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International Museum Association Calls for Reopening of Aichi Triennale Exhibition Following Censorship Controversy

Above: Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art. Courtesy of the Aichi Triennale in Japan.
Above: Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art. Courtesy of the Aichi Triennale in Japan.

NAGOYA, JAPAN—The International Committee of Museums and Collections of Modern Art (CIMAM) has added its voice to the growing backlash against the organizers of the Aichi Triennale in Japan over their decision to shutter the exhibition “After ‘Freedom of Expression?’”—a presentation of artworks that had been previously censored in the country—on August 3, days after it opened.

Staged at the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art in Nagoya, the show had received several threats over the inclusion of a “comfort woman” statue, a tribute to the women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II, and endured a campaign of intimidation carried out by local politicians who threatened future funding for the triennial. Participating artists have since denounced the move, calling it censorship disguised as concern for the safety of the museum’s staff and visitors.

Two weeks ago, thirteen artists—including Tania Bruguera, Pia Camil, Minouk Lim, Pedro Reyes, Koki Tanaka, and Javier Téllez—signed an open letter requesting that their works be withdrawn from the triennial until the closed exhibition was restored. “We consider it an ethical obligation to stand by the exhibiting artists’ voices and their work being exhibited,” the letter read. “Freedom of expression is an unalienable right that needs to be defended independently of any context.”

On August 27, CIMAM, a Barcelona-based organization whose membership includes more than five hundred directors of contemporary art museums and collections, independent curators, and researchers, joined the protest when it released a statement urging organizers to reopen the exhibition. It reads in part: “CIMAM calls on the Aichi Triennial to honor the commitments it has made—namely to put in place the appropriate security arrangements for the exhibition to reopen, and to lead in facilitating the open platform for reflection and free and vigorous discussion that the artists have called for.”

In response to the condemnation of the triennial, artistic director Daisuke Tsuda has issued an apology to the artists whose works were in the exhibition and for the “strong sense of indignation and disappointment” felt by the artists who pulled their works from the triennial. He also defended the decision to close the show: “When the exhibition opened, threats beyond our expectations, malicious and abusive phone calls, and warnings about inhumane acts of terrorism have been unceasingly directed against us. The closure of the exhibition was a decision to prioritize the lives of visitors and staff who were in a position of imminent danger. Our greatest respect for freedom of expression, however, has remained constant throughout.”

According to Tsuda, a panel—dubbed the Future of Aichi Triennale Review Committee—was formed on August 16 to access the events leading up to the closure and to discuss the possibility of reopening the exhibition. Organizers are also planning to put out a joint declaration on freedom of expression.

CIMAM’s full statement can be read in full below:

CIMAM is greatly concerned about the 2019 Aichi Triennale’s decision to cancel the exhibition After “Freedom of Expression?” The cancellation is an infringement of the artists’ freedom of expression, at the behest of politicians and the Mayer of Nagoya City, Takashi Kawamura, who made a direct request for the exhibition to be closed. On display in the exhibition was a collection of artworks that were excluded from museums in Japan or were included in exhibitions that were closed due to censorship or self- censorship. The closing of the exhibition itself is a serious violation of freedom of expression.

CIMAM requests that the demands of the great majority of artists participating in the triennial, as expressed in their statement on August 6th, are met. The artists requested three things: the immediate restoration of the Aichi Triennale 2019’s autonomy from political pressure and intimidation; the continuation of the exhibition under the assurance of safety for all its staff and visitors; and the establishment of a platform for free and vigorous discussion open to all, including the participating artists.

CIMAM strongly denounces that an exhibition has been closed as a result of political threats and intimidation. The issue is, however, wider than this and requires a meaningful reflection upon the curatorial premise behind the exhibition and clear recognition that the freedom of expression it sought to engender is now completely undermined.

CIMAM calls on the Aichi Triennial to honour the commitments it has made – namely to put in place the appropriate security arrangements for the exhibition to reopen, and to lead in facilitating the open platform for reflection and free and vigorous discussion that the artists have called for.

September 3, 2019