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The Mori Art Museum celebrates its first anniversary this month. Director David Elliott talks to sculptor Kate Thomson about how the museum is articulating the arts for wider audience. Portraits by David Stetson.

A few eyebrows were raised in November 2001 when Minoru Mori, president of Mori Building Company, named David Elliott as the first foreign director of a museum in Japan.

As the founding director, Elliott was asked to conceive and realize the vision and mission of the Mori Art Museum from scratch. Unphased by the colossal workload involved in implementing his own plans for policy, staffing, organization and programming, Elliott has poured his heart and soul into the project and, a year on from the museum’s official opening in October 2003, it seems his appointment is already paying huge dividends.

In a remarkably short period of time Elliott has transformed the Mori Art Museum from a gleam in Minoru Mori’s eye into one of the top museums in the world by putting on exhibitions of a quality, scale and scope that have not previously been seen in Tokyo, or anywhere else for that matter.


Elliott, 55, believes he has been able to create the museum of contemporary art, architecture and design which Minoru Mori wanted to act as the flagship centre of his dream “art intelligent city” development in Roppongi Hills by very virtue of the fact that the museum is a new organization.

“We haven’t got a lot of baggage so we can be a little fresher,” Elliott says. “There’s no point in just copying what the Royal Academy is doing in London or trying to be a little Museum of Modern Art [New York] here, reflecting the old imperialistic relationship that Japan has had with the West. What could be more boring or uninspired? If you want to be in that field you have to be a player, not a spectator.”

Elliott, a respected teacher, broadcaster, writer and editor as well as curator and museum director, has already proved he is not only a player, but also a leader for those wanting to get more involved.

He worked for 20 years as director of the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford before heading to Sweden in 1996 to spend five years as director of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Stockholm. Since 1998, he has also served as president of the International Committee of ICOM for Museums and Collections of Modern Art. He applies his infectious enthusiasm and joy of life, and employs his extensive research into non-Western art in order to reassess art history and our perceptions of what art is and what it means to us.

His opening exhibition, Happiness: A Survival Guide for Art & Life, redrew a circle cross-referencing the eternal quest for happiness in aesthetic systems across the world from the sixth century BC to the present, identifying “the transformation of things” as the reality below the surface that artists and philosophers discover and articulate.

Elliott is particularly concerned with rethinking and updating the role of museums within culture. In the recent Modern Means: Continuity & Change in Art (1880 to the Present) exhibition, he encouraged the Museum of Modern Art in New York to use its own collection to reassess the contextual history of modern art and its position as a major art institution.

“They needed to do it,” Elliott says, “because the structures of looking at the development and history of modernity that Alfred Barr (who became the first director of the museum in 1929) handed down to them are way past their sell-by date. In different ways they’ve been nibbling at this problem, but they haven’t taken a big bite at it like this asking, ‘What really is modern now?’ and ‘Are we modern still?’”

Through exhibitions such as Roppongi Crossing: New Visions of Contemporary Japanese Art 2004 and the MAM Project program the museum is also establishing itself as a launching pad for young non-Western artists who are in touch with life and what’s going on now.

Elliott has been working with non-Western art since the early ‘80s, showing Indian, Japanese, Chinese, African and Latin American exhibitions. At the end of the ‘70s, when the whole idea of ‘avant-garde’ was falling apart, Russian and Soviet art were the catalyst that led him away from Euroamerican towards non-Western art. What was once known as avant-garde no longer existed, gone also was a definable progression of movements, historicism and market mania.

“My reaction was to really look at and understand other aesthetic systems,” he says, “how they decided about quality (of course the Soviet case was related to politics) and try to understand where the borders were by looking at individual and general cases – both individual and official views.”

This turbulent and dramatic story required a lot of research, reaching a form of closure in 1995 with Art & Power: The Art of the Dictators, a show he co-curated for the Council of Europe in London, Berlin and Barcelona. This resolved a lot of the questions he had been asking himself about aesthetics and ethics relating to both the avant-garde and the state.

