In conversation with Yuko Hasegawa

February 26, 2018

Yuko Hasegawa is an international curator par excellence. In her native Japan, she is a co-founder of Inujima Art House Project on Naoshima and an artistic director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (MOT). Her latest project, “Japanorama”, is currently on at the Centre Pompidou-Metz in France.

In the recent years, Yuko Hasegawa curated the Moscow Biennale (2017) and the XI Sharjah Biennale (2013), co-curated the 29th Sao Paulo Biennale (2010), and judged the Hugo Boss Asia Art Award and the MAXXI Bulgari Prize.

AMA: “Japonorama” is an extremely ambitious undertaking: the exhibition spans over 45 years of Japanese contemporary art history, and includes around 350 works by 100 artists. You are obviously a very experienced curator, but do you still find it difficult to cope with such mammoth projects?

Yuko Hasegawa: First, let me explain why the exhibition starts in 1970.

In 1986, Pompidou staged an important overview “Japon des avant-gardes” that traced the history of avant-garde art in Japan from 1910-1970. The new show follows on that earlier exhibition, picking up where the previous one ended.

The same year “Expo ’70” in Osaka took place: a symbolic event marking Japan’s transition from the post-war period towards its own, new path of development in society, economy, technology, as well as culture: meaning a lot of people were seeking an original cultural identity, looking inside rather than outwards.

This is why I thought it is important to start the exhibition from 1970 and up to the present day. Many exhibitions on contemporary Japanese art organized by foreign curators focus on art produced in the 1950-60s: mainly because this period was largely influenced by the European modernism, so it is easy for Western curators to contextualize it under this umbrella.

In Japan of the 70s, Minimalism starts developing, whereas in the 80s - the bubble economy period - a lot of cross-disciplinary expressions take place, incorporating design, music, and fashion. This is why art from this period onwards is not so easy to contextualize. So instead of making a chronological linear exhibition, I extracted six key concepts characterizing Japan’s contemporary visual culture: Pop art, Post-Human Body, Collaboration, Subjectivities, Poetics, and Minimalism.

And yes, of course, it was a challenge. Not at least, because Japanese culture is not so familiar to the European audience. Despite globalization and access to information on various Japanese subcultures, animation and manga, most of the time people in the West are only aware of a few stereotype typologies like anime, geishas, mountains, Zen Koi, etc. This is why I wanted to bring up six very clear ideas through my presentation.

AMA: It’s not just contemporary art on display in this show: you also include Comme des Garçons, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Rhizomatics, etc-etc. Rather than focusing purely on visual art, the exhibition features all possible media: from fashion and music, to design and technology. Such interdisciplinary approach helpfully puts artists’ work in the wider context of contemporary Japanese culture.

Yuko Hasegawa: You see, Japan has very horizontal structures, compared to Western hierarchy of high and low art forms, fine art and subcultures. This becomes particularly obvious when we look at the 80s, when say a graphic designer would make illustrations and manga, but spilling over in painting as well.

One such example is Tadanori Yokoo who was a successful designer in the 60s and 70s, and decided to become a painter later on whilst continuing to work in the design world. So there is a lot of cross-boundary creation taking place.

AMA: The MOT’s exhibition programme spanning artists and creators from artist and musician Yoko Ono, to Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, to model Sayoko Yamaguchi, certainly reflects what you are talking about. I suppose many museums in the West today are adopting a similar approach, trying to bring various disciplines in the conversation, particularly dance, theatre, and poetry, but it is a very conscious, if not forced, effort.

Yuko Hasegawa: Yes, whereas for me this approach is very natural. In Japan it is quite common for different art forms to interact with each other, and I wanted to reflect this in the exhibition.

AMA: You curate a lot of international shows, but "Japonorama" is focused solely on Japanese art. Do you find such national categorization helpful or perhaps unhelpful in today’s global art world?

Yuko Hasegawa: This is the first time I make a so-called Japanese art exhibition outside of the country. Moreover, I have never organized this type of overview exhibitions of Japanese art in Japan itself either.

On a very practical level, Japan is so far away and so different, it is not easy to introduce the complicated background, with all the various subcultures, in the European context. It was a mission, and I had to make use of certain abstraction and contextualization to be able to provide an overview of Japanese culture to the Western audience in one show. There is a very limited knowledge and information, and I had lots of freedom to make any kind of exhibition - so I thought why not.

There is no nationalistic agenda involved, but rather a very simple idea: to bring out something very interesting and unfamiliar and try to explain it.

AMA: You mention you had lots of freedom in putting the exhibition together: do you bring a lot of personal narrative in the shows you curate? Do you try to present a quote-unquote ‘objective view of history’ or is it more of your personal take on it?

Yuko Hasegawa: I am a curator, so I choose work using all the information available to me, and looking at a piece from the position of my knowledge and experience. It is my responsibility as a curator - to select, otherwise I could just choose art from catalogues. I encounter the work, and this is how I get to know it. So curation is always a responsibility, and it is always subjective.

What does the word ‘history’ mean? Who is talking history? It is someone telling a story. Inevitably, my representation of history is no one else’s story, but my own. So-called ‘objective stories’ are only told by authoritative powers. As a contemporary curator, I have freedom, but I also have a responsibility to point at things, to say: this is important, in this context, in this time.

The six themes I chose for "Japonorama" are in fact based on a very precise statistical research. We looked at what kind of Japanese art is collected by the European museums – which, as you know, would only accept what is relevant in their own context, and in the context of the existing collection; there are very high barriers on entering a public collection. The Pompidou for example has some pieces by Yayoi Kusama, Tetsumi Kudo - why these artists, why these works? I’ve also spoken to lots of colleagues in the West to try and get their impression of Japanese art.

