Res Artis plots a path for future art residencies

by Jeff Hammond and Jeff Michael Hammond

Special To The Japan Times

The 1990s saw a tremendous emphasis, continuing through to today, on artist residency programs, run by museums and galleries, educational establishments or independent foundations and organizations.

While some previous incarnations of these residencies, particularly in the 1960s or in the early years of the 20th century, offered artists a place of tranquility and reflection away from the demands of society, with the new boom it is largely the parallel trend toward promoting artist engagement with a target community or society that is gaining ground.

While these programs are often touted as a way for both the artist to gain fresh experiences and for the host community to benefit from contact with creative minds, the artistic results of short-stay residencies can sometimes come across as superficial. Attempting to address such questions, through talks and presentations from artists, art curators, educators and other art professionals, the Res Artis General Meeting 2012 Tokyo was held in late October. Res Artis is a worldwide network, bringing together more than 300 artist-residency programs from 50 countries, and holding a General Meeting every two years (formerly every year), in a different country each time, to share ideas and information.

In practice, however, the topics under discussion in the panels are only loosely based on the idea of artist residencies, with speakers often spinning off tangentially. Indeed, one of the basic points emphasized by a number of guests this year was that residencies need to be considered as part of the larger infrastructure supporting artistic production and exhibition.

Kim Hong-hee, director of the Seoul Museum of Art in South Korea, talked about the pressures on museums, post-Lehman Shock in particular, to lower costs and at the same time appeal to a wider strata of the public, and how artist-residency programs, alongside other “alternative organizations” such as biennales, can form a partnership with the museum and become a tool for reforming it. In fact, Kim sees artist residencies and biennales as indicating a move toward the “post-museum,” as many such institutions are beginning to reconsider their original functions and become engaged on a variety of levels with artistic production and communication with the public.

Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasami, president of the Sharjah Art Foundation in the UAE, spoke about the Sharjah Biennial, open free to the public, that her foundation organizes. Al-Qasami pointed out that the biennial hosts performances and encourages artists to create works for display outside of the confines of the core venues of the expo center and the museums, in order to engage passersby “who wouldn’t necessarily enter a museum.” While stressing the aim to “infiltrate” the urban environment of Sharjah City (and beyond, to other parts of the emirate), she also pointed out that, while the museums enjoy freedom from censorship, they have to be more careful not to break blasphemy and other laws with works presented in public spaces.

From Turkey, Vasif Kortun, director of SALT Research and Programs — a leading institute for the presentation and archiving of Turkish art — discussed how, up until the 1970s in particular, the country largely looked down on the Arab world, with most international networks concentrating on key European cities such as Paris and Vienna. Recently, however, artist-residency programs have helped Turkey connect with parts of the Muslim world, such as the Balkans and the Middle East. He also stated that because contemporary art is actually quite well established and supported in Turkey, it is most important for work to be carried out on the historical aspects of art in the region, bringing together historical narratives that are “broken up, dispersed and individuated.” While Modernism in the non-West is often considered an import from the West, Kortun cited how the birth of Modernism in Iraq and Syria was influenced by Turkish military painting schools, but research in the field is currently suspended.

Similarly, artists on the African continent, while moving forward with contemporary art, are also attempting to reconsider the past, reconnecting with and reformulating the idea of pan-Africanism — an ideal born in the 20th century but scuppered by the different languages, cultures and interests of the various African countries. N’Gone Fall, an independent curator from Senegal, stressed that political pan-Africanism has nonetheless been translated by artists into different projects, including the continent’s first large-scale art event — the Dakar Biennale in Senegal, expressly dedicated to promoting art in a pan-African context. She also spoke about a group of artists from Nigeria who, in contrast to organized art-residency programs, decided that to truly feel a part of a united Africa they must get out and connect — and they did so, DIY-style. Traveling for three months by public transport, they met up with artists in a total of 10 West African countries, sharing ideas and making lasting connections. Reality hit home however, when they failed to get the proper visas for Senegal and were unable to reach their goal of arriving in Dakar in time for the 2006 Biennale — this failure itself highlighting the question of what pan-Africanism really means.

Alongside museums and biennales, one panel addressed another important point of intersection with art-residency programs —namely education. Max Delany, from the Monash University Museum of Art in Melbourne, Australia, suggested that art-recency programs allow for collaborations that would otherwise be unlikely to take place — such as his museum having brought together, of all things, a group of Lithuanian folk singers and an Indonesian collective of artist-punks for a program of performances.

In summation, Masaki Fujihata, director of the Art Media Center, Tokyo University of the Arts, stressed that art “is an act and an activity that cannot be taught or shown by the faculty,” and that artist-residency programs provide a space for this creativity to flourish.

Res Artis General Meeting 2012 Tokyo Japan Committee was held Oct. 26-28 at Tokyo Womens’s Plaza following an opening ceremony and keynote speech at the United Nations University.