Curators tour Japan and China

Emma Ng of Enjoy Public Art Gallery was one of three curators who visited China and Japan as part of this year's curators tour. The other two were assistant director at Saint Paul St Gallery Abby Cunnane and Christchurch Art Gallery's senior curator Lara Strongman.

The three curators visited leading art museums, galleries and artist spaces. The trip was designed to build their professional networks and explore possible future collaborations and artist exchanges.

Was it your first time visiting China and Japan?

It was my first time in Japan but I had been to China in 2008, just as I was finishing high school. We visited right after the Beijing Olympics—a time of great change, and much has changed since then, too. That trip was before I became involved and interested in contemporary art, and before many of the art spaces we visited during this trip were even established.

The curators checking out an artwork at the Sifang Museum in Nanjing, China

What was it like touring with two other curators?

A lot of fun, and really great to be able to discuss the experiences we were encountering, challenge each other, and talk about connections/comparisons with things back home. At home, I work in a two-person office, so the intense contact was very refreshing! I don’t think we got sick of each other one little bit, even after three weeks. 

Did you find the role of the curator to be different in China and Japan to what it is in New Zealand?

There are obviously challenges, limitations and opportunities that are unique to each place. Overall, I saw more similarities than differences in terms of the role that curators play.

Is the ‘art scene’ quite different in Japan to China?

Absolute apples and oranges. They have been shaped by very different cultures and histories, and what we saw of each place reflected this. The gestation period of contemporary art in each country is very different too. We saw some incredible collection shows in Japan that featured European and Japanese modernisms, reflecting a period of Japanese art-making that would have been quite impossible in China at that time, particularly during the Cultural Revolution.

Can you describe some of the highlights of the tour?

We visited such a variety of institutions and spaces: enormous private museums, tiny artist-run galleries in the hutongs, state-run museums, and galleries funded by and sited in luxury stores. We talked with so many people—artists, curators, collectors, dealers. The joy of the trip was in having the opportunity to experience all of these things, seeing how they fit together, piece by piece.

Were your expectations about the places you went to different to the reality once there?

I’d like to think I tried not to have many expectations ahead of the trip; it definitely felt like an introduction and a first dip into two countries too vast and unwieldy to ever truly grasp. But the incredible beauty of Shanghai and Niigata, the prevalence of privately funded museums in China, and how safe and comfortable it felt to just wander in both China and Japan (relative to New Zealand)—these all caught me unawares.

Do you think any of the connections you made will lead to future collaboration?

I really hope so. I definitely need a little time to decompress and process the trip first.

The Asia New Zealand Foundation runs the curators tour in association with Creative New Zealand.