Mami Kataoka was appointed Director of Mori Art Museum in 2020. She was formally Chief Curator at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery (1997-2002) and Mori Art Museum (2003-2020). International Curator at the Hayward Gallery, London (2007-2009); Co-Artistic Director for the 9th Gwangju Biennale, South Korea (2012); Artistic Director of the 21st Biennale of Sydney (2018); and Artistic Director of the Aichi Triennale 2022. She has been serving as a Board Member of CIMAM International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art and is currently the President of CIMAM 2020-2022.

Other roles include Chair of Contemporary Art Committee Japan, Art Platform Japan [Initiative by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, Japan]; Councilor of Tokyo Council for the Arts [Initiative by Tokyo Metropolis, Japan]; and Member of AICA [International Association of Art Critics]. Visiting Professor at Kyoto University of the Arts Graduate School; Visiting Professor at Tokyo University of the Arts (Faculty of Fine Arts, Graduate School of Fine Arts). Kataoka frequently writes, lectures, and juries on contemporary art from Japan, Asia and beyond. Interview Transcript

Keith Whittle (KW): Thank you for agreeing to meet. I know your incredibly busy. To begin with could you briefly outline your professional background and current role at Mori Art Museum?

Mami Kataoka (MK): I began my career not as a curator but as a researcher. I worked for a firm called The NLI Research Institute. They are the research institute for Japan’s largest insurance company who make investments in real estate and financing. As part of the real estate growth in 80s and the 90s, the time of Japans bubble economy, many arts and cultural projects were taking shape, not only in the public sphere but also private sectors as well.

NLI was undertaking consultation for proposed cultural facilities or cultural complexes for its operation and management model, as well as the fundamental concept of the new institutions. One of my projects, which I began work on in ’92 was the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, which eventually opened in ‘99. The Tokyo Opera City complex itself opened in ’96, so when I started consulting on the project, there were intense discussions as to what kind of art gallery the developers wanted to have.

Overall, I worked on that project for 11 years, including seven years of pre-opening preparation, consultation and researching on what would be the ideal for that institution. At the beginning I wasn’t going to be a curator for that institution, but maybe I was too committed and started to have a strong and clear vision for a new contemporary art space in Tokyo at that specific moment, and eventually I couldn’t let it go.

KW: Globalisation and multiculturalism since the 90s have created an unprecedented interest in contemporary Japanese art in the international world. The new images of contemporary Japanese culture have been widely disseminated with the introduction of new terms such as “Cool Japan”, kawaii, anime and otaku, and artists who reflected these new images, such as Nara Yoshitomo and Murakami Takashi, have become internationally known. Meanwhile, young artists who were born after the 1970s have been turning away from these images and concentrating on smaller, fragmented, fragile, floating expressions that connect their works in an extremely loose manner.

MK: Yes, at that time the international art scene was becoming more globalized, and the growing emergence of Asian Art were becoming visible in the 90s. Particularly, the first half of 90s, was a threshold of young galleries such as Tomio Koyama Gallery and his contemporaries  who emerged around the same time. So I had this clear vision for what would later become Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, one functioning as something inbetween established museums and new commercial galleries. And, I had explored models such as Kunsthalle, or alternative spaces. I wanted the new space to be something closer to those functions, but one with access to a larger public.

KW: The inaugural exhibition at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery was “Releasing Senses”, in 1999. And since 2003, you have worked for Mori Art Museum. I wonder if you could talk a little about your interests and the museum’s focus on the Asian contemporary art. And what yourself have described as a “rediscovering the inter-connection in between the histories, cultures and religions throughout Asia”.

MK: Mori Art Museum’s focus on Asia, stems from a specific strategy or vision, to be one of the hubs of contemporary art within Asia, or in the larger Asia Pacific region. From starting at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery curatorial practice is not really about my personal taste or interests. It has been more about how we position ourselves in a larger context and how contemporary art could find its role in the society and its history. For instance “Releasing Senses,” the inaugural exhibition, at Tokyo Opera City Gallery, was an attempt to understand art through sensory ways not limited to the visual sense. Which is a little opposite of a conceptually driven or political social way of understanding art, but which is I still believe, very important, particularly for Japanese and Asian perception of everyday surroundings.

The similar issue appeared again in “Sensing Nature” in 2010 at Mori Art Museum. It  was a meaningful exhibition to  reconsider Japanese perception of Nature through the form of installation media. I think that answers some of your later questions, representation of stylistic understanding of Japanese art, Cool Japan or Kawaii, those kind of clichés. Very oftern Japanese Art has been represented and interpreted, is a very particular one in the last 15 to 20 years. But it is a time to have an alternative view for this. Curators such as David Elliot has been critically aware of this particularismHis thoughts were well presented in the show he curated “Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art” at Japan Society in 2011.

