Posted:Nov 8, 2013

Global Intersections: Roppongi Crossing 2013

An interview with Roppongi Crossing 2013 guest curators Reuben Keehan and Gabriel Ritter.

“Roppongi Crossing 2013 – Out of Doubt” is now open at the Mori Art Museum. Roppongi Crossing, a triennial exhibition held for the past nine years, provides a survey of young and active artists within the current Japanese art scene. This year’s curatorial team included Mori Art Museum’s chief curator, Mami Kataoka; Reuben Keehan, curator of Asian art at Brisbane’s Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art in Australia; and Gabriel Ritter, assistant curator at the Dallas Museum of Art, United States. The Australian and American curators sat down a few hours before the exhibition opening to talk extensively about the global approach of this year’s exhibition, as well as their thoughts on the state of Japanese art since 3/11.

Emily Wakeling: This is the first time that Roppongi Crossing has been curated by two “outsider” curators, as well as Mori’s own Mami Kataoka. What are the advantages to making the exhibition a collaborative effort?

Gabriel Ritter: I think the biggest difference this time is that they’ve [Mori Art Museum] tapped curators who are not Japanese. I think that was a very intentional move on Mami’s part to expand and question the concept of Japanese art. It was about bringing curatorial and artistic practices from outside of Japan and how those might interject into each other, for hopefully a more fruitful dialogue. It was also to complicate this idea of Roppongi Crossing as a sort of cross-section of Japanese art and what that means for a globalized art world. There was definitely more emphasis on the “crossing” of Roppongi Crossing. This meant looking trans-historically and transnationally.

Roppongi Crossing 2013 co-curator Gabriel Ritter speaking at the exhibition opening weekend.
Roppongi Crossing 2013 co-curator Gabriel Ritter speaking at the exhibition opening weekend.

Roppongi Crossing 2013 co-curator Reuben Keehan speaking at the exhibition opening weekend.
Roppongi Crossing 2013 co-curator Reuben Keehan speaking at the exhibition opening weekend.

EW: Roppongi Crossing has become quite an institution for young and active artists in Japan. What kind of selection process was used to compose this year’s survey of the Japanese art scene?

Reuben Keehan: Our individual lists of artists to include had about 30 names each. The lists had quite a lot of overlaps, and those overlaps really formed that framework for our discussions. It helped us choose more artists from there. The next step was breaking it down into particular concerns, they weren’t exclusive, but they did help us form some framework for the show.

GR: As well as our individual lists, it actually started when we began to identify these father figures—I think Akasegawa Genpei, Suga Kishio, and Nakahira Takuma were the first three that we really set on as the strands that could connect historically to the newer artists.

EW: “Out of Doubt” is a title that comes from a question about what kind of productive debate can be generated out of doubt and insecurity. What’s the nature of this doubt?

RK: It came from our short time spent in Tohoku, when we met with some of the art NPOs [non-profit organizations] working in the areas of Ishinomaki and Sendai. Two years have passed since the quake, and these people were concerned that the communities they are working for cannot yet move on from the disaster. They were quite frustrated because they’d worked so hard. We witnessed a terrific amount of creativity, all invested in the project of helping the communities recover. It became quite awkward because after explaining their frustration, they were asking us, “what should we do?” Truthfully, our response was, “You’re doing a terrific job!” The NPOs were incredible and inspiring, but they were in a position of doubt because they felt like they hadn’t achieved their goal. The phrase “Out of Doubt” can have two meanings. It can be related to art works being produced from a time of doubt, but it can also be about getting out of a situation where people are doubting themselves.

GR: I think among the younger generations included in this exhibition there is an intense questioning of the structure that has created the status-quo and the system that existed prior to Fukushima and the system they are now faced with. What I’m seeing from works in this post-Fukushima moment is the ability, whether it’s generated from this doubt or not, to generate a new-found intense questioning of these structures and how to either undo them or how to find alternative modes of working within society to have it work for the artist/person as opposed to being just a subject. I think that is also related to the title.

RK: I don’t think it was just the tsunami. You could point to incidents in 2009, like the growing activism around homelessness, protests in Okinawa, all these new forms of questioning.

Yukinori Yanagi, 'Eurasia' (2001) Installation. Ant, colored sand, plastic box, plastic tube and plastic pipe
Yukinori Yanagi, 'Eurasia' (2001) Installation. Ant, colored sand, plastic box, plastic tube and plastic pipe
Courtesy Mori Art Museum.

EW: Japanese contemporary art isn’t usually associated with bold politics. Are there any debates do you think need to be had among Japanese artists that aren’t happening right now?

