Curator Shihoko Iida reveals lessons learned from stint at foreign museum

by Edan Corkill

Japan’s art world is occasionally compared to the Galapagos Islands — and not just because it is inhabited by some curious creatures; sorry, I mean artists.

No, the theory is that Charles Darwin’s famous comment on the Galapagos’ isolation could equally be applied to the Japanese art scene: “It seems to be a little world within itself.”

Self-sufficiency has meant that Japan’s artists, dealers and exhibition curators have been able to make do with the domestic audience and ignore the rest of the world. For evidence, look no further than the fact that some prominent museums still have only Japanese-language Web sites.

But, the times are changing. One indication of increasing internationalization is the emergence of Japanese curators who choose to leave these shores to try working at museums abroad. I have interviewed Mami Kataoka on her experiences at London’s Hayward Gallery for this column before. Earlier this month, I spoke to Shihoko Iida, who late last year resigned from one of Tokyo’s most progressive contemporary art venues, Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, and is now six months into a two-year sojourn at the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane, Australia.

Iida has a scientist-like ability to make her every answer sound utterly logical.

How did she end up in Brisbane?

Well, she wanted to work overseas; she wanted to work in a large institution (Opera City, at just over 1,000 square meters, is relatively small); and she wanted to be involved in one of the region’s best-known contemporary art events, the Asia Pacific Triennial, which is held at the QAG. She also wanted to kill those three birds with one stone.

I asked her what kind of work she is doing at the QAG.

“When I first arrived at the museum, in October, it was two months before the Asia Pacific Triennial was due to start. For any show, that is always the busiest part of the process,” she explained. “I just came right in the middle of that, so it took a while for me to find my feet, to work out for myself all the different contexts under which each artist had been invited.”

Nowadays, Iida said, she helps out with such tasks such as corresponding with artists and galleries, making proposals to the museum’s collection committee that certain exhibits from the triennial be added to the QAG collection, and participating in triennial debriefing sessions — the show ends on April 5. (It was reviewed in these pages on Dec. 11, by Andrew Maerkle.)

Iida is also learning a lot about the differences between foreign art institutions and those in Japan.

“When the curators are making selections for a show at QAG, they always have in the back of their mind the question of whether or not the work could be purchased for the museum’s collection,” she said. “That means they are constantly making quality judgments about whether the work is going to be valued in, say, 100 years from now.”

While Iida sees this as a positive approach in terms of collection-building, it can lead to a focus on established artists in exhibitions. Comparing the Japanese equivalent of the APT, the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale, she said that the Japanese event includes more young and emerging artists, while most of the APT exhibitors have careers of at least 10 years.

Another difference is the time-frame of the museums’ budgets. “At the QAG they operate with three- or five-year budgets, while in Japan the budgets are all made one year at a time.”

The hand-to-mouth existence in Japan means that curators can never really make firm long-term plans, she said.

“There are always situations in Japan where you say to an artist, ‘I really want to work with you, but I’m not sure what the situation will be next year,’ or ‘I like your work, but I don’t know if we can buy it or not,’ ” she explained. “Sustainability is the weak point with Japanese institutions.”

Working in Australia has also opened Iida’s eyes to how her nation’s art is viewed from abroad.

“Everyone is really interested in Japanese art,” she explained, “but, for them, the dominant discourse is still Takashi Murakami and his Superflat theory.”

Murakami’s mid-1990s theory that playfulness, decorativeness and lack of depth are the dominant characteristics of Japanese visual expression — from classical painting and ukiyo-e through to manga, anime and contemporary art — is still, it turns out, the key reference point for the international audience.

“It’s really a problem of translation,” Iida explained. “There’s nothing else they can refer to. (Art historian) Shigeo Chiba’s books aren’t translated, and for a long time catalogs and Web sites weren’t bilingual either.”

As Iida contemplates the remaining 18 months of her stay in Brisbane — which is funded by a two-year scholarship from the Japanese government — she sees it as her mission to fill in some of the blanks. “There are many aspects of Japanese art from the last three decades that have been left behind,” she said.

When discussing which artists were worthy of better representation in the QAG’s collection, she mentioned Kohei Nawa, Motohiko Odani, Chiharu Shiota, Tabaimo and Tadasu Takamine.

“Of course, I’m not in a position to decide what they do and don’t purchase,” she added with a laugh.

Iida hasn’t made concrete plans about what she will do on her return to Japan in 2011. Of course, she wants to continue working with artists and making exhibitions — and when she does so, the Galalapagos, sorry, I mean Japan, will benefit from the new artistic and curatorial “DNA” she brings with her.

Edan Corkill will participate in relay-style talk on the theme “An End to Galapagos-ization: Energizing the Japanese Art Scene” at Art Fair Tokyo on April 3. For details see