Jonathan Watkins has been director of Ikon for over 20 years, joining the gallery in 1999. Previously he worked for a number of years in London, as Curator of the Serpentine Gallery (1995-1997) and Director of Chisenhale Gallery (1990-1995).
He has curated a number of large international exhibitions including the Biennale of Sydney (1998), Facts of Life: Contemporary Japanese Art (Hayward Gallery, London 2001), Quotidiana (Castello di Rivoli, Turin 1999, Tate Triennial (2003), Shanghai Biennale (2006), Sharjah Biennial (2007), Negotiations (Today Art Museum, Beijing 2010) and the Guangzhou Triennial (2012). He was on the curatorial team for Europarte (Venice Biennale, 1997), Milano Europa 2000, (Palazzo di Triennale, Milan 2000), and Riwaq (Palestinian Biennial 2007). He curated the Iraqi Pavilion for the Venice Biennale in 2013 and Floating World, Bahrain in 2017. In 2019 Watkins was the curator of Small Between the Stars, Large Against the Sky, the 9th Manif d’art Quebec City Biennial.
Jonathan Watkins has written extensively on contemporary art. Essays have focused on the work of Giuseppe Penone, Martin Creed, Semyon Faibisovich, Yang Zhenzhong, Noguchi Rika, Oliver Beer, Beat Streuli and Cornelia Parker. He was the author of the Phaidon monograph on Japanese artist On Kawara.
Jonathan Watkins has served on numerous committees and boards, most recently for the Imperial War Museum (2011 – 2016), Arts Council Collection Acquisitions Committee (2011 – 2013) and 14-18 Now: First World War Centenary Cultural Programme (2013 – 2017). He won the 1992 Prudential Award for the Visual Arts, UK and in 2013 was nominated as one of the top 100 Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy Magazine. In 2019 he won the Inaugural Ampersand Award to realise the exhibition of his dreams (Carlo Crivelli, 2022).
Keith Whittle (KW): Thank you for agreeing to meet. I know you only have a short time to speak today so do please let’s begin. Can you give an overview of your professional background and current role as the Director of Ikon? I would then like to discuss in more detail your interest in, experiences of and work in curating Japanese contemporary art.
Keith Whittle (KW): Over the last 15 years you have curated several important solo and group exhibitions and written extensively on Contemporary Japanese Art. Exhibitions such as Facts of Life: Contemporary Japanese Art (Hayward Gallery, London, 2001); Tatsumi Orimoto, Bread Man (IKON Gallery 2001); On Kawara, Consciousness. Meditation. Watcher on the Hills (IKON Gallery 2003); Atsuko Tanaka, The Art of Connecting (IKON Gallery, 2011), to mention but a few. All demonstrate considerable interest in and commitment to profiling modern and contemporary art from Japan. Could you possibly outline further your strong curatorial focus on Asian contemporary art and more specifically Japanese art?
Jonathan Watkins (JW): I had been aware of contemporary Japanese art for some years, long before I went to Japan. When I was the director of Chisenhale Gallery, I did an exhibition with Yoko Terauchi. That was in 1994. And at the Serpentine, I worked with Kawamata, whose work I saw at Annely Juda Gallery in London and was completely bowled over by it. Then I left the Serpentine in ‘97 and was appointed artistic director for the 1998 Biennale of Sydney. That was a wonderful opportunity for me to undertake research, to travel to parts of the world that I hadn’t visited before, especially those closer to Australia, particularly in South East Asia and Japan, China, and Korea. I included several Japanese artists in the Biennale that I have worked with subsequently, developing long term relationships with some of them, such as On Kawara, Kawamata and Shimabuku who I am showing next year at Ikon – a big survey of his work. So my deepening interest in Japanese art started in 1997 and continues to deepen. It’s interesting to me how much Japanese art appeals to me. As a curator, I want to make exhibitions of work I like, which is not to say that I am not critical, but you know, critical conversation has to be around something one wants to engage with …
KW: In 2001, you co-curated the exhibition Facts of Life: Contemporary Japanese Art the single largest show of contemporary Japanese art held in the UK. I recall that the atmosphere of the show was generally quiet and understated, lacking all the ostentation of Japanese Neo-Pop as exemplified by the work of Nara Yoshitomo and Murakami Takashi, who had by that time become internationally known. There seemed a definite intent to not ‘define’ Japan or ‘Japaneseness,’ but instead to present interesting art being made in Japan at that time. Avoiding the narrow selectivity of international representations of Japanese art after 1990, the exhibition gave a more diversified and polyphonic view of contemporary practice at that time. Could you discuss how that exhibition came about, your intentions, ambitions and the specific ideas behind your choice of artists who were represented in the exhibition?
