Hitomi Hasegawa, Fresh Curator of Video, Talks About Her Postponed Show in Vienna, Japonism, Hair, and Life’s Accidents That All Come Together At the End

Due to open end of March, the exhibition “Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of the planet—After 150 Years of Diplomatic Relations Between Austria and Japan” curated by Hitomi Hasegawa is postponed to November 2020.

Hitomi Hasegawa Talk and screening at Goethe Institute, Beijing 2017
Hitomi Hasegawa Talk and screening at Goethe Institute, Beijing 2017

The idea for this exhibition is based on researching the 150 years of diplomatic relationship between Austria and Japan. It came when I stayed in Vienna in 2018. I was intrigued about the early days of the bilateral diplomatic relations in 1869, with the signing of the Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation that was remarkably disadvantageous for Japan at the time. I also researched information about the World Expo in Vienna in 1873. The Japanese government officially participated in it for the first time, and the Japanese pavilion was a great success. Japonism greatly influenced Austrian expressionism and European arts and culture following this exposition.

At the world Expo of 1873, Japan was spectacular and exotic. The exhibits that drew the public’s attention included the Kinshachi (golden dolphins) of the Nagoya Castle; a model of the Great Buddha of Kamakura; an approximately four-metre-high model of the five-storey pagoda of the Tennoji Buddhist Temple of Yanaka in Tokyo; a big drum of approximately two metres. Although all the objects were from different regions and different periods, they have been nevertheless displayed together. Even objects from different religions were put together in the same garden. The exhibition was not intended to accurately introduce Japanese culture and history, but instead juxtaposed spectacular and exotic objects. The selections for the exhibits were made by two Europeans, one a German, Gottfried Wagener, and an Austrian diplomat, Heinrich von Siebold. They loved Japanese culture a lot, and in this case they were successful in choosing items through their European eyes, but sometimes those passions for other cultures can result in funny, even ridiculous actions.

I also researched about the life of the foreign minister who ended up amending the bilateral treaty, Munemitsu Mutsu, and the Rokumeikan or “Banqueting House” building, that was inaugurated in 1883 in Tokyo. Coincidentally, it was built at the same address where the Vienna Expo office used to be located. The two-storey European-style building aimed to show off Japan as a civilised country, like Europe and the United States, to prevent Japan’s colonisation, and to amend any unequal treaties. Besides these intentions, the early Meiji era was a period of excessive Westernisation/Europeanisation, and the Rokumeikan was a symbol of such a policy. Ryoko Mutsu, the wife of the most respected foreign minister, Munemitsu Mutsu, who eventually amended the unfair treaty with Austria, was known as one of ‘the flowers of Rokumeikan’. She used to be a high-ranking prostitute, she was bright and beautiful, and helped her husband until his death.

Parties at the Rokumeikan and Cultural Clashes. Every night there was a party in the European style, and Japanese diplomats and Western guests were invited. However, most of the Japanese people did not know Western manners. Their behaviour was terrible in the eyes of the Westerners, who thought that the party was a tasteless imitation. Some foreign guests said it was a ‘monkey party’ and laughed in private. Even so, all the Japanese participants in the party were quite serious and passionately learned how to waltz and eat French food. This is an example of the passion for another culture that results in failure.

This exhibition focuses on the conflicting sentiments towards foreignness, political identity, and post-colonial or post-war issues from the late nineteenth century to present days, looking beyond the celebration of the 150-year mark in 2019. This project also deals with how artists interpret desire, passion, and love for foreign cultures, artefacts, and lands. Based on a short story Tobacco and the Devil (1916) by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, who wrote about Christians and the devil in medieval Japan, Yu Araki’s video work Wrong Revision (2016) introduces a different aspect of how the devil was brought to Japan with Christianity by Saint Xavier in 1549. It is about how the devil transformed itself into an octopus and oppressed the local Christians. Christianity has penetrated the whole of Asia since the 16th century, mainly by the Society of Jesus, and it is deeply connected to the colonial policies of European powers. In his work, Yu Araki shows the unconventional narrative around the devil, an octopus, and Christianity in the 16th century, and juxtaposes it with clips of today’s octopus fishing.

