FUMIO NANJO. Illustration by Sungyoon Choi.

Location, Space, Content are the Beginning of Curation


When I started working in the arts, most museums were doing art historical exhibitions, in which the art works were installed according to the year of production. It is a simple, undeniable criterion and easy to follow, but I thought that it showed lazy thinking on the part of curators—not reading nor creating meaning in the works. So when I started to put together exhibitions along with other curators in the early 1980s, we assembled works according to themes. It sounds natural now, but it was still a rare and unusual practice in Japan at the time. Once freed of chronological constraints, curators have continued to transform the profession from the mere organization and study of art to a more active role in determining the context and thus meaning of artworks.

The evolution of curatorial practices that occurred throughout the 1980s and 1990s in Japan and elsewhere was in response to the shifting terms of contemporary art. As objects were replaced by sculptural installations, video projections and site-specific interventions, the conventions of curating exhibitions in the so-called white cube preferred by modern artists were no longer appropriate. In 1994, I was invited to curate a new type of show at Spiral, a cultural center in central Tokyo. Entitled “Of the Human Condition,” the exhibition showcased works that question and comment critically on the situation of human life. I designed this theme to create a new message for Japanese society, which had lost its sense of purpose and direction after the bursting of Japan’s bubble economy around 1990. The show used almost every space in the building, including the toilets, dressing rooms, warehouse, emergency staircases, lobby and telephone booths, exploiting both public and private areas to the fullest. In doing this, a maze was created, and the audience had to navigate the exhibition using a map of the building, with the result that they enjoyed the playful experience of looking at art.

How context determines the meaning and reception of artworks is perhaps most evident in large-scale public art projects such as one that I realized in 1995 in Shinjuku, Tokyo. The 10 international artists, including Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Indiana, Giulio Paolini, Giuseppe Penone, Luciano Fabro, Katsuhito Nishikawa and Daniel Buren, created works for a large redevelopment area to expose the public to exciting, high-quality contemporary art by major artists at a time when most museums in Japan were not showing contemporary art. The exhibition itself was a kind of criticism and challenge to those museums, and served to prove that even public art can—and must—be curated.

Around this time, the exhibitions that I organized were often inspired by the venue and its space in addition to theoretical considerations. The location provides two contexts: the shape and color of the space, and the building’s surroundings and environment. The media or format of the work must fit the space physically, and when it does people both feel and understand why the work is there. The other context is more semiotic, comprising the history, usage and function of the space. So the work chosen for the site is linked to the meaning of the space as well as to the theme or concept of the exhibition. The exhibition “TransCulture,” at the 1995 Venice Biennale reflected such thinking. Six months before the show, I spent two days walking around Venice in the cold rain, looking for a suitable venue; I found a location at the Palazzo Giustinian Lolin, just beside the Ponte dell’Accademia. I showcased artists who bridged different cultures or societies, and introduced many now luminary figures who were showing for the first time in Europe: Cai Guo-Qiang, Takashi Murakami, Shirin Neshat, Adriana Varejao and Simryn Gill.

Later projects such as the first Taipei Biennial held in 1998 at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum were closely tied to the exhibition’s geographical context. “Site of Desire” focused on the changing urban life of Asia with 38 artists from Korea, China, Taiwan and Japan, whose work exemplified what was urgent at that time and what it was like to look at the present period through the language of art. A few years later, at the 2001 Yokohama Triennale, where I designed the exhibition space with an architect and introduced new Asian artists, I felt obligated to make the Yokohama exhibition meaningful for the city itself. Although triennale organizers suggested that we choose artists from other international exhibitions, I disagreed. A curator should introduce a new vision and new art—that is the true joy of being a curator.

Also during this period, new modes of exhibition-making emerged from the hands of Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. In his projects, the methodology is the theme of the exhibition. For “Laboratorium” shown in Belgium in 1999, Obrist and co-curator Barbara Vanderlinden invited scientists and artists to collaborate on projects; in “Cities on the Move,” co-curated with Hou Hanru: the contents of the exhibition changed in each venue it showed, permitting open-ended readings of the works and freeing them from a particular framework.

In my current role as artistic director of the Singapore Biennale, I have continued to explore how a venue impacts viewers’ relationships to art. The theme of the 2006 biennale was “Belief.” Accordingly, many religious sites were used. Placing contemporary art in mosques, Buddhist temples, synagogues and churches revealed more similarities than disparities between contemporary art and traditional religious culture.

While curatorial methods have evolved over the past two decades, there is no correct method or format for curating an exhibition. Shows need strong concepts and fresh ideas, but they also need to engage in a dialogue with the space, location and history of the site. Exhibitions require money and managing expectations, and the curator has to struggle to go beyond these limits. In sum, curation stands between idea and reality, vision and money, artists and audience, art and life.