KW: A counterpoint to Murakami’s “Superflat” exhibition at the Japan Society in ’95.

MK: Yes. The exhibition also shows another way of articulating Japanese Art. Yet, I am recently more interested in articulating, Japanese Art or Asian Art from the perspective of non-form, impermanent and invisible presence. It’s more non-logical, irrational side, of the universe. And if we are looking at that part, I think it becomes clearer as to why Western culture, and the Western world has shaped so much of the world we now know since the European Enlightenment, which is rational and scientific, therefore easier to be shared. But the non-logical, irrational, is still very much a larger part of the way of living and understanding the whole function of the universe and in a way Eastern culture or pre-modern understanding, we still share so much of that realm.

Particularly after modernisation and Modernism, something spiritual has become something outside of the normal artistic discourse – if we look at it in terms of Japanese spiritual beliefs, as say manifested through as Shintoism, then we are not as such talking about religion in the Western sense of the that term. it’s more about sensory understanding rather than being religious. If we may say that our brain is composed of two parts, one part is logical, to communicate with other people to share the same understanding, and the other the sensory part, is very difficult to describe or share. But more and more I think a sensory understanding is as important as the logical part and we need to be aware of that. So “Sensing Nature” was about that idea of perception in Japan and I suggested its stronger influence or connection to the idea of Mono-ha or a number of the performative practices of the 50s and 60s. Furthermore, “Phantoms of Asia,” which I guest curated for Asian Art Musuem in San Francisco in 2012, is about exploring that vision, more inline with Pan-Asian artists.

So this exhibition was to develop my intuitive theory further, taking Asian cosmology and spirituality, and looking at how those ways of understanding the whole universe, or how this world was created, and issues around that perspective. I am not suggesting for us to go back to pre modern era, yet we cannot deny how behavior or ways of living are informed and understood by such a perception even in our contemporary time. I want to encourage people to see art not solely from a strong conceptual, political, or social point of view, all of which are of course very important, but equally, to think of the relevance and to understand contemporary art from a sensory perspective.

KW: Looking into place making & public art, one can be aware that its current mutations are intimately related to the process of globalisation and restructuring of local culture. If urbanisation is the most spectacular aspect of this restructuring process, contemporary art plays an essential role in the formation of these re-invented localities. Contemporary Art itself has also undergone some fundamental changes over the last three decades, with cultural projects playing an increasingly important role in urban regeneration projects from the mid-80s. Minoru Mori, the founder of the Mori Art Museum and developer behind Roppongi Hills, which opened in 2003, is a property developer whose interest is not primarily art but town planning and revitalising urban areas.

The success of his 1986 Ark Hills which comprises a concert hall, exhibition spaces and eating areas, led to it becoming a nationwide model copied by municipalities and encouraged Mori’s vision and creation of the Roppongi Hills area. An hardware and software approach to arts and culture. On the other handprojects 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 the recent Beppu Project NPO, aim to renew a sense of citizenship through cultural activity, art with a social purpose working with people as their principle ‘asset’. MK:

First of all, I want to separate the act of art making by the artists from that which people like entrepreneurs or the public governments, cooperate entities are involved in because the purpose is very different. Often those people ask artists to come in and do something. But the essential part of their artistic production is very different, as they are doing it for other purposes, that are fundamentally different. They ‘use’ art as a means for other purposes. Secondly, the Echigo-Tsumari Triennale directed by Fram Kitagawa is now sponsored by Mr. Fukutake, of Benesse Corporation, who established and funded his own major art related project.

KW: Benesse Art Site Naoshima, Seto Inland Sea MK: Yes, Naoshima. And he also started the Setouchi Triennale (Setouchi International Art Festival) in 2010. So the interesting part is, those two individuals, and also Mr. Mori, are all owners of private companies. The late Minoru Mori and Mr. Fukutake both private philanthropists, such individuals like them have always played significant roles in development of the Japanese art scene. Including Mr. Hara of Hara Art Musuem. There was also a Japanese ICA, in Nagoya in the 90s, Mr. Takagi, who was a gallery owner as well as a private philanthropist, was responsible for establishing that.

