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Artists Open Doors: Japan/UK    
3. Understandings of Contemporary Panel:

Junko Takekawa
Alistair Spalding
Saiko Kino
Bin Umino

Junko Takekawa is Senior Arts Programme Officer at the Japan Foundation, London. She studied History at Ochanomizu University, and also holds a postgraduate diploma in Art History from University of East Anglia, a postgraduate diploma in Arts Administration and an MA in Museum and Gallery Management from City University, London. She joined the Japan Foundation in 1998, managing Japan related arts projects in all forms.

When Professor Bannerman asked me to join the 'Understandings of Contemporary' panel, I initially hesitated. What, I asked myself, was my understanding of 'contemporary' (aside from in counterpoint to 'modern' dance)? Yet for some fifteen years, I have been involved with Japanese culture in the UK. I realised that one of my strengths, therefore, is my knowledge of how Japanese contemporary culture and arts are perceived in the UK.

As a buzz word, ‘contemporary’ is associated with all that is new, lively, inspiring and interesting. Is it an exaggeration to say that the label 'contemporary' dominates over all other popular labels in current usage? Or at least, so it would appear in the UK. If 'contemporary' is a globally overused, near ubiquitous term, it is frequently applied loosely and with little scrutiny. 'Contemporary' may appear an international phenomenon, yet under closer examination, its definition and implications are influenced not only by how it is used by organisations and individuals, but also by how it is taken to mean, country by country. Naomi Inata's keynote address identified a case in point, that of how the 'contemporary' of 'contemporary dance' is differently understood between Japan and Europe.

In my own work at the Japan Foundation in London, managing Japan-linked projects in any artform, I realised that we will describe a project in terms of Japanese 'contemporary' culture, without defining what is meant by that. We tacitly use the word 'contemporary' to embrace all kinds of current activities and work that is not clearly defined and categorised as 'traditional'. In my work, then, 'contemporary' is understood as meaning 'related to the present time'.

However, when I reflect on attitudes towards Japanese art and culture in this country, I cannot escape noticing that what many in the UK seem to want to see, or expect of, contemporary Japanese culture, is a mismatch with what currently exists in Japan. British popular representation of 'contemporary' Japan are frequently, rightly or wrongly, extreme and unrepresentative. To take one example, words like manga, anima, and hosec are shorthand for Japanese contemporary culture in global cinema, replacing previous representations of the gemma and Geisha. If a television series addresses Japanese culture, for example, it will typically depict attention-grabbing extremes.

My work leads to me ask, what is characteristic of Japanese culture – or indeed of Japanese contemporary culture? Clearly, to characterise something as 'contemporary' is highly selective – and received selectively too. Often it sees to me that UK viewers expect or believe Japanese contemporary culture to be, to use a colloquialism, 'wacky'. By contrast, it seems that 'traditional' Japanese culture is approached with respect and appreciation, but as an exotic import that has no bearing on life in the UK. While the 'wacky' and the 'traditional' may be features of Japanese contemporary culture, it is often the case that popular representations of Japanese contemporary culture fall at a far end of the spectrum. What is ignored is the diversity and range of contemporary culture and of how it derives from or continues past traditions.

Whenever a contemporary culture is represented in another country through its artworks, what is received will be a highly selective sample, perhaps accompanied by limited explanation as to social context. Contemporary culture is selectively presented through the eyes of those who have the power to do so. In our work at the Japan Foundation, we need to be representative of the contemporary in our society, even if that understanding of contemporary is not necessarily delivered to and received by 'the other side' in the same way. The selection is often market-driven, with the market manipulated by both sender and recipient. I say both senders and recipients because there are certain artists and promoters who are very conscious of what the world wants, and who strategically position their works to maximise attention. Political intention may also be a factor in selection; each country selects part of its culture to 'sell', in order to create a certain image – mostly, of course, a positive image - in the name of cultural diplomacy.

Furthermore, it is worth noting that the work taken as characteristic of a contemporary culture can vary depending on the country of the recipient (not least due to market differences). Aspects of Japanese contemporary culture popular in mainland Europe, for example, may not have the same popularity in the UK. I have known a Japanese contemporary artwork, acclaimed in one European country, that struggled to achieve recognition in the UK.

The current, rapid rate of globalisation can make the cultural characteristics of each country appear increasingly subtle and varied, particularly since the experience of geographical borders has in some senses greatly diminished. We may identify ourselves as belonging more to a social culture than to a country. In my work at the Japan Foundation, a definition of Japanese art or culture becomes increasingly difficult.

To many of you here today, the need for a national art institution to exhibit a country's contemporary art may appear obsolete. As a visitor to most contemporary exhibitions, you may be only dimly aware that works shown were created in a specific country; you may not read the exhibition note, or you may simply not care. Such a phenomenon often makes me ponder the role of organisations such as the Japan Foundation. However, when I am asked if globalisation is creating homogenisation in artworks and practices, my answer is a clear no. Most examples of globalisation in fact have localised elements; consider, for example, the green tea flavour ice cream sold in Japan by McDonald's. There will always be, I believe, trace characteristics of the culture that existed locally, and led to the creation of an art work or practice. On the surface or in the style, you may, for example, be aware of features that are not recognisable within your culture. I might perceive a quality of sensitivity in the movement of Japanese dancers that someone in the UK, unused to Japanese dance, might not; or, a quality in the dialogue of a Japanese play that may sound odd to British ears.

Today's artists are more freely crossing both geographical and art conventional boundaries, making work to be received anywhere in the world, often relying on a high speed information link. Yet artists cannot be detached from their own cultures because their art practices and artworks stem from their individual experiences. Above all, I want to believe in art-making as an individual's expression in their particular circumstances. Globalisation will continue to be a source of debate, but art will not become homogenised.

 
 
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