National Art Center
Our first day at the impressive National Art Center, an exquisite building designed by Kurokawa Kisho, was full of expectations wonderfully met. After warm welcome words from local authorities, Patricia Falguières began her keynote intervention on museums as spaces for debate by defining what it was we were questioning. She clearly pointed out how the evolution of museums takes a critical step forward when it allies itself with education, whereby becoming a vehicle for emancipation. Falguières referred to the museum as an “arena for democratic deliberation”, less a place for debate than a context in which to validate processes, and ended her dissertation stating museums “will be” a place for a debate.
Mika Kuraya's presentation
As an artist myself, I was pleased to see that artists voices were included in the program. Such was the case of the next perspective with australian artist Brook Andrew, who talked about his personal family history and artwork, and how he questions national identity by bringing forth, through his work, indigenous and multiethnic issues to debate on national identity. Afterwards, Goerg Schollhammer and Hedwig Saxenhuber talked about their experience with the Kiev Biennale and how its cancellation compelled them to create an independent alternative called The School of Kyiv as an act of “civil self-organization” that I consider admirable in its audacity and innovation. Dealing with the politics of memory and remembering, their project presented artworks arranged within “schools of thought” on a thematic basis, such as “ The School of the Lonesome” addressing “post revolutionary loneliness, or “The School of Landscape” on nationalism and the construction of narratives through landscape, as well as “The School of the Displaced” to compensate for the lack of visibility given to the knowledge of migrants in museums.
Further discussion took place within a panel forum, which I believe was the most successful modality for debate within the conference, besides lunch hour of course. As the day came to an end we had time to visit the National Art Center’s rich japanese art collection on display, with a wonderful array of expressions in painting and sculpture that combined both european and Japanese traditions in surprising ways. We also had time for a quick visit to the extraordinary Niki de Saint Phalle exhibition. It was wonderful to see, not only the expansive and distended use of museum space, but the richness and diversity of works shown. Her work seemed at its most joyful.
Believe it or not, we still had another visit in the program waiting for us. In the fresh air of the evening, with a slight drizzle on our faces, we walked happily to the Mori Art Museum located on the last floor of Roppongi Hills Tower. As we stepped into the elevator on a ride that was going to take us to the 54th floor, I said smiling nervously: “hold on tight”. I was immediately reassured it is the fastest elevator in all of Japan. And it was. In a couple of seconds, ears compressed because of the altitude, we were at “The 500 Arhats”, Takashi Murakami retrospective exhibition. Hall after hall of his emblematic works were on show, as well as the 100 meters long piece that gives name to the exhibition. It was wonderful to see the space full of people contemplating the works, commenting, discussing and enjoying themselves. Art at its most liveliest.
The exhibition ended at a viewing lounge where you could see the dreamy night skyline of Tokyo. There was still a welcome cocktail to attend, which I sorely missed out of sheer exhaustion.
Mori Art Museum
Our second day had us all up and cheerful early on. The topic, on how has modernism been perceived globally, promised to be a dense and complex issue to explore. Keynote speaker was Shigemi Inaga. He addressed with humorous lightheartedness differences between Japanese and European modernism, pointing towards a multi sensorial approach to aesthetic experiences, as well as to the segregation of form versus function in a museum setting that rids the object of its completion, such as in the traditional tea ceremony. Regarding the cult of originality inherent to modernism, Inaga referred to the japanese tradition of copying the masters to perfection as part of formation. Perspectives thereafter offered very diverse standing points.
Hammad Nasar presented the Indian and Pakistani experience, where crafts and pedagogy played an important role in the styling of modernism. He parted from two important premises: firstly, that modernism has to be construed to be perceived, and secondly, that those constructions are ever shifting and constantly being re-fabricated into new propositions of global practices. Nasar went on to eloquently draw a most interesting profile of two distinguished artists and thinkers: Zahoor-ul-Akhlaq and Gulammohammed Sheikh. Another interesting perspective was that of the artist’s collective Slavs and Tartars presented with a mixture of erudition, passion and mordant humor by Payam Sharifi, one of its co-founders. He addressed what he considers to be a conflicting relationship between modernism and history, and the case of Central Asia, where the limits of ideology and margins of faith coincide and resist a univocal historical and geopolitical perspective. According to Sharifi, the encounters of geopolitical narratives result in a state of cognitive dissonance.
Slavs and Tartars' presentation
At lunch hour, we were called to meet with our travel grant benefactors. It was a lovely experience to have a time apart and share details on the work that each one of us does in our respective countries. At our table sat Joan Weinstein and Patricia Sloane, who both showed genuine interest in each one of our presentations. Mrs. Weinstein shared with us her enthusiasm about the wonderful arts initiative that is LA/LA and how it has been evolving. It was also great to hear from Paola Malavasi about the continuity of work in TEOR/éTica, which has been an important institution for Central America since its conception and direction by the late Virgina Peréz-Rattón in the nineties. It was a cheerful lunch and I left feeling enthusiastic about the future.