JW: It was the Japan Festival. The reason why I was asked to do that was that I’d recently arrived back in the UK and reconnected with the Hayward, people who I knew there who were looking around for a curator to do a show for the Japan Festival that had been booked in some years previously. They accepted my proposal, developed out of the proposition of my Biennale in Sydney, that focused on everyday reality rather than Japanese postmodern weirdness.
KW: Yes. I didn’t see the biennale in Sydney, but I read a lot about it and then looking back at the exhibition I saw at Hayward, I could see such continuity.
JW: Basically, what I was doing was taking the same basic argument and applying it to one particular corner of the art world. I was not so interested in art about art, or artists obsessed by their artistic identity; neither were those artists whose practise is centred on their national identity. Another thing perhaps is that I was coming from a place still quite obsessed with the YBA phenomenon. There was a kind of nationalism in the air here that I was resisting.
KW: Similarly the Tate triennial exhibition, where, as with the exhibition at Hayward, you also took a different curatorial approach in your avoiding the more obvious names prevalent at that time such YBA artists like Sara Lucas.
JW: Yes, exactly. I have always have been interested in something slightly quieter, or a little less obvious or less theatrical. At the same time, it is important that one sort of mixes things up, at least to keep the attention of one’s audience. I didn’t want to go down the Superflat road. It was playing on a kind of exoticism, often very much with foreign markets in mind. I wanted to tell an alternative story, falling in with Oscar Wilde’s proposition, which is that Japan is very ordinary place rather than spinning a story of weirdness that previous exhibitions had done. For example, the particularities, or peculiarities, of Japan were very much the focus of “Against Nature: Japanese Art in the Eighties”, the show that Thomas Sokolowski did with Kathy Halbreich in the US.
KW: In retrospect, the Japanese art scene in the early to mid-1990s was not so dissimilar to that of present-day China. It was at the beginning of its boom within the international art market, with numerous curators and art dealers visiting Japan searching for young art stars. Over the last 10 years Chinese and Korean contemporary art has taken centre stage on the international art market and as such played a major role in defining the ‘contemporary’ through their increasingly powerful and extremely vibrant arts scene. Mami Kataoka has previously spoken of how in Japan, where the market, collectors, audience – everything, is small in scale, even Tokyo, which is widely held to be the epicentre of the Japanese art world, cannot hold a candle to the art scenes of New York or London. The majority of Japanese collectors seemingly tend to buy Western rather than Japanese art and Tokyo, which was at the forefront of the Asian art world only a short time ago is now completely overshadowed by the dynamism of its rapidly expanding neighbour, China. Even during the boom times of the 1980s, Tokyo did not witness the steady stream of gallery launches funded by Europeans or Americans that are taking place in Beijing or Shanghai now. Murakami believes this is partly to do with extortionate and bureaucratic inheritance tax laws set up after the war but, maybe more importantly it seems that private collectors and patrons of the arts in Japan are seemingly more interested in an engagement with art centred around revitalising areas, Benesse Art Site being the primary example, rather than one simply on collecting it.
JW: I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case.
KW: You have recently held several important curatorial positions in China (Member of the 6th Shanghai Biennale Curatorial Team, Curator of The Theme Exhibition of The 4th Guangzhou Triennial), and have worked with emerging and prominent Japanese and Chinese artists, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on why Chinese contemporary art, in particular, has taken centre stage on the international art scene, playing a major role in defining the ‘contemporary’ and if you feel that Japanese collectors have decided to pursue an engagement with art towards revitalization through social investment?
JW: No. Except that the radar moves on, and a certain kind of fatigue sets in. But also, that the explosion of interest in Japan coincided with an economic bubble, and then the bubble burst and various manifestations of Japanese culture – even Japanese tourists! – were no longer so much in evidence in the wider world. Meanwhile, in China, the policies of Deng Xiaoping started to take effect, and the rest is an extraordinary ongoing story, not the same as Japan’s. Japan had a very strong relationship with America in a way that was distinctively different from what is going on with China. China is huge. The correspondence between the Chinese and Russian art worlds is sort of more pertinent. In a way, the “Fuck Off” exhibition in China (2000), Neo-pop strategies and cathartic performance art are reminiscent of what went on in Russia during the 1980s and 90s. There has been a kind of violence in Chinese work that is likewise to do with wanting to escape the shackles of a totalitarian regime.
