Su Baker (SB): Thank you for joining this Pivot Issue of Art+Australia, marking this remarkable time of the global pandemic. This has forced us to work very differently and to engage with art and artists in new ways.
You have had an extraordinary two years of international curatorial activity over 2020 and 2021, and most of this time the world has been in the grip of the pandemic.
Natalie King (NK): Working from Melbourne, the most lock-downed city in the world, has meant that our viewpoint is from fixed coordinates or one place. We have had time to reflect on our circumstances and reorganise priorities. Like you, many of us are usually travelling, researching, meeting at biennales or international conferences and now we convene online. In some ways, this has been an equalizer to appear in the same dimensions as a square on a screen with greater access and less hierarchy.
How can we reassess the need to travel and our carbon footprint? What does this mean for biennials that rely on mobility? Many museums have become attached to bloated blockbusters with expensive entry tickets. Art biennials were testing grounds, now they are being tested. There is a lot to ponder.
Instead, we are obliged to commute with our minds. I like what Judith Butler has said “When the world as we know it, falls apart as we know it what then?” and she has written about global vulnerability. It is no wonder that people are turning to poetry and song, writing and visual art, history and theory, baking and craft to make sense of their pandemic world.
Our current crisis has forced many of us to ‘pivot’, adapt and modify the way that we work and live, hopefully in ways that are kinder and more empathetic. Many of us have been on the brink of burnout for some time and now we simply must slow down and find another way to imagine collective futures.
I never expected to be curating via zoom from my home with my children studying online in nearby rooms. Despite the domestic challenges, I have also found immense contentment being in proximity to my family for endless days. I have tried to find some structure and daily rituals whether listening to a podcast or walking my dog around a deserted neighbourhood.
In a time of unimaginable global suffering, we can be reminded of how to live and find occasions for connection. Art and culture give us deep moments of joy and no wonder people have turned to poetry, song, baking and crafts. I do miss being on campus at the VCA and the camaraderie of colleagues so I have conducted zoom studio visits including meeting with artist, John Meade tomorrow.
SB: First the Venice Biennale was rescheduled until next year. And now your TOP show has just opened. Tell us how you have been working on these projects and how has it been working remotely, through varying time zones.
NK: I spent a lot of last year rescuing projects that were on the brink of deferral and cancellation, not knowing the future. It’s like being in a constant state of unknown and precarity though I like to think that a path will present itself eventually amidst the chaos.
I am curating the New Zealand pavilion 59th Venice Biennale which has been delayed to 2022. In some ways protracted timelines has given us more time as Venice Biennale typically has a short runway and limited time to prepare. With artist, Yuki Kihara we have been scenario planning so we can adapt to various exhibiting conditions. I have been working on a book to accompany Yuki’s presentation, Paradise Camp at the Venice Biennale, commissioning essays, poetry and visual material. Editing is a slow and precise process so working methodically at home has partly suited me.
Yuki is the first transgender or Fa’afafine, Indigenous and Pasifika artist to be selected by Aotearoa New Zealand so this is a special biennale in many ways. After curating Tracey Moffatt for the Australian pavilion at 57th Venice Biennale in 2017, I know to expect the unexpected. Luckily, it was a miracle that I visited Yuki in Samoa in March 2020 to make a studio visit and meet with her community. We also made a lightning visit to Venice in the closing weeks of the biennale in November 2019 to select a venue as New Zealand, unlike Australia, doesn’t have a permanent pavilion.
Although I haven’t previously worked with Yuki, I was aware that she had a solo acquisitive exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2008 with her well known series Fa’afafine: In the Manner of a Woman (2004-5) and I had seen her work in the Asia Pacific Triennial in 2015. I knew that I wanted to work with an artist like Yuki who is immeasurably creative, habitually outspoken and dexterous with a practice that engages with small island ecologies, climate change, queer rights, Gauguin’s gaze, intersectionality and decolonization in poetic and profound ways.
In August this year, I co-curated an exhibition Reversible Destiny: Australian and Japanese contemporary photography at the premier photography museum in Japan: Tokyo Photographic Art Museum known as TOP. This project has been germinating since 2018 when curatorial staff from TOP contacted me to work with them after viewing my curation of Tracey Moffatt: My Horizon at the 57th Venice Biennale. Previously, I had worked with TOP curating the exhibition Supernatural Artificial in 2004 and Destiny Deacon: Walk & don’t look blak.
TOP is the premier museum for photography in Japan with a vast and comprehensive collection – TOP has always been at the forefront of telling global and local stories through photography. Our curatorial methodology with Yuri Yamada involved collaborating, studio and museum visits in Japan and Australia in 2019; after the exchange of research material we arrived at a shared concept that resonates across creative communities in Australia and Japan. The exhibition was almost cancelled last year but luckily we found a way to reschedule to this year as part of the Olympics Cultural Program. We had to find new ways to collaborate from afar with reams of emails, WhatsApp messages, zooming and a multitude of ways to communicate that are not in person.
Ultimately, it’s a miracle that the exhibition has proceeded given the challenges for international freight and museum closures. I am thrilled that TOP has acquired many of the works by the Australian artists in Reversible Destiny so there will be an enduring legacy.
Reversible Destiny asks what does it means to make photography now, in a time of global upheaval, human fragility and when our future is uncertain? What can we share across borders and time zones? The eight artists in the exhibition are Maree Clarke, Rosemary Laing, Polixeni Papapetrou, Val Wens, Ishiuichi Miyako, Katayama Mari, Hatakeyama Naoya and Yokomizo Shizuka. Their work is presented in dialogue and side by side to explore the concept of Reversible Destiny.
The double bind or paradox of ‘Reversible Destiny' alludes to cycles of the past and future; life and death; remembering and forgetting; hope and regret. Together, these concepts reflect our times as frail and unstable by presenting artworks, from two-dimensional photography, installation and moving image. Photography has a special role in capturing our current predicament while going back and forth between the past, present, future. Photography links yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Each artist has made a unique contribution to the exhibition in spite of global challenges and restrictions. These artists illuminate the way forward and take the tempo of our times. We produced a bilingual publication and commissioned new fictional essays by award winning Aboriginal author, Tony Birch and Japanese writer Shibasaki Tomoka. The artists in Reversible Destiny turn their lens towards concurrent concerns by rewriting narratives of colonisation, reflecting on land degradation and ecological grief, sovereignty and our global crisis with an empathy.
Even though we couldn’t travel to Tokyo, we produced an online Symposium with Geidai: Tokyo University of the Arts and University of Melbourne with TOP providing an avenue for artists to speak about their work and mini lectures by myself and Mami Kataoka, Director of Mori Art Museum and Artistic Director of Aichi-Triennial 2022. Ultimately, the exhibition asks: how can we learn from the past to imagine a collective destiny? There is a beautiful passage by Shibasaki Tomoka in her fictional catalogue essay where she ponders time and existence:
“Both temporally and spatially, I can only exist in one place, the here and now, and all I can see is that which is happening in this spot, in the present. What, them, is the me who is seeing here?”