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Interview| Mami Kataoka and Saskia Bos

Global Perspective for Artists

Mami Kataoka

Global Seminar

Mami Kataoka is Chief Curator at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo and Artistic Director for the 21st Biennale of Sydney (2016-2018). She is also on the Board of CIMAM (International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art) since 2014.

Saskia Bos

Curator, Educator, Art historian

Saskia Bos is an art historian, independent curator and critic based in Amsterdam, Netherlands. She has worked as a curator and director at De Appel arts centre in Amsterdam and as Dean of the School of Art at Cooper Union, New York. Her many international projects brought her also to Japan from 1996 and she has invited a series of Japanese artists since. Japan has stayed on her mind in New York where she became Board member of Japan Society which she remains till the present.
Saskia Bos is also a Board member of CIMAM, the world-wide organization for museums of contemporary art, a member of SEC, the Société Européenne de la Culture and of AICA, the international art critics association.

If artists want to gain a certain recognition in the global art world, what exactly do they need? And what is art education in Japan compared to other countries? Mami Kataoka, a founder of the artist cultivating program Global Seminar, and Saskia Bos, one of its guest lecturers in 2018, exchange their own perspectives as curators.

Kataoka > Although it’s not your first time in Japan, what changes do you see this time after spending a week in Kyoto? Also with regards to the state of the world of contemporary art, what do you think has changed in the last few decades?

Saskia Bos > I came to Kyoto, Tokyo and Kyushu for the first time in 1996. It was really my first experience with Japan and it was so different from what I knew. It was incredibly beautiful, refined, systematic and well organized, and I was impressed with the way people were. Since then, I think the world of art has been transformed by a sort of an accelerator and change has been faster and faster. It has become very busy, just as the world of money or digital information. The ever-growing art scenes used to be in Paris, New York or Tokyo but now it’s everywhere from the Middle East, Southeast Asia to Africa. It means that there are many more art fairs or galleries, artists, museums, and it is such a change. There used to be one biennale in Venice or Sao Paulo but now there are five biennales in Asia even within this single year. It is a lot of stress for the young artists because this whole situation makes them dazed and confused. It’s hard to find your way and I think an art school is an important place to learn how to deal with the world, the world of art and your art itself.

Kataoka >  There are five art schools in Kyoto and this concentration of art schools might have something to do with the particularity of the city. Even from a Japanese perspective, it has such a rich tradition including architecture such as shrines and temples, gardens an food culture. What do you think of the meaning of learning art in Kyoto?

Saskia Bos > It is important that many types of techniques such as craft, gardening and architecture, that have been kept alive here in Kyoto. And just as techniques of the architect are updated, artists also needs to update their techniques to make something new or different. We have conversations with the students about how important balance of new and traditional. It seems that if you learn art in Tokyo, you’re much more in the world, and in Kyoto, you’re much more in Japan.

Kataoka > Is there anything that still benefits you from your school years? This is really a question of what should they be doing when they are in their generation.

Saskia Bos > My mother was a painter and my father would bring us to a museum or churches, so I have already had quite some visual training. I had studied law in the university but got so bored that I eventually switched to art. I started art history, but art historians are not trained to make art. In Italy, for example, you can only study art after you make, think, study and write. You have to do both, so the head and the hand go together. But in some countries you make art in the academy and you study art history in university. Artists can learn art history from books but the danger in an academy is that they only look at images. You need to go to museums and see the real stuff. Kyoto is such a fabulous place with so many museums. You have to learn art history by understanding the concept of then, not now, which is the most difficult part. It is to understand how those people were thinking and how we could reconstruct that.

Kataoka > While students are in Kyoto, they can experience all these particular spaces that they need to know if they go abroad, including Katsura Imperial Villa, where Bruno Taut visited and articulated Japanese culture from his perspective.

Saskia Bos > Students do need to travel. They also have to deepen discussions and improve their English. We know we’re talking about visual art, but the dialogue for artists is more than just an exchange of visual information. You need other languages, and I am finding two problems with the students; one is their lack of English, the practical language you can have a dialogue or travel with. The other thing that’s lacking is self-confidence. It is close to the English problem because if they cannot speak the language, they have less self-confidence.
What I try to do in my class is to train them in giving presentations, so they have to talks about their works. There is no failure – this is a concept of the success industry we live in. Failure is real. It is important to experience and to see that their live still goes on after failure.

