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Of arts, politics and censorship at Aichi Triennale, Japan

A chat with Iida Shihoko, the Chief Curator of Aichi Triennale, about the 2019 edition of the arts festival and the shutdown of one of its section – “After 'Freedom of Expression?'”

by Sukanya GargPublished on : Sep 02, 2019

STIR speaks to Iida Shihoko, the Chief Curator of Aichi Triennale 2019, one of the largest art festivals in Japan. The present edition is showcasing the works of roughly 90 individual artists and groups from Japan and overseas at the International Contemporary Art Exhibition, and is on display till October 14, 2019, in Nagoya, Japan.

Installation view at Aichi Triennale 2019, Exonemo, The Kiss | Aichi Triennale 2019| Iida Shihoko| STIR
Installation view at Aichi Triennale 2019, Exonemo, The Kiss Image Credit: Ito Tetsuo

Sukanya Garg (SG): The conceptual focus in this edition of the Aichi Triennale lies at the intersection of politics and art. How, in your opinion, can art play a role in not just stimulating the need for change, but carrying forward an actual change?

Iida Shihoko (IS): Yes, in this edition of the Aichi Triennale, which is the fourth edition since its inauguration in 2010, we have invited quite a few artists who have a strong concern for art, politics, and those who practice their art in the form of activism. Our artistic director, Daisuke Tsuda, is a journalist and media activist, which is why our selection of artists is not only about how they can propose the idea to the public but also about wanting to make some actual change in the society. This has given us an opportunity not just to present beautiful fabulous artworks to the general public but to also challenge them at the same time. We always work with community-based projects. It is always a great experience to be challenged by those different sets of values and conditions. By negotiating with different conditions, different sets of people, we can mutually renew and explore different ways of seeing our daily life and the world. Even a tiny gesture can influence the daily life of each individual and vice versa, we have also been influenced. Each person has his/her own voice.

Therefore, bringing art in the public sphere matters a lot for Aichi Triennale. Combining community-based projects and exhibitions in an art museum format allow us to create diverse multiple platforms in which we can curate exhibitions in unconventional ways to present our mission and thought, creating an exhibition narrative. By working with communities, we can also forget about our art oriented mind. That’s how, I believe, we can bring actual change within society.

Installation view at Aichi Triennale 2019, Bontaro Dokuyama, Synchronized Cherry Blossom | Aichi Triennale 2019| Iida Shihoko| STIR
Installation view at Aichi Triennale 2019, Bontaro Dokuyama, Synchronized Cherry Blossom Image Credit: Courtesy of Bontaro Dokuyama

SG: What was the inspiration behind the title Taming Y/Our Passion?

IS: There were three different stages in which the artistic director, Daisuke Tsuda, decided the theme. The basic structure included him deciding the theme. We, curators, interpreted the theme and then invited the artists.

This edition’s artistic director is primarily a journalist, so he has a strong interest in politics. He had seen the world being divided in many different ways after President (Donald) Trump caused a bit of chaos in the States. By witnessing those changes in the political climate and how it could affect the way of life, he wanted to create an exhibition in which artists and people could take some action to regain and recover our sense of solidarity. This was the first stage of deciding this theme Taming Y/Our Passion. Passion in Japanese title  contains three different meanings: feeling or emotion, information/ truth/ fact and then compassion. He found that the English term passion also had three different meanings – passion from origin in the Christian context, attitude to accept suffering and thirdly, emotion. He thought that by working on this theme he could invite different ways of approaching the current condition in the society.

Further, last year, there was a big scandal reported in Japan, where one medical university automatically reduced the score of women candidates to prioritise men candidates in the entrance examination. This was a big scandal since women’s score was automatically reduced. Receiving that news, our artistic director as a journalist was really upset and thought it was totally unfair. So, he started conducting research about the unequal gender situation in Japan. Also, one of our co-curators, Pedro Reyes, proposed this idea of making gender equality a focus in this edition. Subsequently, our artistic director clearly stated that we want to achieve gender equality in this edition. So, we achieved it by inviting an exactly equal number of participating artists. There are 31 male artists and 32 female artists within the international contemporary arts section and performing arts section aside from theatre company.  

The third phase of working on the theme was related to the “After 'Freedom of Expression?'” exhibition. The artistic director had seen an exhibition of this name in Tokyo in 2015. As a journalist, he had a strong interest in ensuring free speech and freedom of expression, so he invited this exhibition within the Triennale. It is kind of like an exhibition within an exhibition. He invited the five members, who had organised the exhibition in 2015 in Tokyo, as artists/curators.

Altogether, it is one consistent theme –Taming Y/Our Passion.

Installation view at Aichi Triennale 2019, Tadasu Takamine, Anti-thesis: Gazing up at the endless blue // stained forever by its color // I have ceased to be myself | Aichi Triennale 2019| Iida Shihoko| STIR
Installation view at Aichi Triennale 2019, Tadasu Takamine, Anti-thesis: Gazing up at the endless blue // stained forever by its color // I have ceased to be myself Image Credit: Takeshi Hirabayash

SG: The “After ’Freedom of Expression?’” section of the exhibition was earlier censored, and has now been shut down due to terrorists’ threats of violence after the showcase of the work Status of a Girl or Peace by Korean sculptors Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung, which represented a ‘comfort woman’, a term used for Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese during WW II. With the shutdown, however, it seems like the passion of the Triennale itself has been tamed. What do you have to say about that?

IS: We have been suffering from a lot of phone calls, emails, terrorists notices and have been closely working with our Governor, who is the president of the organising committee, and the police. So the situation is still uncertain and we have to prioritise safety, human life, and the working environment for all staff and volunteers because they have been most harassed by the violent visitors. We are not only fighting with the politicised situation, but we have also been threatened by the general public. It is a difficult situation for us because you can’t see who could be attacking us really. So, while I believe that art should be a safe place for artists, for everyone to say something freely, which is why we created the section “After `Freedom of Expression?`”; however, because the situation has escalated, it had to be closed down.

This is due to the political context between South Korea and Japan, in context to the war time history. Although the government of Japan has insisted that Japan made an official apology to Korea, it has been internationally said sometimes that Japan has not acknowledged 'comfort women' well enough. Such gap of recognition and the probable lack of acknowledgement for the past 70 years has caused a lot of different voices from feminists, nationalists, right wing, and politicians about the situation which has escalated. This exactly reflects what kind of condition we are living in today, which is called post-truth, because you only believe what you want to believe. There are different facts, different truths. If we can talk based on facts, maybe we can find a way out, but if we only discuss based on truths, there are multiple truths. We have not censored anything. Due to the situation, the government, the president and the artistic director decided to close the space immediately as they did not have time. We have accepted temporarily suspension of works by several artists as a protest and expressing their solidarity for their fellow artists, but at the Aichi Triennale, we also have the responsibility to secure accessibility of all works for everybody.

I hope that people understand that we cannot make a comparison between prioritising safety, humanity, human life and human rights on one hand and freedom of expression on the other. We cannot find a balance between this right now.

Installation view at Aichi Triennale 2019, Anna Hulačová, Ascension Mark I | Aichi Triennale 2019| Iida Shihoko| STIR
Installation view at Aichi Triennale 2019, Anna Hulačová, Ascension Mark I Image Credit: Takeshi Hirabayash

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