Mami Kataoka

While the Biennale of Sydney is in full swing, we look back to Issue 38 when Michael Young spoke to Mami Kataoka over cups of peppermint tea following her official appointment as Artistic Director of the 21st Biennale of Sydney. They chatted about the evolution of biennales and their roles, as well as reinventing BoS and recalibrating its position on the national and global stages.

Last July Mami Kataoka, chief curator of Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum, which is known for its big-budget exhibitions, was tapped on the shoulder by the Biennale of Sydney (BoS) to be the artistic director of its 21st edition, in 2018. It was a landmark appointment. For the first time in the biennale’s 44-year history an Asian would lead Australia’s most prestigious visual arts event. That it had taken so long for such an appointment to be made bemused Sydney’s arts community.

Kate Mills, chair of BoS, was a touch equivocal on the subject when Artist Profile spoke to her recently. “The focus this time around … was to look at the region because we had never appointed someone from Asia before. Mami ended up being the entirely successful candidate,” says Mills.

Gene Sherman, executive director of Sydney’s Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, and long an advocate of close cultural ties with Asia, was thrilled at the appointment and sung Kataoka’s praises. For Sherman, getting Kataoka for BoS was a coup. “Mami represents the mid-generation of super active, internationally known Asian curators who have been working across the region and on the world stage over the past decade or more,” he says.

In November Artist Profile spoke to Kataoka over cups of peppermint tea. She was precise, composed and devoid of any hubris. She was as bemused as anyone as to why it had taken so long for BoS to appoint an Asian artistic director. “My friends and I used to laugh among ourselves that another British person had been appointed to the role,” she says.

Kataoka’s curatorial reputation is formidable, having worked with many top-drawer artists including Lee Mingwei and Ai Weiwei, in various countries including the US, where she championed Asian art. She worked previously with Stephanie Rosenthal, BoS’s previous artistic director, at London’s Hayward Gallery in 2007-2009 as the Hayward’s first international curator as well as being one of several advisors on last year’s BoS.

Currently she is curating two significant shows slated for the Mori Museum this year, one on “a brilliant Indian” contemporary artist, NS Harsha, and the other on South-East Asian art from the 1980s to the present, titled Sunshower, that opens in July and runs through October. Both exhibitions demonstrate Kataoka’s ability in being able to carry a prodigious workload. While curating Sunshower she visited 16 cities across 10 Asian countries and met many artists.

Mami’s recent exposure to South-East Asian artists – visiting studios and meeting them face-to-face – offers a clear indication of what Sydney can expect in 2018. She made it clear that she always prefers to have met an artist face-to-face before including them in an exhibition. “I can’t just choose an artist from a catalogue, it would be like online shopping,” she says. To fast-track the selection process she will include artists she met while curating Sunshower, thereby exploiting the natural connection she has with the region.

The landscape of international biennales in the Asia-Pacific is a crowded one with a plethora of countries running biennales to pull in tourist dollars and establish cultural currency. How will Kataoka differentiate the 21st BoS in this congested space? “I am reconsidering the role of the biennale (and) looking at its history, so it is a good time to look at everything that has been done. It is the perfect time for BoS to consider its existence. Why do we need BoS and what is it for?” she says.

These questions have also preoccupied Kate Mills, chair of the BoS. Late last year she announced “significant initiatives that will expand the domestic and international presence of the biennale”. These amount to a complete reinvention of BoS. There are no sacred BoS cows in Mills’ look at the event’s future, it would seem. Artist Profile spoke to Mills early this year. “What is the relevance of a biennale today? Look around the world at the proliferation of art fairs and biennales, what is our point of difference? It seems like an appropriate time to be asking those questions and Mami herself is also asking the same questions,” Mills says.

“We are trying to reinvent BoS. In Mami’s case, one of the things we are exploring is to stage aspects of the biennale internationally. Maybe do something in Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo, so that we actually have a different offering from … a traditional biennale. You think of a traditional biennale as being very site-specific to a particular city. Going into our 21st biennale … we want to reflect on where BoS has come from. It is the time to try something a bit different.”

In Mills’ plans, almost everything at BoS is up for change. There will be more board members; a permanent curatorial leader will be appointed to work alongside the guest artistic director; there will be a brand and marketing overhaul; BoS’s website will become a more social media-friendly experience; commissioning partnerships will be explored; and the structure and staffing of BoS will change. The first victim to the new structure was chief executive Ben Strout, who resigned immediately the media release was published. He had only been in the role since February 2015.

Mills says she will add four new board members, something which will inevitably dilute the current board with its old Sydney establishment perspective. Mills agreed when I suggested that four new board members will skew the board in a different direction than currently. “Yes,” she says, unequivocally.

In January Mills announced the appointment of two of the promised four new board member. Businesswoman Naseema Sparks AM with a background in management, corporate strategy, marketing and branding, digital technology and transformation in Australia, the UK and Europe and Danielle Earp a former deputy acting CEO of BoS with 18 years’ experience working in visual arts and cultural organisations, including six years at the Biennale of Sydney. She also announced that board member Michael Whitworth was departing.