KW: If we go back a little to our discussion on the unique situations of Japan and China, and the development of 20th-century Japanese art then we should highlight its extremely vibrant avant-garde movements; its pre-war Futurist, Dada, Constructivist and Surrealist phases (artist groups such as Mavo in the 1920s, for instance), Arte Povera, neo-Dada, Fluxus / Tokyo Fluxus and art radicalized by the social tumult of the 1960s (Mono-ha, Hi Red Centre, Gutai, Kyushu-ha), Performance and Conceptualism (as exemplified by expatriate artists famous outside Japan, such as Yoko Ono or On Kawara) and ‘bubble era’ Postmodernist cultural critique (Dumb Type, for instance). Currently, in Japan, the work by collectives such as Command N and young emerging artists Ichiro Endo and Chim↑Pom, explore performance, installation with energy far more redolent and the critical edge of the work of avant-garde groups of the 1960s and 1970s. Japanese artists do seem to be exploring once again relationships between contemporary art and real life, claimed by artists of earlier movements such as Tokyo Fluxus, Hi Red Centre, Tokyo Fluxus, Gutai, 1000-Yen-Note Incident Discussion Group with their strong focus on reflections on social interactions, society, and humanness through performances in varying situations.
KW: Do you feel that gradually, contemporary art in Japan is hence being brought back to the front of social reality, in some ways in direct response to and in opposition to the Art Market, and is directly or indirectly related to, social, cultural, political and ecological activism? And do you think that the interactive relationship among artist, work and public is now at the very centre of many emerging Japanese artists, intellectual and even political concerns and hence their artistic engagement? If so what conditions do you see as having contributed to these current mutations?
JW: Yes. There is a significant continuity. You see it in the work of Kawamata, for example, a “relational” kind of work. It was there before Nicolas Bourriaud wrote Relational Aesthetics, and he could have picked up a little bit more on the Asian side of things I think, internationalised his inquiry, looking more at people like Navin Rawanchaikul, Shimabuku, Tadasu Takamine, Makoto Nomura – and further back, to the Gutai artists. Around the time I was doing the Sydney Biennale, Junichi Shioda then at MOT in Tokyo, made an exhibition called “The Gift of Hope”. It was all very much about an exchange, collaboration and engaging with audiences. I was picking up on that, much more than previously, the work that was breaking down the division between the artist as producer and the audience as a consumer. I found that quite exciting. And I think partly that is why I want to do the exhibition of Shimabuku, a major exponent of that relational tendency. His work is not so exciting to the art market and certainly, he doesn’t make as much money as Murakami, but as a cultural phenomenon, he is equally interesting if not more interesting.
KW: That is something I have noticed over the last five years. The interactive relationship amongst artists and the public, that social engagement seems to be becoming more important to the newer generation of the artists.
JW: It sits outside of the market, and it’s difficult to sustain…
KW: As part of the increasingly international and ‘multi-culturalised’ scene of global art, contemporary public art is being reinvented by the unprecedented contributions of curators and artists beyond the traditional international centres. Projects such as the Echigo-Tsumari Triennial, amongst others in Japan, appear more focused on utilising the capacity of arts activity to support community-led renewal. This particular festival seems reasonably successful in attracting tourism to the region, and, according to one of the initiators, plays a role in ‘revitalising elderly people who have lost their hope, identity and vision of the future. Similarly, projects such as Beppu Project and Breaker Project, Osaka, amongst others, aim to renew a sense of citizenship through cultural activity, art with a social purpose. How do you view such projects and do you believe they offer sound models or approaches to creative practise and could they play a leading role in developing arts practice, as well as defining it?
JW: I have heard about them, met the people who have co-ordinated them, but have never actually been and wish I had. It is an interesting phenomenon and reflects the tendency in Asian cultures – pervasive before European contact in the 19th century – not to treat artworks as discrete objects. And cultural memory is not so short. There hasn’t been such an established obsession in Asia with the discrete art object produced by a sensitive “artist” genius, in the same way, there has been in the west. It was much more about shared experience. Now we show Ukiyoe on walls, framed and glazed, but it was originally made for people to collect and they enjoyed passing it around, sharing it amongst groups of friends and acquaintances.
KW: You curated an exhibition at Ikon of Ukiyoe prints by Utamaro.
JW: Yes, most recently, Utamaro. Of course, there was some Western influence in Japan before him, but still, the Japanese art world isn’t one in which relational practice is simply a repudiation of modernist tradition – and the notion of the artwork as a discrete gesture – but it is arguably a continuation of an earlier tradition. That’s my line. I think probably that is one of the reasons why I am particularly interested in art from Asia. There is an ethos there that appeals to me. It seems more humane, more human, less religious or pseudo-religious.
KW: I met Fram Kitagawa and interviewed him in February this year. It was interesting talking with him. He was heavily involved in the radical student movement in Japan in the late 60s a movement that seems to be largely forgotten about now. He has very clear political views and his reasoning behind the Echigo-Tsumari is not just purely about the placing of the art in that particular location and context, but one which is very much about politicised activity. He is a really interesting character?
JW: Yes, he is.