What could possibly link or be common between Echigo and Mori Art museum, is that, it is part of the regeneration of localities. Difference is that one is happening in urban-space, while the other is in regional space. Yet, interestingly, they both have a sense of spectacles, as Mori Art Museum has incoporated the view of the metropolis from 52-53rdfloor while Echigo-Tsumari (and Setouchi) makes contemporary art spectacle in the beautiful regional landscape. So, for the art audience, both experiences could be spectacle. In the meantime Tokyo has so many other artistic and creative activities in the city, while art in Echigo-Tsumari or Setouchi becomes something extraordinary and could be outstanding from everyday life. The other thing is that the Museum is opening its door as a part of daily life, while Echigo-Tsumari and Setouchi are happening on more concentrated time.

KW: So it is akin to say a festive experience, one as much about place as the Art itself and its timing, like the traditional Japanese summer festival?

MW: Yes, and Mori Art Museum or any museum in an urban place has to function in a very ordinary way, a daily place and within daily time. To find a place for artistic experience in urban life style was one of the goal that Mr. and Mrs. Mori was hoping the museum to contribute.

KW: During your presentation last year at Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation you talked about those people who have been instrumental in supporting the arts through the financing of projects. And you also talked at that presentation about private collectors who had made their collections available. In Japan, where the market, collectors, audience – everything, in fact – 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 have often bought 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 neighbor, China. In fact, 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.

KW: Having recently been appointed as one of the Joint Artistic Directors of the 9th Gwangju Biennale 2012, and having worked with such prominent Chinese artists’ such as Ai Weiwei, then I wonder if you could tell me what you see as the reasons why Chinese contemporary art has taken centre stage on the international art market, and as such played a major role in defining the ‘contemporary’ and why China has such powerful and extremely vibrant and internationally recognised cutting edge arts scene?

MK: Contemporary art is always a reflection of society. Artistic creation comes out from experience. If artists are living in a society going through radical or rapid change both, economically and sociologically, it is very natural to see them reflected in the contemporary art works from that region. So it is only natural that the world is looking at China not solely because of their artistic quality but more for their social economical changes. Also, Chinese people are becoming more affluent, with increasing amounts of money to spend, and Chinese Art is a representation of the polarisation of the people’s lives. We could look at the fact that Chinese market is mostly supported by Chinese people. In fact, there are several significant Japanese collectors who supports Japanese contemporary art. Even in Japanese art, you could probably look at the art produced right after the war, throughout 50s and 60s. People were reacting to the social changes taking place at that time, because that was a really important time for Japan following the loss of the Second World War.

How to find themselves again from nothing. Artists including Taro Okamoto, or many artists from that period, were reflecting the loss of the war, to the industrialisation of the society. Also, some of the artists called their works “reportage painting”. They were also touching upon issues of American militarism, the bases that were being established in Tokyo or Okinawa after 1951 US-Japan Security Treaty. Those artists were very aware of and commented on the social changes taking place. Our generation was not really educated with a strong sense of history, particularly about modernization. After the war, I believe our parent’s generation wanted to just look to the future, and the government propagated, promoted and legislated in support of such a perspective, one focused on looking to the future, not looking back. Too forget about the loss of the war. After the war the teaching Shintoistic myths about the creation of the Japanese world was removed from schooling, whereas my parent’s generation all were schooled and knew of that previous approach to our understanding of Japan, its history and relationship to Asia and wider-world.

So the post-war generation weren’t really taught such during our schooling, our concept or perception becoming totally Americanised. That influenced so much of my generations own consciousness. Now Japanese people are finally trying to re-discover, to find out where and who we are, to explore what was, what has become. Furthermore at the beginning of the Meiji Era,Kakuzo Okakura, a very young but important figure in the establishment of Tokyo Geidai, and others were instrumental in establishing ideas around cultural nationalism. How they could establish their own style within Japanese tradition and Westernisation was such an important argument, in fact not only in art but also in political relationship. Back to your original question, I think China and many other Asian countries have been going through similar changes in the society. In fact, Japan has experienced such critical moments and that has ertainly been reflected in the recent artistic practices.

KW: I am interested also in the situation for a younger emerging artists post Murakami and Nara – both having achieved huge international success and recognition. I wonder what opportunities exist in Japan for younger artists. I am interested in your MAM projects and how Mori Art Museum itself is supporting the activities of the emerging artists. What do you see as the  issues facing young Japanese artists, working within an art scene that is now so internationalized.

MK: I think across the world, it’s a tough time for younger generations but it is the same for mid-carrier and senior one’s as well. In a way, young artists have many more opportunities to be financially supported as there are more programmes to support emerging talents. I think Murakami has emerged from the time of global art. So everyone was eager to see what is coming out from different regions. I think you can make an interesting comparison between Murakami and Ozawa and Aida. They all belong to the same generation. Murakami became super successful because it matched the requirement of the time and he knew how to position himself in a certain cultural and historical context. And it was very open to the international art community by referring to Pop Art.