Mills adds that BoS is “trying to put together an international advisory committee composed of curators, and public and private art projects internationally. This will achieve a few different things for (BoS). It will keep us abreast of what is happening overseas (and give us) greater diversity than perhaps we have had in the past … it will also mean that we will have people proselytising for us overseas which we think is important.”

Bringing Australian artists to an international audience is a view shared by Michael Brand, director of the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW). He told Artist Profile at the artist launch of The National, “One of The National’s intentions is to attract overseas curators so that they will focus on Australian art.”

It’s an intriguing time for BoS with Kataoka having arrived at a time of dramatic change which might well see the ground beneath her feet shift in several directions at once.

Kataoka again. “Originally BoS was the only event to bring international contemporary art to the region.” (Kaldor Public Art Projects has been active since 1969 when it brought Christo and Jeanne-Claude to Sydney for ‘Wrapped Coast’). “Now in Sydney the MCA, AGNSW, Artspace and Carriageworks all do it. The role of the biennale has changed a lot. It shouldn’t compete with what the institutions are doing. Now so many biennales are really little more than museum shows,” Kataoka says, and she includes the Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art’s Asia Pacific Triennial in this, as well as the Shanghai and Taipei biennales. “Basically they are just an expanding version of the institutions,” Kataoka says.

“I will bring in a different perspective. There will be multiple themes interrogating each other. Equilibrium and engagement (which could well be Kataoka’s theme for the 2018 BoS) is how I look at the world. It is more interesting to look at how people who come from different cultural backgrounds can speak to each other and communicate through art.”

Also from this March, Kataoka must contend with the launch of The National: New Australian Art another biennale in all but name planned for Sydney by the MCA, AGNSW and Carriageworks. Initially planned to run for three editions over six years, The National (a title that some critics have unkindly likened to a horse race, a newspaper or an indie American band) will alternate with BoS and show emerging, mid-career and senior Australian artists. “We are trying not to call it a biennale,” Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, director of the MCA, told Artist Profile at the artist launch in November.

“I cannot ignore it but I must come to terms with it,” says Kataoka. “BoS has an international perspective. The National remains a biennale of Australian art,” she says.

Whether The National will diminish the pool of artists available for BoS does not concern Kataoka and neither does the ongoing success of the Biennale of Australian Art which has enjoyed exponential success since Nick Mitzevich took over Adelaide’s Art Gallery of South Australia seven years ago. Attendance figures of 220,000 for 2016 in Adelaide were up 100 per cent on 2014.

Michael Brand, speaking at The National launch, remained brusque when asked about this, “There are plenty of good artists to go around,” he says.

Kataoka concurs. “There are so many good Australian artists, and I am … keen to discover new talent in the whole world. But it is not only about finding new unseen artists, it is an opportunity to reconsider many things including the artist selection criteria. There used to be one shared image of a biennale, which was that it consisted of great art from the international arena. But now they are becoming more research based delivering artists’ points of view,’’ she says.

Whatever else Kataoka has planned for Sydney, and she was about to head west to look at Indigenous art, the end result will inevitably be a melange of entertainment, didacticism and pure aesthetics. “It should be entertaining. It should be beautiful too. The experience of encountering something that is beautiful without having to read a label is wonderful – but at the same time contemporary art is such a serious issue,” she says.

It is unlikely that Kataoka will deliver much performance art. Even though a fan of artists such as Tino Sehgal – “I saw his show last year at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. Such a deep engagement,” Kataoka says. Even so, “Performance … is not my priority. I am not a performance-oriented curator. It is difficult to put performance in my type of program.”

That biennales in the current cluttered landscape need constant reinventing is a view shared by many, including acclaimed international curator David Elliott, who was the artistic director of the 2010 BoS and Kataoka’s boss when he was the inaugural director at Mori 2001-2006.

“There are good biennales as well as bad ones, with the former in the minority … worldwide there’s a crisis of confidence in large thematic shows that is related to the hubris, lack of curiosity and knowledge of art curators who really should know better,” he told Artist Profile via email. Whether Kataoka would agree with her former boss at Mori is a moot point.

As for Kataoka she remains pragmatic about the future and she knows what is required of her. “All institutions suffer from the same anxieties; major artists are needed to bring in more visitors (visitor numbers peaked at 665,488 visitors in 2012, slid to 623,000 in 2014, then grew to 640,000 in 2016) and budgets are limited. Some scholarly work is required. Some aspects of contemporary art need to engage with political concepts. These are the ingredients that you have to cope with in being a curator,” she says, realistically.

With that Kataoka strode off into the summer haze of Sydney, her home for the next 18 months while the future of the 21st Biennale of Sydney takes shape around her.

SUPERPOSITION: Equilibrium & Engagement
21st Biennale of Sydney
16 March – 11 June 2018
Various Sydney locations

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