We continued in the conference room with two more perspectives, the first by Eugene Tan, director of the now newly opened Singapore National Gallery, and then by brilliant Mariana Botey, Associate Professor of Latin American Art History. Mr. Tan explained the complexities of art history and national identity in a nation such as his, founded 50 years ago. Their challenge as an institution, he detailed, is to create a regional perspective on a shared sense of belonging and history. “Comparative constructs require similar constructs”, and since this is not always the case, Tan proposes we think instead of “interactions of subjectivities” when speaking on contextualizing globally. Mariana Botey presented a summary of a fascinating investigation, developed together with a team of fellow specialists for the last two years, on “Amerindian Imaginaries in the Avant-Garde and Modern Era, 1800-2015” in which they explore how the Amerindian past has been re-imagined through modernist idioms as a cornerstone for a new aesthetic. “Conquest was a foreclosure of indigenous civilization” said Botey eloquently, and as a result of a phantasmagoric sovereignty an imaginary construction, in mourning and repression, was created. The panel discussion moderated in a fresh and agile manner by Frances Morris, was perhaps, in my view, the most interesting discussion in the whole program.
Our day ended with visits to museums. We first arrived at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where we were cordially received with a package of publications and the catalog to the exhibition in display, “Tokyo: Sensing the Cultural Magma of the Metropolis”. With a full array of museographic devices, this exhibition presented the work of regional contemporary artists, as well as pop culture’s perspective of the city, all simmering with vitality. Our visit ended in the poetic spaces of Yoko Ono’s exhibition titled “From my window”. We then parted to the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, housed in a beautiful residential area, where we were awaited with a comforting shot glass of Sake and a performance with a traditional hayashi ensemble, produced by the artist Hiroshi Sugimoto.
Hara Museum of Contemporary Art
On day three, I believe we were all thankful for a later start on the morning program. The excitement was all still there but mixed with a bit of exhaustion and also, perhaps, nostalgia about the soon-to-be departure. The morning started off with the CIMAM General Assembly, where both Bartomeu Marí and Patricia Sloane presented general information on the organization, its membership and finances; announcing next year’s Barcelona conference venue. Space was given for a dialogue, moderated by Elizabeth Macgregor, to talk about the events leading to the renunciation of CIMAM’s president from the directorship of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona at the beginning of the year. It was clearly stated this had been an issue addressed by the board of CIMAM, and there had been consensus then that it did not affect Mari´s continuity at the front of the organization. I believe this was a great demonstration of the vocation for transparency and dialogue at the heart of the CIMAM.
After the assembly, we heard four more perspectives. Bose Krishnamachari presented an overview of the Kochi Biennale, a wonderful festival of the arts where traditional and contemporary practices, as well as multidisciplinary approaches, have a wide public outreach. Malaysian artist Wong Hoy Cheong, presented the housing projects he has been involved in from his vision of art as social activism; and Anton Vidokle carried out a lecture performance with photographs, and later his short-film, of the Museum of Immortality accompanied by quotes from the 19th century russian philosopher Nikolai Fedorov. Related to Vidokle’s presentation, but from an academic standpoint, Peggy Levitt presented the results of her investigation on the role of museums in creating and representing national identities. The results of her work, demonstrate how museums are in the crossroads of national and urban cultural policies, and cultural globalization; where work appears to be constrained by their collections, interest and expertise of their professionals, and also the roles they play in their communities and funding available. Levitt presented different case studies such as the Museum of World Cultures in Sweden, which focuses on global problems and polycentric cultural production.
Anton Vidokle's presentation
After a long round of applause and group photo we then headed to the National Museum of Modern Art. Here we were welcomed warmly as well, with catalogues of the Foujita exhibition on display in the main halls. The artist’s dexterity was evident in the paintings displayed, mostly in large format, as well as his only natural ambivalence towards the war. Heroism, military strategy and nationalistic pride are staged on a par with chaos and misery.
Finally, to end the evening, we were treated with an exquisite banquet at Meiji Kinenkan. As I rushed off in the back seat of a taxi to pick up my baggage from the hotel lobby and head towards the airport for a midnight flight back home, I wondered in silent awe at the city of Tokyo.
After this somewhat long account, I would like to end with a short thank you note. Firstly, for my new friends: Sona Hovhannisyan, art critic and curator from Armenia, who showed keen interest, consideration and respect for all around her; José Maza, director of the National Museum of Art of Guatemala whom I had met many years ago there, and now had the pleasure to see again, catch up with his work and the arts panorama in his country; and, Marton Orosz, director of the Vasarely Museum, who shared thoughtful insights and information of his native Hungary, and his investigations on media art. Secondly, to the Fundación Cisneros / Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros who made this trip possible, and to CIMAM for an outstanding event.
I return to El Salvador, a small country torn with an average of 20 daily murders, to continue my work at the National Gallery of Art Salarrué, replenished with admiration for all the colleagues in the conference working on a daily basis for art and their communities, and specially inspired by Mariana Botey, Patricia Sloane, Mika Kuraya, Ferran Barenblit, Julia Fabényi, Krisztina Szipocs and Haruko Kumakura.
San Salvador, November 30th, 2015