If you compare him with Aida Makoto, Aida deals with a much more complicated artistic methods, medium and social, political themes all intertwined in the certain complexity and ambiguity in Japan. It is harder for an outsider to understand, but also harder for Japanese to make sense of because sometimes it is very extreme, and also his style is changing all the time. He could create a very dramatic painting along with very meticulous paintings, seriously political sculptures and silly videos. So he has no definable or easily understandable style. His work is multi-layered in terms of its meanings, hard to pin down. We need to make an effort to read or interpret and articulate all of these when considering his practice.

That complexity is to more true of Japanese society. Japanese culture and history is not that Superflat. It is much more complicated and ambiguous and Aida represents such difficulties of Japanese society whilst also expressing individual emotion and thoughts, all preserved, traditionally. Murakami and Aida make for an interesting comparison. It takes time for an artist like Aida, to achieve a level of international recognition. In the meantime, Ozawa Tsuyoshi was in a way taking another path. He started his Sodan Geijyutsu – consultation art in the late 80s and it was often articulated in the context of Relational Art or participatory art. He became one of those artists who could incorporate local people and social context encouraging audiences to participate in his works.

KW: You touched upon quite interesting issue about engagement with audiences. Also, you previously expressed your thoughts on the Echigo-Tsumari Triennale. During the past decade, there has been a boom in such contemporary art projects in various areas of Japan, often as a tool of rural, town or city regeneration. What may be unique about these projects is that many are happening outside the situ of the museum and are being led NPOs and by the communities where the projects take place. From these new sites organisations are exploring approaches to artistic production and exhibition, often engaging with the complexities of the rural situation and working with its local context to address economic or social issues. In the meantime, as part of the increasingly ‘multicultuarised’ scene of global art, contemporary public art is being reinvented by contributions of artists beyond the traditional international centre’s.

KW: For instance Beppu project, NPO, amongst numerous others. Part of my interest lies in what impact such projects actually have on communities. I just wonder what your view point is?

MK: I think importance should be placed on that society for the needs of multiple layers of activities. For instance Setouchi Art Festival is realising beautiful projects because they bring artists and young people, not only for the time where and when they have biennales, but also beyond that time as some of those young people are returning to stay in the remote islands, opening cafés or small art projects. When we are talking about localized communities, then that really makes sense when considering that sort of visible audience.

They can create one-to-one relationship with audience, which is really great in a sense that we can feel contemporary art could be some sort of medium to make social connections. Wherase, a large institution like Mori Art Museum has large and anonymous audiences. There are things that can be done in such large museum in the very visible and accessible location, from connecting ideas of contemporary art to the larger international audience, making contemporary art as a part of modern life, making international and scholarly discourse visible for the wider public, to making history by doing all of them.

KW: Yes, that is interesting.

MK: So it’s not about having large or small things. Now is more about, and this relates to my presentation at the Daiwa, connections and the connecting of activities. Ones that you feel are more true to yourself or real, that could be connected. Activities that Masato Nakamura is doing, undertaking projects in Japan at a nationwide level. He is also trying to become a focal point of all such small activities, not only from 3331 Arts Chiyoda in Tokyo, but also in Tohoku and many other places. By having that kind of space, one that makes connections possible, he can achieve that kind of goal to connect those small activities.

KW: Yes, I am interested in what Nakamura-san’s activities. 3331 Arts Chiyoda as a hub from which such connections may take place.

MK: Yes. So doing something is different from connecting those projects. And probably it’s very important to find somebody who could act as a connector instead of initiator. I think Masato is very much aware of that role.

KW: Nakamura -san’s projects do seem to offer an interesting model but do you think that such projects could have wider impact outside of Japan?

MK: I am sure his activities could and he is already connected with activities outside of Japan. He has invited people for instance from Taipei Art Center, which is also another artist run space. Within his vision, I think it is possible to make a connection between people who work in with a similar purpose, similar vision and similar scale. But they are certainly not going to become a museum of Modern Art in New York. It is totally different. I think this connection or networking of art or art activities is simply one artwork.

It is more Rhizome in approach, kind of inter-connected complicated connections. As larger institution, Mori Art Museum, we are trying to achieve a larger vision as to how the international art world is changing. But also through one project, we can look at some emerging artists throughout the world. We also have a series of talks created to really look at small but urgent issues that should be discussed, called “Urgent Talk”. So as an institution, we need to have a number of multi-faced or multi-level activities to make one institution much more organic and dynamic. There is no clear way for anything. It is just a continual effort to make most out of what we have.

KW: Thank you.