When the Japan Foundation announced the open-call for the Curators Workshop on their Facebook page, I remember seeing it shared fervently within minutes. It called for curatorial proposals under the broad theme of Future Curation Now. 12 applicants will be selected to attend a 3-day workshop led by Mami Kataoka, Chief Curator of Mori Art Museum, Tokyo since 2003, with a practice spanning prominent international projects including 9th Gwangju Biennale (2012) as the Joint Artistic Director, Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past (2012) at Asian Art Museum in San Francisco as guest curator, Ai Weiwei: According to What? (2012); and Yap Sau Bin, a Malaysian artist and curator who is a progressive thinker and mentor figure in the local contemporary art scene. The workshop doubles as a competition, where 3 winners would be awarded a study-trip in Tokyo together with the winners from
Indonesia, Philippines, and Thailand, plus a production grant to realise their proposals.
The announcement was cause for excitement because programmes on curatorship have been far and a few in Malaysia and on a much smaller scale. The openness of the format of the workshop _ from the selection via open-call to the freedom afforded by the broad theme _ was also much welcomed. 10 Malaysians and 2 curators from Japan were selected for the workshop: Azzad Diah, Chuah Eeyan, Grey Yeoh, Harold R. Easwar, Intan Rafiza, Kazuhiko Yoshizaki, Krystie Ng, Lee Cheah Ni, Mahendran Balasupramaniam, Tan Hui Koon, Yosuke Takahashi and myself. I had anticipated that I would know all the Malaysian participants because the scene is small, but was pleasantly surprised by power of an open-call to include new talent and those from outside of the “fine art” affinity groups.
The workshop took place from 16 _ 18 June at the Japan Foundation Kuala Lumpur office. We were welcomed by Shoichi Toyoda, Director of the Japan Foundation, Kuala Lumpur. As Kataoka took over the
floor, she suggested that we introduce ourselves and share our understanding of “What is curating?” This very basic question helped us re-examine our visions and responsibilities before we took on “the future”; as the practice has shifted from its traditional “keeper of collections” (the Latin word “curare” means “take care”) of cultural heritage institutions, to include more recent concern of curators as makers and authors of exhibitions. Our answers were earnest and honest, but telling that curatorship is nascent here.
We then presented our proposals within 30 minutes each, including time for discussion with the panelist and fellow participants to help develop our ideas. On the second day, three lectures were presented: Art Exchange in Asia by Yasuko Furuichi, Necessities and Visions in Curating by Mami Kataoka, and Mapping, and then some by Yap Sau Bin.
On the last day of the workshop _ it was show time _ final presentation of our proposals. I initially had reservations on how much we could improve our proposals over 2 nights. My doubts were allayed by the
concise leading questions from Kataoka and Yap were able to extricate us from difficulties in connecting theory to practical, identifying and speaking with our audience, and negotiating possible restrictions.
Kataoka in her closing remarks stated that while the proposals were interesting and made good use of the discussion feedback, not enough dealt with contemporary art. With that she proceeded to announce the winners: Lee Cheah Ni _ for the relevance in local context of connecting local communities in Penang with and through contemporary art, Ong Jo-Lene _ for demonstrating a basic understanding of contemporary art and tackling issues pertinent to Malaysian contemporary art, and a pairing of Harold R. Easwar with Kazuhiko Yoshizaki _ combining an exhibition on MAPHILINDO from a Malaysian Borneo perspective with an oral history archive of art worker project as an alternative portrait of the locale.
The learning continued the next day with Kataoka’s public lecture on Contemporary Art and Social Changes in Japan at the National Visual Art Gallery. Her presentation shows that art, particularly contemporary art is affected by and self-conscious of its environment and context. Kataoka also stressed on the importance of having a dedicated contemporary art museum, a place where the public can consistently experience contemporary art will lead to growth. It is also a platform for local practitioners who are otherwise finding an audience abroad, to work locally too, foster young professionals, and find support outside of market influence and demands. Perchance, the scramble to locate contemporaneity in art and art in contemporary times that resounded from the floor will find tools at this previsioned Malaysian MOCA.
Ong Jo-Lene is a local independent curator who was a participant at the workshop.