Thursday, July 31, 2008

Interview: Sara Knelman on "Great New Wave: Contemporary Art from Japan"

Located just an hour or so from Hogtown, the city of Hamilton often gets a bit of a raw deal in the Toronto-centric art media. Sometimes exceptions are granted for the fact that it is a place an artist can actually buy a house and studio and still stay in spitting distance of Toronto dealers—but by and large it's seen as too far away for frequent visits, while being too close to be exotic.

The Art Gallery of Hamilton does well to combat these indifferent associations. I must admit I'm not progressive enough to have gone out for myself and found this out of my own volition. But on an unexpected stopover last summer I was blown away by the AGH's permanent installation of Kim Adams's amazing Bruegel Bosch Bus (thumbnail above), as well as the Canadian premiere of the Kent Monkman "Triumph of Mischief" show. You know, the one that all of us TO residents basically wet ourselves over when it arrived at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art later that fall.

Right now, the AGH is hosting another group of compelling Canadian premieres—half of the artists in its exhibition "Great New Wave: Contemporary Art from Japan" have never shown north of the 49th before. So I was excited earlier this week to chat with show co-curator Sara Knelman about how it all came together. Click here to read the condensed version published today in the National Post, or read on after the jump for an extended transcript of the interview with some more images from the show.

The following is the transcript of a phone interview between Art Gallery of Hamilton curator Sara Knelman and freelance arts writer Leah Sandals. The conversation took place on the afternoon of Monday, July 28, on the occasion of the exhibition “Great New Wave: Contemporary Art from Japan” continuing at the AGH. Knelman co-curated the show with the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria’s Lisa Baldissera; “Great New Wave” will open there in 2010.

LS: Japan is also the focus of some recent exhibitions in New York and Boston—“Heavy Light” at the International Centre for Photography, and “Contemporary Outlook: Japan” at the MFA Boston. Why this sudden surge of interest in Japan, artistically speaking?

SK: Well, I can talk specifically to how the interest in Japan came up here. The gallery had decided to look specifically at arts and culture from East Asia for a year, culminating in a group of exhibitions in the summer time at the gallery. And part of this evolved as a collaboration with the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria; this is co-curated with Lisa Baldissera. They have a great historical collection of Japanese art and we were thinking of enriching that with a look at what is going on in Japan now. I think there’s also an ongoing interest from Louise Dompierre, the president here who curated a large exhibition of Japanese art called the Age of Anxiety at the Power Plant several years ago. So it was a way of continuing that.

But in terms of the global I think there’s been so much emphasis on China of late that that interest has just sort of spread across that whole region. I think there’s also been a lot of intersting exhibits of Thai art and Korean art lately I think it’s part of this whole opening up of the global contemporary art world, which is becoming less focused on western practice and western output.

LS: Japan is a long way from Hamilton – how did you even hear about these artists, let alone curate them?

SK: We went to Japan. I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on Japanese art, and the show itself does not claim to be an objective survey of what’s going on there. But we did as much research as we could from our perspectives of our respective stations in Canada.

And we made some interesting connections mainly through one of the curators at centre A in Vancouver, who has a lot of connections in Tokyo and in Japan. So we went for about 10 days in the late winter/early spring of 2007. It wasn’t a massive amount of time but it was an extraordinarily efficient use of time. We went during the Tokyo Art Fair so we could see work and meet dealers from across the country. And we made contact with an independent curator who we had contact with for the month preceding our trip. She told us what artists we might be interested in, what curators we might want to meet with, and she made us a quite rigorous schedule for our days there. So we just engaged from the moment of landing before; we did do our very best to immerse in the art world there.

LS: What themes did you see come out of this?

SK: Well, I think what we wanted to do is look at the generation after Murakami, after Superflat… to think about artists sort of in their 30s, let’s say, are doing right now. Not that age is necessarily a defining factor, but artists who weren’t part of that movement and were coming out of training in the wake of that movement.

And we really wanted to build a show that reflected the variety of media that we experienced while we were there, and the sort of sort of depth of issues that we saw while we were there. We didn’t go with a framework in mind; we went fairly open to ideas and we built a show that took six artists all working in different media that reflected the best of what we encountered there. The themes that we write about in the catalogue sort of emerged after that rather than before.

LS: As you indicated, one of the best-known Japanese artists today is Takashi Murakami, who brought a Louis Vuitton boutique to the Brooklyn Museum. There no work here that looks remotely like that. Why?

SK: Quite the opposite. It’s hard to say why. Certainly you can see influences of that in interesting ways, but on purely visual level, it’s not flat the way Superflat its. It’s supertextured; even the photographs and the video work has a real kind of depth to it.

I think it does still embrace a kind of connection between high and low art that is also part of Superflat. So I don’t think actually that it’s reactionary. My sense is not that these artists are just reacting. It’s just that they’re not immersed in it any longer as a movement; they’re doing their own thing as artists.

Murakami is still a superstar in Japan and will be for a long time, but I think the prevalence of it over a certain period of time internationally became a definition of what Japanese art is that isn’t really accurate at least any longer.

LS: Let’s talk about the way some of these artists use texture, then. Manabu Ikeda’s painting definitely comes to mind. Can you talk about that?

SK: The piece that we have here called Regeneration is not a painting; it’s a large-scale drawing in pen and acrylic ink. This one took him just under a year to make and there are others that have taken him over a year—so we felt very lucky to bring one here. He has smaller pieces as well, but the large-scale ones are just so sort of overwhelming when you come face to face with them.

So this piece has a kind of apocalyptic feel; I mean, this vessel that’s coming towards you looks like the relic of a sunken ship as well as a Noah’s ark in a way and there is something distressing about it but there’s also something really hopeful in that it has also this growth happening on the surface. There is this regernative surface happening on it, and as you examine the drawing there is incredible signs of life; there are people fishing and deep sea divers exploring all of this new growth.