“Whatever an artist does, it can be amoral, unethical or immoral,” Elliott says. “The fact that it’s designated as art means that it’s made within a moral field, whether artists like it or not. You can’t avoid making some kind of moral statement if you want to make art. A bicycle wheel is part of a bicycle. If you stick it in an art gallery it becomes something else as well. It relates to other art. You could say it becomes reflexive but that reflexivity in itself is a statement about the importance of art as a, more or less, autonomous field. And where does it get this authority? On one side, from beauty and its opposite (horror) and, on the other, from a relationship with some kind of system of values. Although you can find art with a terrible negative charge, it is usually pretty bad art – unless its negativity is constructed in such a way as ultimately to seem positive.”

Elliott is obviously interested in art at times of social and political conflict when things become clearer and there’s a kind of polarization. But he thinks similar qualities are always present. Although Japanese artists’ responses may sometimes seem fuzz

Elliott feels the British tradition of regarding art as a hobby or pastime unrelated to society or politics is inherently “banal.”

“Art is about representation,” he says, “and representation is fundamentally about politics.”

Although Elliott is British, he feels the German way of looking at imagery and the attitudes of people like Gombrich, Panovsky, Klingender or Aby Warburg have fed his desire to understand the iconology and iconography of art history.

“Without that, it’s just the history of connoisseurship,” he says. “Connoisseurship is important but it’s not the only thing. And anyway you can’t begin to penetrate art without some idea of what ideas and things are being represented.”

Elliott does not want to reduce art to politics and power. He expects artists to see things more clearly, perhaps differently, than most people, putting things together in different constellations that do not necessarily have to fit.

“There’s another logic,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be rational or literal. The making of art has always been like a lateral matrix, or network. It’s not linear and that’s the point.”

There is a wealth of political, social, intellectual, emotional and contextual association in any work of art. So the final impact is richer and more profound than just the initial surface appearance.

Elliott draws comparisons with the recent emergence of a generation of strong female artists in Japan. Primarily using photography, these women are searching for new forms of subtle beauty, making unexpected links between images and displaying a discursive use of imagery that expresses a strange beauty of quality, refinement and elegance.

Rather than “dumbing down” exhibitions to the lowest common denominator (as seems to have become the fashion in Britain), Elliott applies his acquired expertise and depth of understanding to raise the levels of quality and context, giving people better informed confidence to make their own assessments and participate in a lively discussion about art.

He hopes the international community in Japan will capitalize on the fact that the Mori Art Museum is the only genuinely bilingual museum here. The museum’s extensive education program works with groups of teachers (and not just art teachers) who are interested in learning more about art on a macro or citywide level. And most of the museum’s press launches, public symposiums and gallery talks have simultaneous translation available, widening the possibilities for international and multi-cultural debate.

The bilingual catalogues, which include fascinating essays by Elliott and his team of curators, are fast becoming the equivalent of an art history and appreciation degree course. They fill in the gaps in comprehension created by sheer exhaustion or lack of time to fathom the full scale and context packed into the big exhibitions and are an excellent preparation for a more-attuned second visit and further discovery.

As Elliott says, “an exhibition must be a beginning, never an end.”

The catalogues also help bring the museum’s innovative ideas out into the international environment, therefore promoting all the artists abroad.

On the theme of international experience and dialogue, Elliott says: “It’s important for all artists to travel, to develop their communication skills and to open up their eyes. There’s a strange discrepancy between curators and artists. I know that there is the phenomenon of the peripatetic international curator. But these curators don’t actually live anywhere and work, they never settle outside their own culture. Although they go to the Venice Biennale or to Documenta and the like, they don’t get out into the world as much. So basically what they are doing is taking their little bit of magic dust that they apply at home and sprinkling it around the world. So it’s the same thing everywhere. They’re not changing, they’re just sort of homogenizing. Whereas artists are forced to really work and sometimes stay for quite long times in different places in a way that curators don’t.”

The Mori Art Museum is one of the few institutions really promoting young artists in Japan, perhaps because Elliott does get out into the world (and has been based in Tokyo since taking up his post in 2001).

One of his main concerns is to ensure the successful continuance of the MAM Project program, which pays artists a commission fee to produce new artworks for an exhibition organized by the Mori Art Museum. The museum then produces a catalogue with critical essays, documenting the exhibition and previous work by the artist – an important tool for the artist to move on to the next step.

“I think that as Tokyo consolidates itself as one of the main Asian arts cities, the art trade will become more important and more people will collect contemporary Japanese and Asian art. There are already some good dealers here who are pretty well established and they’re all keeping a very close eye on the Mori Art Museum.”

