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Why curators stay at home

by Edan Corkill

When I interviewed 28-year-old curator Shinya Watanabe a month ago, he surprised me when he said his dream was to curate Documenta, the massive exhibition of international contemporary art held once every five years in Kassel, Germany. He might as well have said all he wanted was to be the most famous curator in the world.

In the last two decades, Japan’s visual artists have become as prominent as its scientists, and its designers as respected as its businessmen. But local curatorial talents have never stood out on the world stage.

This is hurting the nation’s standing in the art world, as over the last couple of decades, large-scale exhibitions such as Documenta have rivaled established museums as the arbiters of taste. So important have these shows become that an adulatory new term has been coined to describe the globe-trotting curators who organize them: “super curators.”

Japan has just one: Fumio Nanjo, the 59-year-old director of the Mori Art Museum, who early next month will open his second Singapore Biennale. Over the last two decades, Nanjo has curated dozens of international biennales, triennales and exhibitions. His rise to prominence occurred in tandem with that of Japanese artists.

“In the late 1980s, with the Japanese economy booming, many foreign curators started coming to Japan to see the art,” Nanjo recalls. “It was like what happened to China a few years ago, and what is happening to India now.

“Foreign curators would ask the same question: Who are the good artists? But Japanese curators would never answer.”

Nanjo says they were reticent for two reasons: a fear of putting their stamp on artists untested overseas, and a lack of domestic critical discourse that meant there were no criteria to determine which artists were good.

“Foreign curators thought the Japanese were unhelpful,” he says. “I decided I would always give my opinion.”

Foreigners appreciated it. In the mid ’80s, Nanjo was invited by two American curators to work on an exhibition of Japanese contemporary art called “Against Nature: Japanese Art in the Eighties.” The show, which toured seven U.S. cities in ’89, launched the international careers of Tatsuo Miyajima and Yasumasa Morimura.

Nanjo was later recommended for membership of the influential Modern art committee of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), where he was soon joined by the woman closest to emulating his “super” status: Yuko Hasegawa, the chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo. In an interview last year, Hasegawa pointed out that few Japanese were active on the committee, an essential venue for networking, suggesting this is a factor in their absence from the world stage. She puts the blame for this on institutions as much as individuals, noting that they rarely fund “networking” or “general research” trips for employees.

Nanjo puts the responsibility on the individual, though, saying the two stumbling blocks for most Japanese curators are language ability and a lack of cosmopolitan “sense.”

“A lot of Japanese curators are just too domestic-minded,” he says, suggesting this entails a degree of eccentricity. “I looked and spoke in the same way the foreign curators did.” Nanjo quickly smiles, though, admitting that he had an advantage: “I was married to a French woman and she trained me.”

When asked to compare his generation with the current crop of young curators, such as Watanabe, Nanjo says foreign sense comes more naturally to the young.

“Young curators — and younger Japanese in general — are part of the international community from a much younger age,” he says. “My first overseas experience wasn’t until after university.”

Watanabe’s career illustrates Nanjo’s point well. He studied at New York University, writing a postgraduate thesis on the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Yet Watanabe believes that international leanings do not preclude an interest in his home country. Just as Nanjo uses his overseas work to launch Japanese artists, so Watanabe says he wants to “introduce Japanese culture abroad.”

Perhaps this is the irony that has escaped Japanese curators: Whether it’s attending ICOM meetings, marrying a French woman, studying the Balkans or exchanging opinions, it’s an interest in things abroad that creates opportunities for promoting what’s at home.