The exhibition Asia Corridor Contemporary Art Exhibition took place in Kyoto this year, as part of a series of cultural exchange and art events for the Cultural City of East Asia project held between Japan, China and South Korea since 2014. While the artistic director Akira Tatehata stated in his message that “[The exhibition] endeavors to further the possibilities of communication and mutual understanding through culture and art,” evidently there were no programs, let alone traces of an “endeavor” to encourage “communication” between the artists, curators and audiences from participating countries. On the contrary, it was like what Cai Guo-Qiang ironically put it with his work: “The spirit of Eastern philosophy and the ambitions of peace embodied by the Cultural City of East Asia — are these simply an immense bonsai display?”
The concept for this yearlong project from its inception has never aimed to constitute distinctive relationships between the countries through processes of dialogue and mutual exchange. Rather, this is avoided on purpose. The project could, alternatively, have been a way to address ‘histories’ — much of which has been largely put aside or ignored. But again, this only appeared on the surface, as seen in the gigantic bonsai display.
Historically, this year marks the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration, in which Yoshinobu Tokugawa (last shogun of the Tokugawa bakufu) returned the governing power to the Emperor of the time, signaling the birth of Japanese Imperialism. With the exhibition taking place in Nijo Castle which staged the site for the last Shogun’s resignation, this project would have been a timely opportunity to reconstruct an organic relationship and discuss historical issues outside of the political pressure imposed by the authorities, or rethink Asian Modernities — of which the idea was actually imported from the West. If Tatehata wanted the curation to embody ideas of “mutual understanding” through “culture and art” to counteract the world that is “…afflicted by isolationism and bigotry as well as an endless cycle of terrorism and war”, it would therefore make sense to take these subjects into account.
It is understood that international cultural projects initiated by the local government is extremely difficult for practitioners, particularly in referencing political histories (especially so after 18th century in East Asia) even if it appears to be situated in the cultural sphere. Regardless, the exhibition could have at least had participatory events for audiences to rethink about their relationships. Even on the basis of curating a conservative, controversy-free exhibition as part of an international art festival, presenting Japanese artists’ works in Kyoto — of those based-in and educated-in in Kyoto, on a fundamental level, makes very little sense. Who wants to see works from Kyoto in Kyoto? Well, only the art community in Kyoto of course! Why is it that those based-in and educated-in the area are so crucial to include in the exhibition? Were there no other possibilities to represent Kyoto other than to showcase works by graduates or by those belonging to Kyoto soil?
The exhibition has unconsciously highlighted its own irrelevance by showing the kind of works that do not refer to their social and historical context, standing solely for a certain tendency or belief which is of that ‘works-of-self-interest-are-much-better-than-works-of-social-interest.’ Such works accompanied by an almost non-curatorial form of curation has unfortunately signified the local paradigm under the international framework, implemented with the juxtaposition of works from Korea and China.
For those of you who have had a chance to see the exhibition, perhaps it brought to mind a previous international exhibition PARASOPHIA: Kyoto International Festival of Contemporary Culture 2015. Seen in comparison, you’d think that such a powerful direction and curation wasn’t so bad after all.