The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Presenter Interview
As the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) celebrates its 60th anniversary, what is the vision of its new artistic director?
Kami-Robo Expo 2006
Kami-Robo Expo 2006
8-22 April, 2006
The first exhibition of Kami-Robo created by Tomohiro Yasui, a leading Japanese figure-artist. Full of childhood fantasy world influenced by Japanese sub-cultures of TV animation and underground design. The exhibition consist of over 100 original Kami-Robo models, some of which will take part in live wrestling matches, demonstrated by the creator. The exhibition also includes talks, workshops, and a vast array of Kami-Robo designs, iconography and other paraphernalia.
What highlights did you have recently in other areas, such as cinema, exhibitions, or whatever?
We place great emphasis on film now. We have introduced lots of international pieces – for example from Japan, Akira, Seijun Suzuki’s films and so on. The ICA does a couple of things – we not only show films, but buy films and the rights to distribute them for the UK. We are the only UK arts venue who does that. I was in Cannes last year to buy films, and every year we send people to major festivals or everywhere in the world. Last year we bought Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, for example. I think documentary is very big at the moment, culturally – since Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, a lot of films have featured documentary. So, we are buying a lot of those. A film called Iraq in Fragments just opened last week, which is about the Iraq War and hotly tipped to be nominated for the Oscar’s Best Documentary. And we will show a couple of more films on Iraq, because we think it’s important. In March, we are opening a film called The Bridge, which is a strange documentary about people committing suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The interesting thing in film is that the tastes change all the time. For a while we’d presented Japanese films, Wong Kar-Wai, early Iranian films – but we are always trying to find the ‘next wave’ in cinema.
In exhibitions, again our emphasis is about how we can introduce important new talents. The biggest event we do is the annual art prize called “Beck’s Futures” for young artists, which has been going for the last seven years. In the UK we have the biggest prize called the Turner Prize, and this one is the second, featuring the artists under 35. Every year there is a huge amount of public profile and promotion about this. The prize is judged by a set of artists who are all high calibre, and we show the shortlist of 13 artists whom we saw as the most important in Britain. Throughout the rest of the year we do group and solo shows – again those exhibitions are about different ideas and talents, and we try to identify the most exciting artists working today. At the moment we are just finishing the exhibition called “Alien Nation,” which was about race, identity and science fiction, and that was very good. In January, we are showing the last part of the three-year long project we have worked on with Tino Sehgal. He is a German artist who produces nothing. He doesn’t paint, he doesn’t make any kind of image at all but he works with people. He is an ‘anti-materialist artist’, very conceptual. So there’s no piece of paper that can be sold afterwards.
In this exhibition, the idea is that when you walk into the gallery, there is a classroom of 30 children who just play amongst themselves all day. There’s nothing, no one there apart from children. That’s the piece of work, you can come into the gallery and interact with the children – so sometimes the children may play with you, or they ignore you, you don’t know. The whole piece depends very much on your response and children’s response, and the show runs for six weeks. When we worked with Tino before, sometimes with adults or old people, the piece was all about an unpredictable moment of your encounter and experience between you. It was to do with the fact that most of us spend our time not talking, not interacting with people. And when you do, it can be uncomfortable or exciting, you don’t know. In this case – because in Britain there is a fear, or paranoia right now that the lifestyle of children is in danger, bad, and affects them – it can also show the fact that children are not that innocent and can be violent, too.
I’ve no idea how it will be received this time. In the past, some of the critics hated it, but sometimes they liked it. In a poll in Art Review magazine in Britain to decide most important artists in the world – there are two categories, one for arts critics and the other for curators including international people – they voted Tino second. So, in terms of the work he is really doing, it’s interesting. But, this is a prime example of the fact that the ICA is not for everyone. Some people say it’s ridiculous, and some people get really involved, and that’s what we have to do.

Do you have any resident artists?
We have had different forms of artists at different times. For example, we had for a while writers in residence, and one of them was Zadie Smith. At the moment we don’t have anyone, but what we rely on is to build up a long-term relationship with artists. We must understand that it takes years until our talking and ideas lead up to some form.

What about the performing arts?
It’s still important, and again the chief thing is that we are trying to find the stuff that is genuinely innovative. Let me introduce you to a couple of events we are doing next year. One is the re-creation of what took place at ICA over 20 years ago. There is a German music group called Einstürzende Neubauten, which is an experimental rock group. They did a famous performance in which while they were playing they got a big drill and started to excavate the stage of ICA. It was controversial that they destroyed the stage, but we are re-creating it for next year as a performance piece. I am quite interested in how, over time, even the most radical acts could become big artistic events, historical moments.
There is a theatrical production we are hoping to have happen in the near future and are really excited about. It is a play about Iraq, which has a score by Nitin Sawhney and a set design by an artist, Lucy Orta. It is an experimental production. There is a big set, not on stage. The audience walk through the set and the actors are all around you. All the words of the play are taken from first-person accounts of events when the American army made a siege in Fallujah trying to get out all the insurgents. Jonathan Holmes, the playwright, has turned it to an amazing production based on the words and stories of the soldiers and innocent people he collected there. There were no journalists who were allowed in there at the time, so he was the first person who visited there just after the siege, which was still quite risky.
So, we always try to make sure that what we do can be a platform. I am optimistic, this play for instance, brings together theatre, music, performance and also politics. I think it’s important that the works we are creating involve people looking at the world around them.

As the artistic director of ICA, how do you characterise and distinguish it from other arts organisations in Britain, where some of the arts venues are also dedicated to contemporary art?
I think the answer lies with ‘urgency.’ It’s to do with the fact that there are many arts institutions, galleries and museums in London simply showing visual work, which are all fine. We offer a bigger room to discuss connections between arts, culture and ideas. Theoretically therefore, ICA can do almost anything. And for me the point is to work with things which I feel most urgent. That’s why on a couple occasions I’ve done things about Iraq, because I think it’s an important, imminent issue. I found it surprising actually that in artistic terms, there hasn’t been much work about Iraq – film, now yes, but not so much in visual arts and theatre. But in fact, when you walk outside of the gallery the conversation we have is about policies, social issues of our time. So I thought it important that these are explored creatively.
Equally, on an artistic front, again it’s the matter of urgency. Theoretically, you can put on any number of artists and exhibitions, so the whole point is ‘why this artist now?’ The answer for me has to be always that they are doing the most innovative, exciting work in Britain or in the world. We have to remember that everything we do becomes a part of our history. The decision you’ve made is judged in the context of the last 60 years, and maybe nearly every institution thinks that way. But for me it’s not just about where the artists sit artistically, but also culturally or politically, across the whole range of topics simultaneously. So, someone like Tino Sehgal, he is a difficult artist, but also very interesting. There is a notion that he is an artist who produces nothing, but the work he does at ICA is only a part of his activities. He represented Germany for the Venice Biennale last year and is considered a serious artist. He occupies an important position also in that he tries to think about or offend the nature of the whole art world, which at the moment is obsessed with money. So, he doesn’t want to be traded as a commodity.
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