Hitomi Hasegawa Talk at New Art Festival, together with Tohri (Sidecore) and Yohei Kurose (curator) Fukushima, Japan 2016
Hitomi Hasegawa Talk at New Art Festival, together with Tohri (Sidecore) and Yohei Kurose (curator) Fukushima, Japan 2016

Bad Air and Racial Discrimination. The last century myth of miasma, the ‘bad air’, connected epidemic diseases with air, environment, and racial discrimination, which later resulted in the vertical segregation on Hong Kong island (during colonial times in Hong Kong, only non Chinese were allowed to live in the hill districts, unless they were workers / servants there). Miasma, Plants, Export Paintings (2017) by Bo Wang and Pan Lu examines a global network of scientific research on plants, which circulated not only botanic specimens but also images created for the purpose of study. In the particular case of the province of Canton in the south of China, local commercial artists were commissioned to make fake paintings. This work explores the peculiar dynamics between imperialism, scientific research, post colonialism, and juxtaposes the visual narratives of 19th century Canton.

The first biggest challenge in the making of this exhibition was that we had a project plan, and some funding, but no space. It was not easy. I did not know many spaces or people in Vienna. I asked friends and wrote many emails. Some Viennese artists such as Almut Rink and Jun Yang kindly helped. Then particpating arstist Kay Walkowiak pointed out to me the Angewandte Innovation Laboratory (AIL), with which I was previously unfamiliar with, and it finally worked!

Then More Challenges Appeared. My concern before leaving for Vienna was the globally spreading Coronavirus. Hong Kong, where I live, is stable, but Japan could become more problematic. If Austria imposes quarantines on our countries, it could be a difficult situation. I heard that a Hong Kong exhibition was cancelled in Europe because people were afraid of inviting people from Hong Kong. Also, since the outbreak, xenophobic incidents towards Asians have been occurring in Europe and the United States. I had a similar situation in 2011 in which an exhibition I had curated in Kunsthalle Dusseldorf We Are Boys! was postponed because of fear of radiation leakage from the Fukushima nuclear plants. At that time, many shows were cancelled because people in Europe were afraid that artworks from Japan were contaminated with radiation. We eventually opened the show in Autumn that same year, kindly arranged by the director of Kunsthalle, Gregor Jansen.

I was particularly looking forward to the performances. Recently, I have indulged in watching many performances, so I wanted to do some in this project. Michikazu Matsune is a Japanese performance artist whose approach often contains poetic absurdity with a subtle sense of humour. His interdisciplinary performances investigate themes such as the relationship between body and objects, action and language, place and behaviour. He created new work specifically for us, but all I know is that it is about a voyage by boat from the 18th century to today.
Gerhard Senz from Germany creates both abstract visual images and sounds of electromagnetic waves, that he orchestrates into a performance. He created a new audiovisual performance that relates to the Akihabara culture, the popular culture that emerged around a busy shopping centre district and electronic goods in Tokyo.
We were to perform many performances on the opening night, but the space of this exhibition is related to the School of Applied Arts Vienna, and they will be closed after the measures announced by the Austrian Government due to the coronavirus outbreak. The exhibition is still happening but postponed until November 2020. We are figuring things out as we speak. The city will be closed (besides supermarkets and pharmacies) from March 16th. It is not the way I was thinking earlier but now Europe is an epicentre for the virus somehow.

The exhibition title was inspired by the fact that the show consists only of works from the Internet. Thinking about titles is always difficult, but it is also fun. Maybe it is the most fun part! I sometimes choose long ones, like for this project, that relates to places far away. Sometimes, I refer to a pop song or a book, and use rhymes. For example, Once was Now, Now is Over, Yet will Come was the title of an exhibition at Platform China in Hong Kong about time and metaphysics, the title came from the bible.

Invisible Cities at Dallas Contemporary and Crow Museum of Asian Art in Texas, was a show that introduced more than twenty video works by artists from Asia. The project included talks, performances, exhibitions, and screenings. The title was taken form the title of a book by Italian journalist and writer Italo Calvino, a novel where a young Marco Paulo describes incredible and peculiar cities in Asia to a Mongol ruler.

Gender Genitor Genitalia Rokudenashiko Tribute at Woofer Ten in Hong Kong in 2015 was about feminist artworks and censorship in support of artist Rokudenashiko who was arrested in Japan for her vagina art. We organised this show only through crowdfunding!

PEEP SHOW was an online exhibition in 2010 at Fresh Cyber Café, an internet café in Wan chai, Hong Kong, based on the hypothesis that a personal computer can be a contemporary peep box, like the ones that were created and proliferated in the 19th century—to satisfy one’s voyeuristic desire.

