People | WHY DID YOU LEAVE JAPAN?

In art, there are no rules, only new challenges

by Irma Nunez

Contributing Writer

The gateway to Hakone’s onsen (hot spring) resorts, Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, is known for its castle and kamaboko fishcakes, refined by the mineral-rich waters of the bordering mountains. Yukie Kamiya was raised in its quiet confines; her parents sold porcelain wares. “They didn’t move,” she says. “I was born and grew up and my parents were still running the shop.”

So, after entering Waseda University in 1985 as an undeclared major, Kamiya soaked in the Tokyo metropolis. “I was very excited: ‘There’s so many things to see!’ I would buy weekly magazines like Time Out and check the galleries and museums just to explore,” she recalls.

On one such expedition to the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Kamiya had a revelatory experience: seeing the work of printmaker Shoichi Ida. “I was fascinated,” she says, “and it became immediately clear — I am not an artist. I am working to be involved in art.” Just 18 years old, Kamiya had never before considered art as a career; she didn’t even know art history was a major. Soon, however, she declared it her own.

Today, Kamiya is gallery director of the Japan Society in New York, exploring Japanese art in a global context. She came to the job in 2015 from the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, where she was chief curator. Before that, she was an associate at the New Museum, also in New York.

Her career path took off, however, from a different angle. Having graduated at the height of the bubble economy, “when people wanted to spend money,” Kamiya first gravitated toward work for a high-end furniture designer. “I thought, ‘Hmm, I like design,'” she recalls. “As a young girl, I wanted to work with something beautiful.”

Things were trial by fire as an administrative assistant, placing orders and arranging imports from unfamiliar industries in faraway countries and at gender-discriminatory pay. But the job provided fundamental learning. “First, I learned that without a budget, you can’t do anything,” she says. Second, she learned she’d rather work more directly in the arts.

“All design starts with one rule. Like, for a chair, you have to be able to sit in it. Desks are for writing things down,” she explains. Applied to art, however, this pragmatism fragments. “Art is a way you can make the rules for yourself. There aren’t any rules.”

Kamiya found this idea so liberating, she promptly quit her job.

Because no intern programs existed at Japanese museums and hiring practices followed a strict age hierarchy, she entered the contemporary art scene via publishing, interviewing artists and reviewing exhibits for magazines. “In Japan, even if you study art history, your education only extends to impressionism,” she says, “so there’s no opportunity to know what’s going on except to experience it directly.”

Before long, she was hired by Fumio Nanjo, now director of the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi, to assist with an independent show coinciding with the 1995 Venice Biennale. The experience stoked her interest in curatorial work and underscored the importance of English fluency, so she strategized her next steps toward those goals.

“Since I was already working, I didn’t want to just go to a language school,” she explains. “So I sent an application to (intern at) the New Museum, and I just jumped into New York.”

In 1996, she left Japan for intensive study at the New Museum and a local language school. “I thought it would just be three months but — oh my God — there were so many differences. And, of course, New Yorkers and everyone at museums spoke so fast.” Meanwhile her classmates’ United Nations of accents proved challenging. “I didn’t know what they were talking about,” she laughs. “I was a bit lost.”

But unlike in Japan, the young up-and-comers were encouraged at the New Museum to voice their ideas: “It was so liberal,” Kamiya says. The museum was also at the cutting edge, championing artists like David Wojnarowicz and Carolee Schneemann. As an intern, Kamiya prepared presentations of unsolicited artist submissions for curatorial feedback. In this way, she “magically” came to know all the emerging artists of the time. “If I was interested in anyone, I would just go visit their studios. It was amazing,” she says.

After a year, she was accepted to the curatorial program at Amsterdam’s De Appel art center, becoming its first Asian student in a class of just four others — one German, one Italian, one American, and one Dutch. “Everybody was so excited, so we were always fighting, always discussing,” she recalls. “It was even better than language school for learning how to communicate in English, how to be tough, how to negotiate.”

With museum jobs still hard to come by in Japan, Kamiya returned to work as an independent curator and freelance critic. Thanks to the Japan Foundation, she also joined a cohort of young curators from China, Korea, India, Indonesia and the Philippines to learn about local Asian art scenes. It was still the early days of the internet, she explains, and they had little more than magazines to inform them.

“It was kind of like an arranged marriage: we didn’t know anything about each other,” she says. “You had Artforum, you had Frieze, you had ARTnews, so everybody knew what was happening in the United States and London, but nobody knew anything about what was going on in Indonesia, Korea or Thailand.”

Shocked and excited by Asia’s complicated history and breadth — “we look similar, but we have completely different languages, food, cultures and religions” — the curators organized a series of mutual exchanges and shows, with each acting as a local guide. Kamiya deeply appreciated witnessing these different perspectives. “I came to understand the importance of Asia,” she says, “its energy, its complexity, its colonial history, love and hate.”

She took this insight back to New York for her first full-time curatorial gig at the New Museum in 2003. (“Some things are difficult to realize in Japan, but opportunity is always waiting overseas,” she says.) Then in 2007 she was made chief curator at Hiroshima MOCA, Japan’s first municipal museum dedicated to contemporary art.

Kamiya was drawn to the Hiroshima museum’s mission — to create, in the wake of the city’s destruction, including its entire art archive, a new history with living artists — and its potential to use art to consider the history of trauma. During her tenure, she worked with the likes of Yoko Ono, Simon Starling and Cai Guo-Qiang — “all these great artists” — doing deeply resonant work.

“It was a big challenge, not only for the curator but also for the artists. So even though we didn’t have a luxurious budget, none of the artists I reached out to ever said no,” she says.

Starling’s “Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima),” based on research into Henry Moore’s identical sculptures commemorating the University of Chicago, the birthplace of the atomic bomb, and Hiroshima, one of its target cities, is particularly chilling.

But after eight years, Kamiya couldn’t help but think, what next? “So I just replaced ‘Hiroshima’ with ‘Japan’: How can I consider Japan for an exhibition?”

For her first show at the Japan Society, in 2015, she showcased Starling, a Brit. “I wanted to make some statement that Japanese culture is not limited to the works of Japanese people but (includes) how some influence of Japanese culture has created an effect to transform and inspire (others),” she explains. “I’m interested in how I can expand the notion of Japanese art beyond screen prints or ukiyo-e.”

Her latest show, “Yasumasa Morimura: Ego Obscura,” similarly plays with notions of culture and individuality. The artist has, over three decades, re-created well-known images — from a Van Gogh self-portrait to the balcony scene of Yukio Mishima’s last stand — with himself in the central role.

“Morimura has said that to know other people, he must transform into them,” Kamiya says. “So it’s not like wearing a costume, it’s an action to understand something he doesn’t know.”

These questions of “Who am ‘I’?” and “What does ‘self’ mean?,” she says, are particularly important to explore in light of today’s sociopolitical climate.

“Everyone is aware that things are backward. Globalization is about moving forward: to know more, to communicate, to understand different cultures,” she says. “In art, we fall back into (ourselves), but with art we must also challenge ourselves to once more step forward to understand others. This forward action, we need to make that happen again.”

Profile

Name: Yukie Kamiya

Profession: Gallery director of the Japan Society in New York

Hometown: Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture

Key moments in career:

1985 — Enters Waseda University

1996 — Begins internship at New York’s New Museum

1997 — Accepted into De Appel art center curatorial program in Amsterdam

2003 — Returns to New Museum for first full-time curatorial job

2007 — Becomes chief curator of Hiroshima MOCA

2015 — Joins the Japan Society