September 10, 2017 4:00 pm JST

Southeast Asian art scene inspires Japan's creators

Contemporary curators, artists keen on cross-border collaboration

FUMIE IWAMOTO, Nikkei staff writer

An exhibition of contemporary art titled "Sindikat Campursari" was held in Jakarta early this year.

TOKYO -- The kaleidoscope of cultures and traditions that comprise Southeast Asia appear to be inspiring a number of Japanese artists and curators, who are helping to exhibit the region's contemporary art in cross-border collaborations.

The "Sindikat Campurari" group exhibition held earlier this year in Jakarta is an example of this trend, with six curators from Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand taking part.

The exhibition was part of a cross-border project supported by the Japan Foundation Asia Center. "We had good discussions over how art can help tackle social problems, then worked together to develop the concept," said Kazuhiko Yoshizaki, a Japanese curator from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo. 

The event's biggest attraction was by an Indonesian artist, who displayed a large pile of sand in which visitors were invited to hunt for treasure and draw sand art. Underneath, a picture of an imaginary town supposedly lay, although it could not be seen.

According to the artist, the sand represents Indonesia's rapid urban development, with the purported picture symbolic of towns being replaced with modern dwellings. The work seeks to remind visitors of what existed before new cities sprang up.

Training grounds

Although the art world is growing in Southeast Asia, the region has few venues large enough to organize and hold exhibitions. A representative from the Asia Center explained: "We aim to develop competent curators who well understand local circumstances in Asia and are able to manage the entire exhibition process, from planning to closing."

In addition to the Jakarta exhibition, the center has organized other projects curated by multinational teams in Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.  

For young, less-experienced curators, the opportunity to be fully involved in a relatively large exhibition is a valuable experience. Che Kyongfa, another curator from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, helped with the Philippine exhibition. "Political circumstances in some countries meant we were unable to exhibit certain works," she recalls. "I learned how to handle these situations, and how to communicate the circumstances to the artists and visitors."

Yoshizaki took away something else from the experience. "I built a network of people in the local art world, which was the biggest benefit of the project," he said. The curator is keen to use his new network to introduce Japan to the latest Southeast Asian art trends.

The young curators are now separately organizing 12 smaller exhibitions slated for 11 Southeast Asian cities, from August through November -- a chance to put their experience to work, curating smaller exhibitions but ones they can call their own.

Expressing community

Along with budding curators, Southeast Asia is also attracting artists from outside the region. Jun Kitazawa is one of these transnational creators.

The Japanese artist, who works out of Tokyo and Jakarta, expressed shock when he first saw houses along the Ciliwung River in Jakarta -- half demolished by public works projects meant to prevent flooding. Some residents had rebuilt walls and attached new doors to the exposed sections of their houses and remained living there.

Inspired by what he saw, Kitazawa has held exhibitions in Japan featuring participation by people forced by disaster to live in temporary housing, as well as those residing in old apartment complexes. These activities have given Kitazawa insights into how communities should work. "It was an extraordinary experience to witness how changing towns can affect people's relationships," the artist said.

Kitazawa is currently working with residents in Jakarta on a project themed "ideal homes." Some urban renewal efforts have displaced residents, leaving only piles of wreckage where homes once stood. What influenced Kitazawa to take on the project was how former residents eventually returned to their areas and formed new communities. "I wanted to work with local residents and artists to discover their vision of the ideal home in today's society," he explained.

Indonesians displaced due to urban development are now returning 'home' again.

At present, participants in the project are brainstorming in small groups, with each conceiving an image of their dream home. According to Kitazawa, the groups then express their ideas "through art" to give people the opportunity "to contemplate current issues confronting society."

As an artist residing in a foreign land, Kitazawa has always wondered about "the meaning of being [in Indonesia] as a stranger while locals face their own political and economic issues and create art locally."

Curator Yoshizaki shares his feeling. "As a total stranger, I'll continue asking myself what the advantage is of being involved in art projects abroad."

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