No. 254 Vol. 23 (2005)
Story and Portrait Photography by Lucy Birmingham
"Interview with Sunhee Kim: Curator, Mori Art Museum"
It is the opening of the Mori Art Museum's exhibition titled "Elegance of Silence" and I am gazing up at a beautiful rainbow-like installation of the Chinese character for "bird" morphing into flight. I just barely manage to avoid tripping over a crystal-like path laden with liquid-filled cups when I hear the delightful, hearty laughter of the museum's Director, David Elliott. Like a magnet, I head his way. "Let me introduce you to the curator," he says with obvious pride. She turns to face me and smiles. It is a smile that literally glows, illuminating soft rounded eyes with a penetrating gaze. There's something quite different about this woman, I think — incredibly warm, with that lovely Asian sense of grace and formality. And like most Asian women, it's hard to guess her age. "30's? 40's? " I think with a twinge of jealousy. Yes, ageless. "Very nice to meet you," she says in an accent I cannot place. "She's our Korean curator, Sunhee Kim," explains David. She then hands me a magnifying glass. "Here, please take a look at the artist's work in this installation," she says. "It's very different."
All I can see before me is a white cube-like bathroom with your everyday Asian-style squat toilet and sink. The cute flowers on the window sill catch my eye. "Probably an air freshener in disguise," I mumble. Then I notice tiny little figures placed carefully throughout the white cube. "This sure is different," I think, and then crouch low with magnifying glass perched fervently in front of my right eye. I'm feeling rather Sherlock Holmes-ish, ready to discover either an artist's rendering of a nasty virulent bacteria or the answer to the universe. I find it, and then scope in. A tiny humanoid figure riding a fly gazes up at me, mimicking like a mirror, my own wide-eyed, incredulous stare. I laugh. "This is fun," I think, and begin to hop around and weave up and down, in choreographed-like symmetry with the other participants in the 5-meter square cube. From a distance, we look like lost butoh dancers searching for the miniature God of Toilets. Everyone's feeling a bit shy, but enjoying the discoveries. "Okay, so what's the message here?" I think, as I shift into a what-is-the-meaning-of-art brain sweep. Small is big? Less is more? What is Western art? What is Asian art?
"So, what did you think?" asks Sunhee Kim. "It's interesting," I reply diplomatically, not quite sure how to interpret it all. I walk back and forth several times between the gallery spaces. My eyes sweep across the brilliant variety of installations, sculptures and paintings created by the young 26 contemporary artists from China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan. From a distance, the show looks dominantly Western but close-up it feels traditional Asian. It is a fascinating Western-Asian blend, the flavors of butter and soy sauce magically merged. But it is more than just a unique mixed banquet and the title serves this up in part: Western artistic influences have silenced the elegant traditions of East Asian art. Recognize here the young contemporary East Asian artists who are finding within their roots a newly blended voice of Western and Asian influences. The exhibition is in essence, an elegant show of pride — the visual voice of curator Sunhee Kim.
A complicated, message-focused, international exhibition like "The Elegance of Silence" is in large part a vision of the curator. To curate a show like this is no small task typically requiring about two years from start to finish and demanding accumulated years of study, research, hands-on experience, and honed communication skills equal to that of an ambassador. For a successful show like this one, it is perhaps curator Sunhee Kim who deserves the biggest applause.
"A curator needs to be able to do everything from A to Z," explains Sunhee. "We need enthusiasm, patience, aesthetic sense, and communication skills." Her unusual Korean-Japanese-English tri-lingual ability is a big advantage on the communication front. "Art curator seems like a fashionable job, but people don't realize how difficult it is," she emphasizes. "We have to work very hard and constantly develop our knowledge by visiting all the exhibitions, meeting all the artists and doing lots of traveling for research. For me, I wanted to mix with artists in a positive way," she explains, "guiding and directing new artists and art."
