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Everything In Its Place

Jenny Stretton

Senior Curator, Durban Art Gallery

At the beginning of September fellow curator, Mohau Qalaza and I flew into Osaka to attend the 25th ICOM General Conference in Kyoto, Japan. My first impression of Japan was the colour of the immigration space and counters – pink, not baby pink but bright bubblegum pink. Past immigration, another jolt for the senses as we entered a jungle of Manga advertising – vibrant and beautifully rendered.

We took a shuttle train from Osaka to Kyoto, a journey of an hour and a half through an undulating landscape with traditional dwellings wedged between more contemporary homes. Caught up between history and modernity, buildings both industrial and agrarian, sit comfortably side by side in both urban and rural Japan.

Our hotel in Kyoto was close to the station which housed an enormous shopping centre, railway, and subway on different levels. I discovered this arrangement of retail integration into transport hubs was the norm for all stations in the cities. We were able to catch a subway to the conference daily and in the station discovered a level of commuter restraint which left us gobsmacked – people queue up and wait for commuters to disembark. Early in the trip we realised Japan is a country of compliance and cooperation, a trait that seems to run through every sector of Japanese life. The conference, on the other hand, was much more animated with some 4400 foreign delegates jostling to find places in the packed conference venues to listen to a variety of lectures, cultural performances and exhibitions. 

First off for us was a Noh performance, one of Japan’s traditional performing arts. The costumes and language of these performances remain almost entirely unchanged since the Muromachi period (14th-16th centuries) and the fuller version Nohgaku has been described as the world’s oldest theatrical art in existence, recognised by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage.












The main themes of the conference were topics such as climate change, disaster preparedness and the definition of museums – ingredients guaranteed to spark controversy. The solutions and proposals presented occupied a mind boggling variety along a wide continuum with participants pushing individual, cultural and national agendas – a kind of post-graduate bun fight.

A visit to the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto revealed an outstanding exhibition titled ‘Dress Code: Are You Playing Fashion?’ The content wove a story about the Japanese identity through dress and fashion. The exhibition comprising photographs and clothing offset by sculpture and video was a chronologically ordered installation with beautifully, constructed spare blocks of text. The space itself was designed with an accelerating exhibit frequency forcing one to absorb the work more and more quickly, slowing abruptly to a closing edgy reveal of contemporary Japanese identity.






I was fortunate to see an exhibition of work by Shiota Chiharu in the Mori Museum of Art in Tokyo. The title ‘The Soul Trembles’ references the artist’s obsession to impart soul-trembling experiences encountered from gut emotion. 



Again the curatorial finesse was staggering. I asked the museum security how long the installation had taken the artist and was told 10 days with several assistants – they must have toiled 24/7.

Viewing the metropolis from the Mori Tower I realised that this city of 20 million has an authority of its own and that the whole of Tokyo was, in a sense, an artwork. 

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Main stage welcome at the Convention Centre, Kyoto

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Noh performance

One of the exhibits in Dress Code: Are You Playing Fashion?

Shiota Chiharu The Soul Trembles exhibition

From the Mori Tower

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