RK: One thing could be theory…

GR: Yes, one thing I was going to say is that as a supplement to this exhibition, the Mori is putting together a discursive platform around the show. It’s bringing together groups like Camp, AIT and banClass to talk about contemporary art and the issues surrounding it.
One problem I’ve noticed is that there are very few critical voices in Japanese art that make their way out of Japan, whereas in Japan there are quite a few voices, and there’s a lot of debate going on. There’s a kind of stranglehold on the information so that only a very small amount of voices get out, so the perspective from abroad—at least in the U.S.—is that there aren’t these critical conversations going on. It would be good if this assumption could change.

E: You’ve given space in the show for artists that may not necessarily be a part of the Japanese art scene, but are Japanese artists nonetheless. What do these overseas artists contribute to a survey of Japanese contemporary art?

GR: Reuben and I were charged with finding and working with artists who are either expatriate artists or artists of Japanese descent who live abroad. Some of which, other than their ethnicity, do not have any relationship to the Japanese art scene. So I think this was to problematize this category of Japanese art that is often thought of as uniform, which of course is not.

RK: I think what it does is to actually suggest there aren’t just two classes of artists in the exhibition—Japanese and overseas, expatriate Japanese—but 29 artists with a relationship to Japanese-ness. When you look at the CVs of the artists, many of them studied overseas, and have then returned. Or some may have undertaken their education here, and then left. In fact, the very idea of Japanese art, at least since the post-war era and perhaps before, if you look back to figures like Lee Ufan, Yoko Ono, or Isamu Noguchi, you have already three problematic models that don’t cohere to what a Japanese artist should be. In particular, the idea that they should be ethnically yamato, and be born, raised, educated and live their whole life in Japan. It becomes less of a question about identity and more about identification. They may identify as artists, or siblings, or, friends, or lovers, or accountants, or something like that.

Mika Tajima, 'The Extras' (2010) Wood, canvas, acrylic paint, silkscreen, mirrored aluminum, wood, paper, plexiglas, MDF, spray enamel, video monitor, formica, glass, lights
Mika Tajima, 'The Extras' (2010) Wood, canvas, acrylic paint, silkscreen, mirrored aluminum, wood, paper, plexiglas, MDF, spray enamel, video monitor, formica, glass, lights
Photo: Jason Mandella. Courtesy Mori Art Museum.

EW: Were you open to artists who are the reverse as well—those who are immigrants to Japan?

RK: Obviously there are a great deal of non-Japanese artists who exist within Japan. There are also artists from Ainu and Ryuku cultures. The formal limitations of the exhibition mean that this is something that we couldn’t include. As I wrote in my essay for the catalogue, the exhibition is necessarily incomplete. I think there’s still a lot of room for this question of what is Japanese art, even after Roppongi Crossing closes.

EW: This exhibition is specifically described as having a “global perspective”. Do you think the Japanese art scene has further to go to achieve the kind of transnational art exhibitions and events witnessed in other parts of Asia, or other areas of the globe?

RK: If we go back to the Fukuoka Asian Art shows of the 1990s, Japan was really leading the way. The Japan Foundation organised a show called “Under Construction”, which is another example of a very interesting trans-Asian or regional exhibition that not only brought together a whole bunch of curators and artists from a number of areas but also really successfully questioned the assumptions that were overriding the reception of Asian art in Japan. I think the problem is less to do with ideas but more about some practical obstacles, such as infrastructure, funding, sponsorships and the size of the market. That said, there are quite a few people working, despite these limitations, asking some very important questions. So this show does not exist within a vacuum. It’s just perhaps a high-profile opportunity to ask these same questions.

GR: I think the view from the United States is much more unaware of these events. In the USA, we’ve recently been looking much more at the post-war Japanese art movements such as Gutai or Mono-ha, not what is happening in contemporary Japanese art. I don’t think Roppongi Crossing has ever traveled, but that would certainly be an interesting venture.

EW: On the flip side, do you think Japanese contemporary art deserves further inclusion on the global stage?

GR: Absolutely.

RK: I think the west is still playing catch-up with art history. The west was very insular for a very long time, just constructing its own art history. What’s interesting about the recent interest in post-war history in the United States is that it is finally piecing these histories together that will allow people to have a greater understanding of what the artists of the present are doing.

GR: I think all of these new centers for culture and art in Asia, such as Dubai and Ullens in China, I think there’s going to be a shift where new work—or work of the last twenty years—is going to start having a higher visibility within these new centers, and the west will be forced to catch up yet again. I think there are many young transnational curators today, looking beyond national borders, who will also bring more opportunities for contemporary art outside of Japan.

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.