VENICE BIENNALE / PAVILION OF JAPAN, Interview with curator Hiroyuki Hattori

Hiroyuki Hattori is interviewed by Kostas Prapoglou

Cosmo-Eggs is the title of the Pavilion of Japan presented on the occasion of this year’s 58th Biennale in Venice. Receiving its title from world creation myths, the exhibition embraces possibilities of symbiosis between human and non-human elements filtered through the layers of mythology and historicity of Japan and its immediate regions. Four collaborators from different disciplines such as visual arts (Motoyuki Shitamichi), music (Taro Yasuno), anthropology (Toshiaki Ishikura) and architecture (Fuminori Nousaku) assembled a unique platform where realities and allegories coexist creating a unified spatial practice. An accompanying catalogue book compliments the exhibition in the form of an additional work of art. Evocative of some curious scientific notebook, it is an amalgamation of notes, scores, texts, images, maps and sketches.

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Kostas Prapoglou:

Cosmo Eggs  is a collaborative project between an artist, a composer, an architect and an anthropologist. How and to what degree did these disciplines and forces interact in order to produce the visual experience of the Pavilion of Japan?

Hiroyuki Hattori:

We went through a lot of discussion until the project framework was established. Each artist had a different specialty, so each of them trusted the work of others and respected every aspect of independent creation. I never forced any of the artists to interact with one another. The interaction was a natural process and everyone enjoyed the collaboration. As for the spatial composition and visual experience, we trusted architect Fuminori Nousaku and continued discussions centering on Nousaku and visual artist Motoyuki Shitamichi.  This project was developed through discussions and production by certain members, not everyone. For example, Shitamichi and anthropologist Toshiaki Ishikura went on a research trip of tsunami boulders together. They were surprised by the different ways an artist and an academic conduct fieldwork with different ways of approach and how they influence each other. The artist focused on the object itself, while the anthropologist looked into the background of why the object exists and how humans relate to the object. Finally, the mythological story created by Ishikura included many references, such as his experiences and hearsay from people he met during his research trips with Shitamichi. Shitamichi also encountered various stories about tsunami boulders through Ishikura’s research. The intersection of the two different viewpoints resulted in the expansion of their works.

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KP: Ecology and the role of the environment are pivotal in our understanding of the balance between human and non-human co-existence. To what extent does the Japan Pavilion reflect on issues that concern the people of Japan on a wider scale?

HH: This project aims to explore various ways of life by thinking about the triptych of co-existence based on the Three ecologies by Felix Guattari. The Environmental Ecology becomes “an ecology of co-existence of humans and nonhumans,” the Social Ecology becomes “an ecology of co-existence of different histories, civilisations and cultures”, and  the mental ecology becomes “an ecology of co-existence of heterogeneous perspectives”. Then we defined our exhibition with four different fields of artists as a place of integration from these three ecologies of co-existences.

Japan is a region where not only earthquakes but also various disasters occur frequently due to geographical conditions. Therefore, co-existence with disasters is a major concern for many people. When it comes to disasters, particularly tsunamis, attention tends to be drawn to the Tohoku region, where the Great East Japan Earthquake happened, although the tsunami boulders covered here are located on remote islands in Okinawa near the border with Taiwan. Okinawa is a region known not only for natural disasters but also for political tensions. It is also a land bordering various countries and regions in Asia, which is important not only for Japan but also when it comes to considering the geopolitical relations in the East Asian region. To be more specific, Okinawa used to be an independent kingdom called the Ryukyu Kingdom, a region that managed to survive by building relationships with both China and Japan. Now, on the main island of Okinawa, there is a huge U.S. military base, which assumes the political balance between the United States and Japan. In fact, considering the natural elements of this land and its historical background, it becomes more evident that the work Tsunami Boulder is the starting point for surveying how to live together. 

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KP: Oral tradition, history and mythology are integral components in Japanese culture. Do you feel such narratives may have mutual references with other countries and cultures so the international audience of Venice Biennale will equally appreciate  Cosmo Eggs?

HH: Anthropologist Ishikura created the mythological story by referring to the myths about tsunamis, disasters, and world creation that exist not only in Okinawa but also in East Asia. Myths related to disasters and world creation occur all over the world. For example, Noah’s Ark is one of them. Therefore, I believe the mythological narrative has a universal structure that can be shared with people living in various regions. 

By understanding that different myths originate from all over the world, we can convince ourselves that there are many others in this world, and that the world is multi-dimensional at first place. And I believe that by accepting stories of dissimilar origins, people could lay the foundations to allow co-existence with other people carrying different thoughts.

The mythological story by Ishikura engraved on the wall depicts the story of co-existence of three different tribes. This is an indirect approach to the current world situation. Therefore, some audiences may associate the mythological story by Ishikura with current political problems in the real world like the political tension between Korea and Japan and talk about the challenge of co-existence. 

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KP: Taro Yasuno’s COMPOSITION FOR COSMO-EGGS Singing Bird Generator  (2019) acts as a spatial unification agent between music, video and mythological narratives. How did the collaboration between artists of different practice come together and what were the challenges in the process of achieving the desired results?

HH: As you may have asked at the beginning, our essential attitude is to just trust others as an independent practitioner in their own field. Based on respecting each practice –videos by an artist, music by a composer, text by an anthropologist  and interaction with space by an architect– these were developed independently according to individual expertise. We also used SNS technology to share and discuss with all group members quite frequently. When progress was made or a new idea arose, they were shared immediately, the consensus was formed and then we proceeded on to the next step. Our discussions were frank and free from hesitation, so all of us enjoyed sharing our thoughts.

From the point of view of spatial integration, not only Yasuno’s music, but the physical response to the pavilion architecture played an important role in bringing everything together. The Japan pavilion architecture has a unique space with an exhibition room on the pilotis with holes in the centre of the ceiling and floor. We defined the exhibition room itself as in-womb or cracked egg and arranged and correlated each piece to respond to the holes. Nousaku was in charge of connecting the works with the space. He designed movable wheeled screens for the projection of Tsunami Boulder not only to emphasise on the movement of the boulders but also to depict physical flexibility. He also created the gigantic balloon for Yasuno’s music, penetrating from the pilotis to the exhibition room though the centre hole, and brought the natural light through the ceiling to greatly affect the experience of the work.

Shitamichi’s four videos loop at unique intervals; the videos and Yasuno’s music are not synchronised. The mythological story is spread into the space. All of the pieces exist independently in the very same space. Some people find resonance between each work, while others find dissonance. By creating a situation in which disparate elements sometimes cause harmony and other times disharmony, we try to explore the possibility of a hybrid community in which diverse entities co-exist.

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KP: Considering that Cosmo Eggs is a multidisciplinary project, do you envisage it developing further post biennale?

HH: Yes, we are appointed to have a come-back exhibition at Artizon Museum in Tokyo in April 2020. To this end, we are continuing this project in order to take it one step further. Our collaborative project keeps running. The exhibition in the Japan pavilion is site-specific responding to the architecture, so we never expect to simply reproduce it at the exhibition in Tokyo. Instead, we would like to create an exhibition to present what is the Cosmo Eggs project. The documentation and archiving of six months’ work in Venice is important material. For example, Yasuno has been recording all the behaviour and function of his automated music. Shitamichi would like to bring his video work Tsunami boulder to the remote islands of Okaniwa and share his experience with local people. Through this project, all artists developed new experiments and started to extend their own research, while some of them already have had the chance to build new collaborations and develop further explorations.

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All images > Pavilion of JAPAN, Cosmo-Eggs 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, MayYou Live In Interesting Times – Photo by: Avezzù, Rondinella, Galli, Salvi