AMA: You get invited to curate lots of various shows and biennales all over the world. How do you make a choice?

Yuko Hasegawa: Well, first of all, I look at my schedule. Secondly, I like to work in countries I’ve never worked in before. So for instance, I accepted to curate the Moscow Biennale last year despite having a very tight schedule because of ongoing preparations for "Japonorama". But I’ve been in Moscow twice before, and for me it is very interesting, geoculturally and geopolitically - same reason I’ve chosen Istanbul in the past [she curated Istanbul Biennial in 2001].

I find this position between East and West fascinating, and I am curious about countries, which are culturally chaotic: particularly those operating under special political climate. Apart from that, I am always interested in why a particular institution or a venue invited me.

AMA: I know you are very interested in the European vs Western models of knowledge and subjectivity, and you’ve spoken before about the need to shift our Eurocentric mode of learning and focus on individual. Nature has always been an important focus for Japanese artists, both historically and today, and I see a lot of contemporary Japanese art preoccupied with the topics of nature, human and posthuman: these topics come up regularly in your exhibitions as well...

Yuko Hasegawa: This is an important point I want to make. As you know, Japan is an island, which has undergone lots of natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunami. As a result, Japanese people are very conscious of what nature is: sometimes it is very powerful and impressive, other times tender and mild.

I think there is a better understanding here that there is no Great Division, no separation between human and nature: instead, we are part of nature, also nature is part of us, and there is this organic relationship between us. Sometimes we destroy nature - on the other side, we appreciate its beauty, which we try to maintain.

So there are two contrasting attitudes, yet they stem from the same root: we are all in it together after all. Another important aspect is animism: Japanese people worship animals. In Japan people hunt whales - this biggest of mammals - and they get criticized by the Westerners for killing whales and eating the meat. But we deal with whales in a very particular way: we use the entire body - the skin, the fat, the bones. Moreover, when the whales die, we make a tomb and worship them and mourn them like human beings: we co-exist together, and we are sorry but we have to eat you. So there is this respect towards nature, which is unique to Japanese culture, but which also extends beyond living things.

If you look at Japanese media artists and the way they deal with media and computers: they don’t view computers as machines, but rather as organic creatures, as other beings. This is why people here are very good at creating robots, particularly android robots.

Having an organic relationship with the ‘others’ is a very Japanese characteristic, which I call neo-animism, or contemporary animism. Western people often tend to divide: this is black and white, this is subject-object, this is nature and this is machine. In Japan, however, human is not in the center, but rather ‘a part of’, helping us to reconsider our relationships with nature and the habitat, and all the conflicts and gaps in between.

This aspect of Japanese thinking and philosophy is very interesting and important for me, we have to deal with these gaps and conflicts, you know. This is my proposal through this exhibition.

AMA: As well as being a curator, you teach art history and theory at Tama Art University. The notions of co-existence, redefinition of nature and the human, body and senses have been important topics both in art and in theory of the last couple decades, particularly in the work of French philosophers like Gilles Deleuze, Bruno Latour, Michel Serres, and others. It is interesting to see how theory, the so-called new material turn and ‘rediscovery of nature’ in the West echo the concepts and ideas inherent to Japanese art and culture. How does the two interact and feed into your curatorial practice?

Yuko Hasegawa: Japanese culture has a strong focus on senses and physical intellect: on bodily knowledge that is not articulated by theoretical terms, but comes from physical experience. Sometimes it is difficult for me to have the same level of conversation in between, because our intellect is very much merged into physical experience, which is not necessarily expressed in purely intellectual terms. French philosophy, in particular, has very rich ideas about senses, and is extremely articulate.

That is why I sometimes quote from French philosophers as their language is close to our sensitivity, so I apply their ideas to the deeper analysis of my direct experience, as well as knowledge, trying to make a better sense out of two. So theory is very important for me, it is a very useful apparatus, helping me to articulate the ideas I want to discuss.

AMA: Perhaps the closest we get to experience and sense Japanese culture in the West is through food, where one of the key characteristics is balance - the right composition of tastes, flavours, and textures. Balance appears an important aspect of your work too: on one hand, there is a combination of diverse media, like in “Japonorama”, and on the other, there is a mix of artists, with several really big names like Kusama and Sugimoto, but also young fresh voices that you always include.

Yuko Hasegawa: Balance is always very important, you see. Exhibition is a journey: you are invited to walk over several floors, over several thousand square meters - so how can I make a proposal and, based on that, create an experience for this one-hour journey? This is something I always think about. Human beings have different kinds of perception: young people get excited by kinetic, moving objects, whereas older people pay attention to detail in painting.

So I think of different ways to raise awareness, make a discovery, make connections with the artworks they already know. I am also a cook of a sort, you see, a chef who is constantly thinking how to prepare a good compote of physical and intellectual stimuli, so one doesn’t get bored, and feels constantly inspired. This is my responsibility as a curator, and this is also my profession.

Japanorama. A new look at contemporary creation, until March 5th, Centre Pompidou-Metz, Metz.

For more from Art Media Agency, subscribe to their comprehensive newsletter here!

Featured image: Kenji Yanobe - Atom Suit Project – Desert, detail. C-print, 49,8 x 49,8 cm. Collection particulière © Kenji Yanobe, Photo by Seiji Toyonaga. Courtesy Centre Pompidou-Metz.