayama Prefecture.

Natsuko Fukushima

Natsuko Fukushima

Editor at Tokyo Art Beat. After working for a music magazine and the "Bijutsu Techo," she took up her current position in October 2021.