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Friday, June 11, 2010

Closing the distance on David Elliott

Familiar face in Japan's art world brings multiple voices to the Biennale of Sydney

Staff writer

Few non-Japanese can claim to have exerted a major influence on the machinations of the domestic Japanese art scene. David Elliott, the Briton who served as the founding director of the Mori Art Museum, from 2001 until 2006, is one of them.

Art historian Yuji Yamashita credits Elliott's decision to mix old and new art in the Mori's opening exhibition, "Happiness," as being one of the catalysts for a boom in historical art that continues to this day.

That willingness to bring together art from various cultures and historical periods continues to underpin Elliott's work. Why include 13th-century Tibetan mandalas alongside contemporary European art in an exhibition about "happiness"? The answer is simple: Because it is good — it "stacks up," as Elliott likes to say.

This approach is fed in part by the curator's own itinerancy. Prior to coming to Japan, Elliott directed the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, and then the Moderna Museet in Stockholm.

After fulfilling his five-year contract in Japan, Elliott moved to Istanbul, and for the last two years he's been busy as the artistic director of the 17th Biennale of Sydney, which opened in May with 440 works by 166 artists across seven venues.

It was on the morning of the Biennale's opening that Elliott met with The Japan Times to discuss his work since leaving Japan and his plans for the future. If one thing's for certain, he has lost none of the energy and gung-ho enthusiasm for his trade that won him respect in Japan; our initial interview started at 8 a.m.

You left the Mori Art Museum in autumn 2006. What did you do after that?

News photo
A driving force: Cai Guo-Qiang's "Inopportune: Stage One" (2010), showing at the 17th Biennale of Sydney.

I went to set up the Istanbul Modern, a new art museum on the shores of the Bosphorus. But, that basically didn't work out. The reason I was happy to (direct the Mori Art Museum for) Mr. (Minoru) Mori was because it was using private resources but for a public end. I thought we would be doing the same thing in Istanbul, but there seemed to be a number of additional agendas.

In 2008 I worked as a guest professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin and at the same time I was offered (the biennale) job.

The biennale is titled "The Beauty of Distance: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age." The idea of distance must have resonated with Australians.

As with all the shows I do, essentially this is about the condition of art at a particular time. But also it relates to the city where it is made. Distance for me is about a number of things. One is critical distance. You have to be able to get up close to something to see it and you also have to be able to get back to see it clearly within a broader context.

Then there's the obvious case of physical distance. It's funny because the Australians think they own distance, when in fact everyone is close or far from somewhere; it's a condition we all have.

I thought it's sort of beautiful, if you look at how people's idea of distance has changed. It's no longer colonial: no longer harking back to the fatherland or the motherland. There's mass travel that was unimaginable before. But distance can also give you the space to be yourself; it lets you get rid of unwanted baggage.

Lastly there is the distance that encompasses aesthetics: all the input that the artist absorbs from life and the output, which is what the artist creates. So that distance between the input and then the output is really what aesthetics is. Ideas of quality are negotiated in that space. And obviously they're not the same (across different cultures), but they are more similar than many people would like to think. If you think about it, you can begin to see the correlations, but we are educated to think how different everything is.

Where does "Songs of Survival" come from?

That picks up on the idea that we're still working with a whole lot of taxonomies and hierarchies that relate to the European Enlightenment, and now that we see that crumbling before us, in terms of the world situation and power, we need to start thinking of the world in a different way. We can't be Eurocentric any more. It's good to have a multitude of different voices and ideas; it's not a threat.

News photo
The itinerant curator: David Elliott, former director of Tokyo's Mori Art Museum and current artistic director of the 17th Biennale of Sydney EDAN CORKILL

Working in several countries must have given you access to a multitude of voices.

Yes, but the most important thing is openness, to be open to new perspectives, and obviously traveling does help.

Is Australia an open country?

Well obviously toward the Asia Pacific region, yes. And this is partly ideological. I think the current government line is, "Oh, we are all part of Asia Pacific."

Are you satisfied with your experience making the biennale in Sydney?

I'm very happy with how the biennale looks and flows between its venues, as well as with the public response. But it was a challenge to get there and for a while I wasn't sure if I'd be able to achieve the show I wanted. Fortunately some extra funding came in that saved the day, but not before we had to let a number of things go.

The Biennale of Sydney is one of Australia's best-known art events internationally, but it has been hitting above its funding weight. Attendances are growing dramatically and there is obviously a hunger among people to see art that is challenging and good, so now would be a good time to review funding in terms of government and corporate support. Unlike similar shows elsewhere, admission to the Biennale of Sydney is free, which is a generous statement about the importance of contemporary art. But to be more visible and to make a bigger splash the biennale could certainly use a larger budget.

Do you mean making a splash that would be felt domestically or internationally?

Both, but the majority of the people who experience the Biennale will be from Australia. I wanted to have Paul McCarthy's "Santa with Butt Plug," which is a 40-meter high, inflatable sculpture, in front of the Sydney Opera House, but the proposal to fund this was turned down by one of the local funding bodies. Fortunately we were able to realize other eye-catching works: the bouncy castle that is in fact an aboriginal war memorial ("Jumping Castle War Memorial," by Brook Andrew), Roxy Paine's vast stainless steel sculpture "Neuron," several of Makoto Aida's works, Hiroshi Sugimoto's huge installation "Faraday Cage," and others.

You've just named some non-European voices there: Andrew is of aboriginal heritage and Aida and Sugimoto are Japanese. How did you go about choosing Japanese artists for the biennale?

I wanted to show contemporary aspects of different elements within traditional art in eastern Asia. Theirs is a discrete tradition, but it has relations with Western art that are not always obvious. (Japanese art) is just as contemporary (as Western art), but it is also often strongly influenced by tradition. So I have included people like Akira Yamaguchi, Hisashi Tenmyouya and Hiraki Sawa. Makoto Aida has done a beautiful painting: a big calligraphy work that actually just says "calligraphy school."

You're going to include those last four in an exhibition you are putting on in New York next year. Tell us about that.

Yes, "Bye Bye Kitty!!!" starts in March at the Japan Society in New York. It will look at the middle and youngest generation of Japanese artists in order to give a deeper, more penetrating view of contemporary Japanese art rather than the skewed version so often seen in the West — that it's all manga, all otaku (geek). In fact, it's not just those things, although they are sometimes referred to. The show will also include Miwa Yanagi, Tomoko Yoneda, Manabu Ikeda, Kohei Nawa, Chiharu Shiota, Tomoko Shioyasu and others. It starts with the idea of "critical tradition," then "threatened nature" and finishes with an "unquiet dream."

Do you not worry that this kind of artwork you are talking about, which combines elements of tradition and Western contemporary art, might be being made with a Western audience in mind?

I think the work is made to suit the artists themselves and in the process it inevitably reflects changes in society. Most work, if it is any good, is not made with an audience in mind. And, you know, Bedouins or Aborigines, or Japanese, or any other non-Western artists are just as contemporary as anyone else. Good art doesn't all have to be coming out of London or New York.

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