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Thursday, March 20, 2008


Curating shows in a foreign language

"It was like being put in a boxing ring and bashed from all sides," says curator Mami Kataoka with a burst of laughter.

She's recollecting her treatment by the British media, after her latest exhibition, "Laughing in a Foreign Language," opened at London's Hayward Gallery at the end of January.

The 43-year-old is in the rare position of working for two museums at once. One month she's at Tokyo's Mori Art Museum, where she is the senior curator, and the next she's at Hayward, where she's the international curator.

"Laughing in a Foreign Language" was her first curatorial project at her London base — a reworking of her 2007 Mori show "All About Laughter" with a tighter focus on the question of whether "humor is specific to cultures." The experience gave her the rare opportunity to compare firsthand the exhibition- making processes in Britain and Japan, and to gauge the differences between the two countries' media coverage of contemporary art.

"There are only so many ways you can make an exhibition," Kataoka starts. "We develop the concept, make a list of artists, send out loan requests, and so on."

For much of the time, the only change was the view out of the window — the panorama afforded by Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills had been replaced by the Thames River.

But then differences emerged. In Japanese museums, a long-held (but gradually changing) belief that a museum's function is primarily academic, combined with often sparse staffing, has created a culture where the curator's responsibilities stretch even to the far peripheries, including such tasks as editing the catalog and designing the exhibition space.

"I wanted to make orange the key color — because it's joyful — and use it in the gallery and the posters. They looked at me and said, 'That's not for you to decide,' " she recalls with another laugh.

During the production of the catalog, Kataoka was surprised to find her essay being edited — even if it was in translation. In Japan, "There basically aren't any editors who would make changes to a curator's catalog essay."

Then there was what you might call the difference in work — or more precisely overwork — ethic. "If you are still in the office at 7 p.m., it's like, 'Wow, you're so late!' " says Kataoka.

The lack of overtime meant that "It took 10 days to hang a show that in Japan we would have done in three or four," she explains. Still, she adds diplomatically, "You can't say one way of working is better than the other. They could do some things more efficiently, and the Japanese should perhaps take things easier," she says.

Of course, the biggest surprise came after the show opened.

"Laugh? You must be joking," said The Guardian. "For gags, stick to 'The Simpsons,' " echoed The Independent on Sunday.

"Some of the reviews were good, some were bad, but it was the diversity and volume of opinions that most surprised me," Kataoka says.

There is a tradition in Japan for exhibition reviews to be heavy on historical background, short, descriptive and, above all, positive. Japanese newspaper critics tend to cite in their defense a lack of space.

Reviews in major Japanese-language dailies appear once or twice a week, and are limited to about a 1000 characters each. That translates to a paltry 500 words or so of English, and an understandable tendency for reviewers to avoid wasting it on shows they don't like. By comparison, The Times and The New York Times run 1,000-plus-word reviews every two or three days (and much longer one in their weekend magazines).

"We have always been told there is no real forum for art criticism in Japan, and I was really made to feel that," Kataoka continues.

Kataoka's show was perhaps particularly apt for criticism. "With 'Laughing' in the title, the focus of a lot of the commentary was on whether or not the works were funny, and that wasn't really the point," she says.

More than anything, such commentary would seem to prove that obviously humor is culturally specific. And perhaps curation is too, although Kataoka says the feedback from the British press was hugely beneficial.

"It is hard, shocking and depressing. Still," she concludes, "it is great training for curators."

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