It must come as a surprise that acclaimed photographer Yasumasa Morimura was appointed artistic director of the 2014 Fifth Yokohama Triennial on December 18. The artist, known for imitating iconic women from art and cinema in his photographic self-portraits, has no prior curatorial experience and himself acknowledges the appointment is a bold one.
The announcement goes against entrenched art world trends of selecting internationally renowned curators to head such events. However, Morimura’s experience as an artist is ideal for truly understanding the process behind artistic production and the role of the artist.
The task of directing a major international art survey such as the Yokohama Triennale is needless to say, an enormous one. Morimura aims to build upon the reception of the 2011 triennial, which was the longest running at Yokohama yet, with 79 artists and 77 groups showing over a period of 83 days.
Being under the direction of an artist will distinguish the Yokohama Triennale from other large-scale art surveys, which Morimura criticizes for being unoriginal and forfeiting to populism. Removed from the processes of distribution and consumption that a seasoned curator would be familiar with, Morimura can interact more closely with artists, visiting their studios and having an active involvement in every level of the creative process during the triennial selection and commission processes.
Cutting out the curatorial middleman was the stated aspiration of the Triennial organizing committee. The committee cited a great change in Japanese consciousness after the devasting 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami. The experience, according to the committee, has prompted a greater need to harness the innovative ideas of artists, which can suggest a new course in the country’s ongoing recovery.
Aware of appearing naïve, Morimura adamantly professes his ideals of “recapturing the fading spirit of adventure” in art will be balanced by measured discipline. “Though I want to maintain a forum for free expression, I want to get rid of the idea that freedom should be the sole conviction.” Reintroducing rules to the art exhibition is a departure from the deconstructive and subversive nature of his body of work, but it is a strategy that may just result in Yokohama’s most successful triennial yet.
Morimura’s appointment may also be an indication of a new trend of international surveys headed by artists. In New York, Michelle Grabner was recently named a joint curator for the 2014 Whitney Biennial. She will be the first practicing artist to assume the role.