KW: In his essay for the catalogue to Bye Bye Kitty: Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art, Tetsuya Ozaki, the former editor of ART iT, makes a connection between “a system that doesn’t make people happy” and the current “floating generation” of suicides, hikikomori, and otaku. He demonstrates how young Japanese artists are resisting “the kawaii phenomenon” as a means of escape and argues for a broader understanding of Japanese artists as adults both reacting to and transcending their cultural environment. Ozaki points to a generation of ‘post’-Murakami artists now producing work that indicates a more complicated, adult view of life, melding traditional viewpoints with perceptions of present and future in radical and sometimes unsettling combinations. Form, spirituality and the struggle between extremes of fantasy and nightmare, ideal and real take place. But what do you see as the concerns or overriding themes of an emerging generation of Japanese artists?
JW: Again, I’m not particularly qualified to talk about it. But certainly, it is the kind of attitude I like to encounter. Interestingly, David Elliott was the curator of such a show, after his experience. I envy him! How rare to have someone like him from abroad to be the director of a major museum like Mori Art Museum.
KW: Well, I thought it was quite remarkable. Japan is very inward-looking and can be overly protective. And to have him as a director, I think he was there for 5 years?
JW: Yes. I think he had a 5-year contract and well, it could be said that Japan has reverted to type, foreign influence is excluded and now we have more homogeneity within such an institution. Let me just read what everybody is saying here, “big generation of suicide, Hikikomori.” what is that? And Otaku, I know.
KW: Hikikomori, I don’t know the exact translation but it is acute social withdrawal.
JW: It is very interesting what is happening. Japan is rather dysfunctional nowadays, especially concerning young men. The neat idea of the salaryman, who gets up in a dormitory suburb, gets on to the train, and goes to town to work, is being increasingly challenged.
KW: If we look at the younger generation of the artists, some you may have met, or have come into contact with over the last 3-5 years, working in Japan’s contemporary art scene, but of course not internationally recognised such as Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto and painter Hiroshi Senju, Tatsuo Miyajima and Yasumasa Morimura. The current ‘post’ generation of artists, what do you think they are increasingly influenced by, their concerns, and how they are responding to the increasingly international art scene?
JW: Certainly, the Japanese art scene is not booming and a lot of Japanese artists live abroad and, like Shimabuku, don’t particularly want to go back. Their feeling is that the country is rather insular without much room for freedom of expression.
JW: I don’t think I could live there, but on the other hand, I am fascinated by it. And slightly love it in a way that I was describing. I identify a lot with it, aesthetically, philosophically in a way that I don’t with other Asian cultures.
KW: I understand. I have had an interest in Japanese culture for some time now, but I don’t yet know, if I could or could not live there that is, for any pre-longed period. My approach is very much that it’s good to be there and it’s good to come away from it, because I can then look at what I have explored and what I have seen from a distance, with some perspective, which I find very difficult to do whilst in Japan.
JW: I wish I was more in Japan undertaking research. Usually, I am there for days rather than weeks, often to promote something that I have produced elsewhere, like the Tanaka exhibition. Facts of Life was over ten years ago, but I would love to think that it still had some relevance.
KW: I think the focus of “Facts of Life” is interesting, this idea of every day and the interactions that take place. And now bag up to date, 11 years later. It is interesting how such an exhibition resonates in some ways with my interests.
KW: What projects are you now working towards, in terms of Japanese Art, what do you have planned in the next three or four years?
JW: Well, our Shimabuku exhibition is one. Interestingly, you talk about Akasegawa because I love to do a show with him. Also Takashi Homma. I am working with Rikuo Ueda, the wind drawing guy, Yuko Fujimoto and On Kawara in Guangzhou.
KW: I am fascinated by On Kawara.
JW: He is fascinating, one of the best artists in the world right now I think.
KW: I am sorry that I rather run through my interview questions.
KW: Are you planning on visiting Shanghai Biennale?
JW: Yeah, I will. This is two days after Guangzhou.
KW: OK. Well, I hope to be there.
JW: Yes. It will be fascinating. Then there is Gwanju, which is also interesting… it opens a couple of weeks before, with Mami Kataoka as one of the guest curators …
KW: She was kind enough to spare the time to be interviewed by me in January this year. We talked about Command N and Nakamura san, Arts Chiyoda 3331. I think Nakamura san is very interesting. As someone who is a reasonably well known Japanese artist, Japanese Pavilion 2000 etc., and now very much involved in work around social interaction and engagement. I have approached Japan Foundation, to see whether we can have him here, to speak in the UK, about his projects, and to look at that in wider terms of the public realm, arts and cultural regeneration projects, and to also have Lewis Biggs participate.
JW: It would be interesting.
KW: Thank you for taking the time to be interviewed.