Cooking is creative and takes my mind off things. Not only because of the current pandemic, but I increasingly have been enjoying cooking at home. Many people agree that cooking is creative, you have to invent something, sometimes spontaneously. It is a fun and—at times—delicious task. I enjoy it enormously. My current experiments are Baked Onion With Oyster Sauce and Mayonnaise, Gai Yaang (which is Thai BBQ chicken), and Sweet Potatoes With Brandy Butter.
I have two sons who enjoy my creations.

Curator Hitomi Hasegawa
Curator Hitomi Hasegawa

I don’t only work for curatorial projects or my thesis (on the resistance to Westernisation in Chinese contemporary art around the year 2000, such as the Fuck Off exhibition by Ai Weiwei and Feng Boyi in Shanghai) but I also do administrative work for our family business in Hong Kong. My partner is a hairdresser, a good one, and we run a hair salon. I was more involved in the early stages, now I go to the salon only once or twice a week, to give pay checks or pick up invoices, and sometimes talk with the employees. I spare some of my time for running the business, and I enjoy working in the salon as a receptionist, but this is basically something I do for a living.
I have a list of cafes that are easy to work from, not too many people, fast wifi, good coffee and lunch etc. Twice a year, I go to Vienna for school, and I also often study at a cafe there, such as Café Bol, that is famous for its French open sandwich… There are so many nice cafes in Vienna! In Hong Kong, you can occasionally find me at LPQ in Wan Chai, a sort of Belgian Bakery called Daily Bread.

On a long flight, I always bring with me a foot-rest belt. I hang it from the front table hooks, and put my feet on it. I also bring a triangle-shaped pillow. It has a strange shape with holes, I can put my hands in them, and rest my head on top of it. I bought them online, they are both light and can be folded. They are useful to get some sleep while travelling.

My Art Shock at the Tate Modern. When I was a high school student, I wanted to study psychology at university. However, my parents ran a hair salon company, and they wanted me to learn finance and management. They blackmailed me so that I could not go to any University if it wasn’t to study economy and management, so I agreed. After graduation, I went to London to learn hairdressing, and one day I visited the Tate Modern. There, I saw an artwork, which was a trash can by Armand. My head was full of questions, mainly why can trash be a piece of art presented in a top museum? How can it be? It’s a can full of garbage! I went back to the Tate and saw more contemporary art during my stay, that was the starting point of my interest in art.

When I Studied as Someone Else and Became Curator by Osmosis. After this, I went to New York for work and studied art using my Korean American friend’s social security number, my name was Sun at university. I did this because my salary was so low, but if I was American, tuition was free. It was so long ago but I still wonder how I went about it without a problem. 
At that time I had a roommate who wanted to become a curator. We were both interested in contemporary art, talked about it together and ate together, and one day, I wanted to work in the art world as a curator. My friend became a jewellery designer and married in New York, then now she is a novelist, a mother, and a teacher.

To know an artist best, is to get to know their work, past and present. I love to attend contemporary art exhibitions, and I try to see works of art as many as I can. As curators, if we happen to meet artists, it is better if we have previously seen their works. I think artists trust curators who see many works of art and exhibitions.

I have no idea what I would do if I wasn’t a curator. I wanted to become a psychologist or a cartoonist, but now I have not so much interest for it. When I was young, I published manga zines with friends, I loved to create manga then. So, perhaps a manga creator? Although at the moment, I am more interested in piloting drones, maybe I can start learning? Seems to be very exciting!

Hitomi Hasegawa

Independent Curator

Hong Kong


Hitomi Hasegawa is a curator and a founding director of Moving Image Archive of Contemporary Art (MIACA). She lives and works in Hong Kong. Hasegawa has curated various exhibitions at Dallas Contemporary, Crow Museum of Asian Art in Dallas, Kunsthalle Dusseldorf, Mistetskiy Arsenal, National Art Museum in Kiev, Skulpturen Hus in Stockholm, and others.
In 2010, Hasegawa was a visiting researcher of the Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong with the grant from the Japanese Government Overseas Program. She is the manager of the Japanese artist group The Group 1965. Her screening programs have been shown at the Rotterdam International Film Festival, the Oberhausen Short Film Festival, Srishti School of Art in Bangalore, India, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, and others. She is currently a member of the Arts in Society Forum of Tokyo University, and EGSA (Education of Gender and Sexuality for Arts Japan). Hasegawa is now a PhD candidate in the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna.

Art critic and writer.

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