When the Aichi Triennale in Japan opened at the beginning of August, it immediately caused controversy. The outcry was largely centered around one section of the exhibition, titled “After ‘Freedom of Expression?’”—an exhibition-within-an-exhibition about censorship within Japan. That section included a work by Korean artist-duo Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung, Statue of a Girl of Peace, which referenced the history of ianfu, or comfort women who were drawn from throughout Asia and forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army. The history is so contentious within Japan that many politicians within the country did not acknowledge it until 2015.
When the organizers of the Triennale decided days later, on August 3, to close “After ‘Freedom of Expression?,’” citing safety concerns, 72 participating artists in the triennial signed a letter condemning the exhibition. A week later, with the exhibition still closed, a group of 10 artists wrote an open letter, first published on ARTnews, saying that they would remove their own work in solidarity.
On October 9, after more than two months of the “After ‘Freedom of Expression?’” being closed, the organizers reopened the section and put back on view all the removed works. But the “After ‘Freedom of Expression?’” was only open to visitors who entered a lottery to see the it. (The Triennale closed Monday, October 14.) Anyone who saw the section had to sign statements saying they would not post images of it to social media, according to the Art Newspaper. The Japan Times has also reported that, as a result of this controversy, the Cultural Affairs Agency of Nagoya Prefecture would withhold a ¥78 million (about $720,000) state subsidy—about 15 percent of the exhibition’s total ¥1.2 billion (about $11 million) operating budget.
ARTnews reached out to some of the 10 artists who withdrew their works to ask about their experiences throughout the controversy and what it means going further.
This edition of Aichi Triennale is perhaps the most political exhibition that has taken place in Japan in this century. Beyond the “After ‘Freedom of Expression?’” exhibition, all the other works included in the show were highly political as well. As a curator, I commissioned works that addressed two issues that are known to be problematic in Japan: feminism and migration. The artists I invited shared the fact that they usually take a stand [when] they address these issues in their work. They initiated the boycott in order to increase the pressure on local authorities to provide a safe environment for the Aichi Triennale to reopen the exhibition. It is important to observe that during this crisis, for every space that had closed, other spaces opened, thanks to the artists’ initiative. As a result to their constant commitment, we were able to overcome censorship and the exhibition is now back to its full, original version.
Japan has an important role in the international art scene. I hope that the decision to reopen reflects their great will to protect freedom of expression rather than to blame the victims and artists. This is why the reopening of the section is significant on a symbolic level.
However, I cannot just simply say that I am happy due to the fact that my work has become the target of aggression and the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs’ decision to cut down the subsidies for the Triennale. Still, I am grateful for Japanese artists who courageously took risks to speak against the closure and further promoted more freedom of expression for the future.
We celebrate that Governor Hideaki Omura and the Aichi Triennale finally re-opened the censored works, but we wish it would had happened earlier, and not 10 days before the exhibition closes and with limited access. Nonetheless it is a significant gesture that could lead to a open discussion of issues of conflict-related violence and historical memory in Japan. It is a shameful event that neo-natinalist Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura staged a sit-in protest to oppose the reopening and the Agency for Cultural Affairs’ decided to withdraw the subsidy for the Aichi Triennale, an unacceptable form of institutional blackmail. The struggle continues. Freedom of expression matters!
Claudia Martínez Garay
The organizers told us [the exhibition would] reopen just few days ago, and our work will reopen too, because we removed it in solidarity with the censorship. We are now happy, because… all this time we were trying to support the closed exhibition and the artists, but it was very painful process. [Next to the reopened work] is a red sign saying “Now Open” and our solidarity letter. It is very important for us that there is a register of the removal because the audience may not be aware of the complicated situation it was: the position of the artists, and how and when we make the decision to pause in order to support the colleagues, while trying not to affect the triennial.
Although we worked together and were communicating openly with the triennial, it was very difficult for them to reopen the exhibition because of threats and bureaucracy. It was not possible for them to open it faster, and we thought in the end it was never going to open, that the exhibition would end with all our works taken away. They were very respectful of our decision, and helped us reopen. All of us, as artists, want the same things: freedom, respect for our memories, and being able to speak our minds while being considerate of each other.
It is very important to support the triennial now, because the government is “punishing” them now with threats of cutting the funding of the triennial, which is very important for the city and brings a lot of visitors, economic value, and diversity of cultures to the city. If they cut these funds, they will win. There will be no need for protests no place to express anything.
Regina José Galindo
I am very satisfied with the fact that an agreement has been reached to open the censored exhibition which obviously results in the opening of our works as well. In my case, I had worked with many people and for a long time, and I think it was important to talk about the situation of migrants in Japan. I hope that the situation regarding the payment of the subsidy will be solved positively, because I do not quite understand the scope that this dire decision could have.