All of his drawings are quite fantastical this way; he is really amazed by the power of nature, which comes from the place he grew up in which had a beautiful natural landscape. He spent a lot of time in nature and his pieces do explore this interface between the threatening issues in the contemporary world and the possibility of a return to a natural environment.

LS: Kohei Nawa’s marble-covered objects are quite striking. What are they meant to represent?

SK: There’s a really beautiful parallel between what these artists are doing in how they treat the surface of an object. The three works are from a series he made called PixCell, which he extends still. He made these three pieces specifically for this exhibition and so they’re all of quite different scales: It’s a toy apple, a toy tank, and deer head.

His project actually started from a very different place than Ikeda’s; not at all in nature, but from sitting in front of a computer and thinking about the way that objects look on a computer screen. So what he does for this project is find these mundane everyday objects and he buys them from internet auction sites. When he gets them he reworks sculpturally to try to regain the look of the object as it appeared when he first encountered it on a computer screen.

I think something quite different happens in the intervention. There is a distance that these glass beads create between the viewer and the objects which is the same kind of distance that you get when you’re looking at a screen, be it a TV or a computer screen. But there’s also this kind of beauty that is at the exact and at the same time grotesque. There’s something sort of menacing as well as something incredibly beautiful that happens. The objects are identifiable but they’re kins of submerged as well, it’s like looking at them underwater. He also does running shoes and all sorts of mundane objects, a lot of them toys.

LS: Another artist I found intriguing was Sayaka Akiyama. Japan is known for its advanced technologies and gagetry. Yet Sayaka Akiyama shuns that technology, creating maps of her walks woven into fabrics with no aid from GPS. Why is that?

SK: Sayaka’s work was included in an important show in Japan called “Rappongi Crossing”. She doesn’t have a dealer, so we came across her work in a more organic way. She makes these large-scale mapping projects. We have a piece that was part of “Rappongi Crossing” suspended in our foyer right now.

Sayaka comes to an environment and she really lives in it for an extended period of time, and while she’s there she takes notes of every journey that she makes. She walks as much as possible and if it’s in car she notes that too.

She came and spent 5 weeks in Hamilton and did a mapping project here which was great. She chooses a slice of the geography in advance of tracking movements. So we looked at maps of where the gallery was and where she would be living. She then chose a map section and photocopied it a number of times so that the lines on the map became kind of blurry. Then she scans it and sends it do a printer, who and prints it on a polyester that’s a lot like burlap or canvas. The piece here is 2 meters by 1.5 metres.

Towards the end of her exploration of space and of the environment that she’s in, she starts to sew all of her movements that she has recorded onto this map. And the threads she sews in has to do with her visceral reactions to this place, to the different experiences she’s had while she’s here. So she’s quite emotionally driven.

She’s actually trained as painter, not as a textile artist and I think she keeps being put in that craft box, but it wasn’t until she took a drawing class where for one of her projects she started literally mapping all of her movement that I think she felt a real connection to what she was doing. These have grown into these larger scale mapping projects. I think she actually told me she “sews like a man!” She uses no machine to sew, so she spends hours and hours with this map.

And the other part of the exhibition for her are diary pieces. The map is more of a reflection which she finishes in the last days of her stay in a place. But she also makes diary pieces while she is in a place. She makes these diary pages out of objects that she finds and buys. They’re made out of newspaper, they’re made out of food projects. In Hamilton, she had an odd experience where she attempted to make pasta one day and there was a bottle she thought it was oil in it, but it was dish detergent. So one of her pieces incorporates these bits of this pasta that she couldn’t eat. There’s a beautiful piece titled 16th May; the purple dye that she uses that is evocative of a night sky was made entirely out of purple vegetables that she got at the Hamilton farmer’s market.

LS: Japan’s late 90s economic collapse is often as an influence on this generation of artists. Do you think it really did influence them?

SK: I think it did. I think it did in 2 ways, in 2 kinds of things that come out for me in a lot of these works. One is a kind of fear of the future which comes out in, for example, the work of Tabaimo and Miwa Yanagi. I think there’s a certain amount of hopefulness as well but there is, without question, this kind of ominous feeling in a lot of these pieces, a trepidation or mistrust of kind of modern reality. And the issues that it involves. I think there’s also a real interest in going back to tradition, which maybe is related to that. You see that in, for example, the references to Ukiyo-e in Yoshiaki Kaihatsu’s installation piece. It’s a reference to the traditional values of the tea ceremony, and what those kind of communal values meant, and trying kind of reinsert that into contemporary society again.

One of the things that I was stuck by in Japan, having not been there before myself, was the fact that artists really didn’t have studios because there is such a premium on space. It is very very difficult for artists to afford a reasonable space to work in. So in some cases artists will have a space outside of town. But the scale of things and the means of production changes as a result of that.

LS: How?

For example Sayaka Akiyama’s work is entirely driven by going to other spaces, really, as is Kaihatsu’s. And the work of the other artists is, in many cases, digital, like Tabaimo’s and like Yanagi. As well, Yanagi’s photos necessitate a lot of travel made in different parts of the world. And in the case of Manabu Ikeda and Kohei Nawa, the idea of magnifying these tiny tiny details of things seems to me to have something to do with the privileging of space. In the case of Ikeda his drawing is split right down the middle; and that has nothing to do with the material for reproduction. There is actually a divide because he could never work in a space that was large enough to hold the whole thing.

LS: Well this is a lot of great information. Thanks for talking with me.

SK: Thanks for your interest.

"Great New Wave: Contemporary Art from Japan" continues at the Art Gallery of Hamilton to September 7.

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