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MAT Exhibition vol.9
Nagoya Culture Promotion Unit Bilateral Visual Art Exhibition: Nagoya x Penang (Nagoya Head Office)
Review|Hiroyuki Hattori

Rethinking the meaning and make-up of artist-in-residence programs

Activities such as wandering around, meeting people, talking and sharing meals (all still severely restricted by the ongoing Corona pandemic) can be considered vital aspects of any artist-in-residence (AIR) program. Indeed, without being able to do any of these things an artist residency seems almost impossible to realize. However, various institutions have still attempted to host AIR programs online since the Corona pandemic began, and the fact that seemingly impossible programs were nevertheless carried out reminded me of our human stubbornness in the face of desperation.
MAT Nagoya, an art center located in the city’s port area, has become known for its projects that weave close relationships between artists and the local community. Their general attitude has always been the opposite of social distance, and the implementation of a comprehensive online AIR program together with artists from the island-state of Penang in Malaysia, despite the complete inability to travel overseas, was perhaps only possible due to an underlying attitude that values close communication and is often found in free trade ports such as Penang and Nagoya. It is, at any rate, an astounding achievement.
As someone who has worked extensively with AIR programs, it is my belief that the lifeblood of an artist residency is the artist’s direct engagement with a place unknown to them, and so I could not help but remain doubtful about the meaningfulness of an artist residency conducted entirely online, no matter how good the communication may be. At the same time, I also think that choosing to take action is much more important than doing nothing, and so I found myself visiting the AIR exhibition with a feeling of reserved curiosity.
The exhibition was centered on the numerous artworks created through the collaboration between pairs of artists from both Nagoya and Penang. I noticed that the project featured a kind of intimate and frequent collaboration that can rarely be experienced in normal AIR programs, and I believe this to be not in spite but because of the close online communication.
One exhibit in particular left a deep impression on me: a video fast-forwarding through all the Zoom conference calls between the staff and the artists from both cities. What is the deeper significance of exhibiting the entire record of the project’s communication, something that is usually hidden from public view in other exhibitions? When artists are able to visit a location as part of an artist residency, they are free to explore the city or region, discover ideas that may inspire them, and connect with people who may contribute to the project or even collaborate with them. The artworks are created through spontaneous, self-driven actions. But creating artworks in this way cannot succeed without a lot of communication with a great number of people. In fact, one could even say that this communication is actually the essence of the AIR experience (or of the process of creating the AIR artworks).
Originally, the focus of artists residencies, especially in Europe and the US where the system originated, was on fostering talented artists, developing studios for visiting artists, and building networks that allowed artists to come into contact with a wide range of professionals. In Japan, on the other hand, many local governments introduced AIR programs as an opportunity for international exchange or to promote the local region, and many artist residencies in Japan involve research-based and creative projects in which the artist is highly encouraged to enter and engage directly with the local community. Following the rising popularity of AIR programs in the late 1990s, Nicolas Bourriaud’s “Relational Aesthetics”* made an impact in the Japanese art world (though its title was often misinterpreted, perhaps because the book was never translated into Japanese) and became one of the pillars of the Japanese AIR style, with its communication-based approach that does not restrict itself by focusing solely on the production of physical results.
With this in mind, it seems almost inevitable that there would eventually be an AIR exhibition that visualizes the close communication that took place as part of its process.

In any case, there is no doubt that the current conditions necessitate an even closer kind of communication. After all, creating artworks at a remote location is unthinkable without being in close contact with someone who lends a helping hand. The artists find themselves in a situation that asks for everyone involved to remain polite, serious, and careful. And yet, in my experience, I can’t deny that artist residencies work best when they take place in a more relaxed, looser kind of atmosphere. Both the AIR program and the resulting exhibition were created with so much care and earnestness that they actually reminded me of this realization. It was an exciting, worthwhile exhibition that also made it easy to imagine all the hard work and enthusiasm of everyone involved in the project. And, it bears repeating, they did all this through an artist-in-residence program held during the Corona pandemic, without the ability to travel.
But in the end, the exhibition reminded me strongly that I only wish for the Corona pandemic to end as soon as possible, and for AIRs and exhibitions to once again be realized through unmediated personal contact and interaction.

*Nicolas Bourriaud, L’esthétique Relationnelle, Presses du réel, 1998
Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Presses du réel, 2002

Hiroyuki Hattori