For Sunhee her decision to become a curator was an easy one. She's always had an aesthetic eye and an interest in art. As an undergrad at Chunnam National University in Korea she enjoyed taking art classes but shied away from becoming an artist. Instead, she majored in art education, receiving a BA in '82. Her further studies in art history and theory at Chunnam and State University of Wisconsin led her to earning two Master of Arts degrees and credit towards a PhD. It was at the small museum run by the University of Wisconsin where she first learned about curating. But it took years working as an assistant to professors and curators before she actually established herself as a professional curator.
She worked as chief curator for the Gwangju City Art Museum between 1996 and 2002 and during that time helped to organize and coordinate two of the famous Gwangju Bienniale. Her move to the Mori Art Museum occurred in late 2002. The planning of the "The Elegance of Silence" began in 2003 and was her first major show here in Japan as curator. Amidst all this, in 2004 she offered her time as volunteer curator for an exhibition on feminist art that included high-profile women artists from Korea and Japan. The show, which was held at A.R.T. Gallery in Ebisu, was an extension of her long-time interest in supporting women artists and her involvement in the feminist movement in Korea. She's now working on touring "The Elegance of Silence" show and searching for one or two unknown, talented artists to feature in the Museum's prestigious MAM Project series slated for next January.
"Within the museum system, the curator is a core part," she explains. In many ways, it can be a curator who significantly influences the life or death of an artist's career. They can also be extremely influential in deciding the direction of an entire art movement. Their perspectives, knowledge and interpretations hold great power. "It is not a simple job," explains Sunhee. "It takes many years. We have to be aware of art history and art theory. As a kind of theoretician we have to be able to explain an artists work. We act as the mediator and interpreter between art and the public."
One of Sunhee's greatest challenges is finding what she calls "good art." One very important role of the curator is not only discovering new artists, but distinguishing who is actually good. "A good artist is like an inventor. They have to work very hard. Their work needs to be different and offer a message. Too many artists' work is superficial. It's hard to explain, but I need to feel a spirit in their work and that it is something special. I need to feel a kind of inspiration." Sunhee considers herself a positive cynic. "Of course I cannot say I am always right," she admits. "But I feel strongly about my ideas."
I offer her a quote from "The Elegance of Silence" catalogue: 'The Confucianist principles of study/morality/art represent art as the ultimate state of creativity accomplished through study, self-criticism, and humility.' "Yes, but attitudes about art depend so much upon the socio-economic conditions of a society. Artists are a reflection of their society," she explains. "During Confucius's time, artists were highly respected. But their position in society became low during the time when the country turned away from art. Now with the economic bubble happening there, and all the rapid changes economically and politically, the position of the artist is getting better again."
As the only Korean curator on staff at an established art museum in Japan, Sunhee's position is not only unique but valuable. "The Mori Art Museum is considered a kind of leader among museums in Japan," she says. "It is very international. There is a British Director and other foreign staff members besides myself. I think it is the only museum in Japan where this can happen. In Asia it is very unusual to have foreign staff because the history of museums is only about 50-years. Quite short. Museums fulfill a new and important role here. Whereas in the West, hiring foreign curators on a freelance basis and as staff members is quite common. Established museums have been around much longer." And then she adds, "I am very very grateful to be here."
Her Korean eyes and international experience have been a cultural bridge at the Mori Art Museum. "Offering different experiences and exchanging different ideas is very important in the world of art," she emphasizes. "I feel I am helping to bridge the countries of Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan. The world of art is very different from the world of politics. We work beyond the ideologies of a general political agenda. Art — it is a special world."
"One of the best things about my job is that I have a chance to work with people from all over the world." she says with another glowing smile. "The art world is really small and I have so many friends who are curators. We are exchanging ideas all the time, inviting each other places. It's so nice."
How would she summarize the role of a curator? "I think a curator is like a gardener," she explains. "We need to grow good plants and take care of the little plants. As they grow we have to cut and reshape. Maybe we can say this is like being a critic, but it is necessary. We always have to be very careful."