This is important because society needs artists to survive and grow. Elliott believes contemporary art, architecture and design are an indispensable part of everyday life because they create an expression of our own time and, most importantly, artists, in different ways, are reacting to the real situation and giving another fresh perspective on it.

“If you’re constantly just looking 50 years or 20 years behind you’re not actually seeing what’s really happening,” Elliott says. “You’re never there! You’re living in another world almost. I just wish more people lived in our world now, because I think they are really missing something and it would be much more fun!”

Experiencing art is like learning a language – it needs getting used to. People enter a public institution at many different levels of knowledge and of engagement. Elliott is therefore concerned with encouraging and satisfying curiosity by creating an enjoyable environment and an intriguing ambience where people can answer their own questions.

“The key is to get them to ask questions and not be apologizing – “Oh God I’m stupid, I don’t know anything about this” – it doesn’t matter!” he says.

Looking carefully at the audiences to assess how effectively the Mori Art Museum is encouraging new interest and the confidence to question, Elliott is pleased that a large number of visitors over recent months have been what he calls “a non-art audience” from all walks of life.

People come to the Mori Tower for many reasons but 93 percent go to the museum, Elliott says, “and they don’t run through it. They spend quite a lot of time looking.”

Elliott regards a museum as an opening up of attitudes in a kind of layered activity. Exhibitions are one part of it, projects are another, along with catalogues and education programs. But a collection is also important as something that goes right through time. He is therefore looking forward to acquiring an art collection for the Mori Art Museum.

“I look upon the collection as a series of exhibitions, because you can pull things out of it and be more didactic,” Elliott says. “So it really adds to the possibilities that you work with.”

He feels the Mori Art Museum got off to a fantastic start and still has huge potential, but money may be an issue here.

The exhibition budget for the first year was \1 billion, which is huge compared with other museums. However, high costs and overheads were paid out of this sum. The Mori Art Museum was not designed to make money (very few museums do) and it does not take the profit from the museum shops or the restaurants connected to it, even though this is usually the way museums soften the deficit impact on their balance sheets.

Although the public don’t go to the Mori Art Museum to spend money, the museum brings them to the surrounding area where they can relax, have something to eat or drink and maybe even go shopping. The outing becomes an event in itself.

“There is a synergy between the culture and the other things you can do here, and we need to work on that more,” Elliott says.

He hopes that some of the international community will not only be avid consumers in Roppongi Hills but will also explore the small, informal galleries in and around Tokyo and invest in contemporary artists, architects and designers. And really invest in them, not just buy their work, but also interact with them, encourage and promote them, enriching and endorsing their own tastes rather than that of commercially orientated dealers (it almost goes without saying that it improves the value of their investment if the artist succeeds).

“What attracted me to come here was that this is exactly what Mr Mori has done,” Elliott says. “It was the situation in the center of Tokyo. It was someone, a guy, putting his money where his mouth was and saying, ‘This is contemporary art, it is worthwhile and I want to put it at the center of my development. I think it’s good and it’s attractive to people.’ It’s a fantastic, very original idea! And the thing is, it’s pretty extensive. It takes a lot of money to catapult an institution into the world rank in only two or three years, but it needs more than just cash and it can be done. Then you will get a response to it because it becomes news, as well as art. People are curious. But, it hasn’t been people coming and just laughing. It’s not that kind of unpleasant feeling (‘Oh, That’s not aaart!’). They’re taking it in their stride and really enjoying it.”

Tokyo, Japan, and the international art world are fortunate to have altruistic patrons of the arts like Mr and Mrs Mori who had the vision to appoint David Elliott to formulate their dreams and open new doors of perception for us all.

As Elliott himself says in the Happiness catalogue: “When thinking about the future, art presents us with an open field in which we may contemplate, without boundaries or prejudice, what really is important to us. The sense of self realization that results from such activity may ultimately help us to survive and, if we are fortunate, also be happy.”

Kate Thomson established Ukishima Sculpture Studio in Iwate in 1991. Images of her work are available at www.ukishima.net

The Mori Art Museum is currently hosting two exhibitions in celebration of its one-year anniversary: Colors: Viktor & Rolf & KCI and Ozawa Tsuyoshi’s Answer with Yes and No! See the museum’s website (www.mori.art.museum) for more details.


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