Kataoka > I think it’s important they experience failure when they’re students because you have a teacher to tell them or give them advice, that’s what they’re there for. As for the problem of English, there is no necessity even if you think you need to learn as long as you live in Japan. Only when someone like you comes in and they must speak. So for the Global Seminar, I am creating unavoidable situations in which they must think, speak and discuss. It shows that there might be the third problem here, a lack of logical thinking. It’s your ability to transform your emotion and abstract thinking into word and text.

Saskia Bos > When I was a director of an art center in Amsterdam, all students or young curators with university degrees had an another problem, which is over-information. The audience is often intelligent, but they do not have all that extra information. I think we as curators, have to step back and clarify in a way that it is clear and not misty or quasi-philosophical. Lot of curatorial speak is quasi-philosophical, not even good literature.

Kataoka > A lot of young curators who have less experience of actually encountering a larger audience, they remain like that but the more you experience making shows for expanded public, you are more forced to breakdown what you are talking about, and bringing it back to simple words. I found this process quite interesting to really refine and find the essence of what voice you really want to deliver. It is a learning process of bringing one’s thoughts into the philosophical level and then bringing it back to the ground.

Saskia Bos > It clarifies it for yourself too. Another example is translation, because when I write a text in Dutch and it gets translated in English for example, the text becomes less cluttered then purer if you have a good translator. They help bring text to a higher level.

Kataoka > Speaking of this over-informed younger generation, I’m often asked how they can be successful or how they can be recognized even though they can look up everything on the internet.

Saskia Bos > There are so many choices they can make. I think the whole situation for young artists at the academy is to learn to make choices and stick to it even if you’re uncertain. Try to stick to it, be brave, work deeper, research more, have dialogue, check with your friends, try to explain it to a small group, get together, understand each other, not only your own work but the work of the others, and then you have a community right there. Another thing that I’m trying to introduce by these one-on-ones is to cut the idea of the classroom situation, which is fine in the classroom but we need more things. We need to spar. We need to have debates and a student is more relaxed and can make more mistakes in a one-on-one. I also get much more information because students show me their environment that they love and then my ideas about their work expand, and my understanding of the work becomes much larger. In America, there are crits where you hang the work and the students have to learn to put questions to the other students, so they have to think how to go deeper into the work by questioning. It’s almost like you are digging in the earth. As it goes deeper and deeper, dialogue brings depth and creates more context. You understand how it was made or why the choices were made. It’s always about the choices.

Kataoka > My last question is being an educator, what is the important thing for you and if there is any message that you wanted to deliver to the students.

Saskia Bos > I think artists, especially younger ones, have to keep a balance between oneself and the world around you because if you’re too concerned with the world of art and the world around you, you lose yourself. But if you are too focused on yourself, I think in the end you lose contact with the world. For me that concept of the position of an artist is something I believe strongly. It’s your views, your take on the world of art and on the world in general, it’s what you choose as a position – whether to be an Impressionist or a Realist, Cubist or a Futurist in the 19th and early 20th century. But today it’s not like that anymore, everything is there at the same time. It is as if time has collapsed, everything is around you, geographically it’s there, history doesn’t play such a role anymore. But you can only take one position, let’s say you are an artist who works with sculptural elements because you love what Brancusi did on the one hand, but you don’t want to be nostalgic for his works. You do understand his concept of gravity and because you want to make it something contemporary, something different, so maybe you make a film or write a poem or have something floating in the air. It’s immaterial. So, you have to take a position as an artist and then anything else like success or being recognized come later. They come because people believe that you are following your own path in an interesting way. There are no guidebooks for that, and the academy will never make you an artist. You can study or research art, but after doing the academy, it’s not said that you are an accomplished artist. You may have a diploma, but you still are always, everyday at the beginning, and everyday again.

Kataoka > Keep travelling. Keep learning.

Saskia Bos > Keep exchanging opinions. Keep in contact, keep in dialogue.