December 11, 2023 TOPICS

[Ambitious Graduate Students] Focusing in on the “Violence” of Participatory Art—Research Born from a Fascination with the Works of Thomas Hirschhorn—

Rui Fujimoto, Graduate School of Core Ethics and Frontier Sciences Five-Year Doctoral Program 5th year

Contemporary art is expressed in myriad forms without being bound by preconceived notions. Since the 1990s, an increasing number of contemporary art exhibitions have been held around the world, not only in museums and galleries, but also in public spaces with audience involvement. Many works of this kind of "participatory art" that involve the audience contain diverse and intense messages for society. Rui Fujimoto, a fifth-year student in the Graduate School of Core Ethics and Frontier Sciences Five-Year Doctoral Program, has been researching contemporary art based on a concern with a certain kind of "violence” inherent in participatory art.

In this interview, we asked him about the details of his current research, the works he has encountered, and how he is moving forward with his research.

What is the meaning of the “awkwardness” generated by participatory art?

Participatory art has developed as part of the many international art festivals that make use of beautiful natural and urban spaces in local communities and which have expanded on a global scale since around 1990.
At these festivals, artists have not only created formative art works such as paintings and sculptures, they have also maintained a special presence as manager of actions and situations that involve the audience.
Among these kinds of artists, Fujimoto has focused on Thomas Hirschhorn, a Swiss artist born in 1957.

“Hirschhorn's participatory art is discussed in the context of ‘antagonism,’ which emphasizes the differences between people of in terms of culture, ethnicity, and other attributes. In 2002, Hirschhorn exhibited Bataille Monument at the world-renowned international art festival Documenta in the German city of Kassel. He installed this work in a public housing complex where many Turkish immigrants lived far from the festival site in an attempt to bring to the fore the presence of minorities who would otherwise be overshadowed by the constructed space of an international art festival.
Therefore, the audience who came to see the work were exposed to it in a space dominated by people who were regarded as minorities in society. This work, which intentionally generated ‘tension’ and ‘awkwardness’ and encouraged the audience to think, provoked controversy and even drew criticism. I am very interested in Hirschhorn's approach, which can be seen as a challenge to the sophistication inherent in the existing art world.”

While focusing on Hirschhorn's works, Fujimoto continues his research to clarify how the "violence" latent in contemporary social structures is incorporated into contemporary art. He is working on a literature review of Hirschhorn's work to reveal the context in which he has been discussed up to the present, and he identifies similarities and differences with artists before the 2000s.

Artists’ arguments as gleaned from prior research

One researcher who continues to lead the discussion on participatory art is the British art historian Claire Bishop. However, Fujimoto considers that Bishop's discussion tends to focus on the controversy with other theorists on the topic of participatory art, and that she does not sufficiently consider in detail how Hirschhorn positions his own work and what he contributes to the discourse.

“The discourse on participatory art has focused on presenting new points of view in the context of how the discourse and controversy over actual contemporary artworks play out, so I don’t think that ample attention has been paid to the subject matter and methodology presented by individual works and artists, nor to the evaluation thereof. In particular, my impression is that the artist's own perspective is missing when you look at previous studies on Hirschhorn. Therefore, going forward, I would like to focus on the thought process of artists who deal with social issues, especially those related to violence, while keeping Hirschhorn at the center of my work.”

In addition to surveying literature, Fujimoto also conducts fieldwork by visiting international art festivals and exhibitions to explore the spaces where actual artworks are placed and conduct research on the works. When he was researching Documenta 15 in 2022, he also visited the installation site of Hirschhorn’s Bataille Monument to observe the atmosphere of the space where Hirschhorn had installed his work and the people who live there. He wanted to examine the message contained in the work from various perspectives.
Because he focuses on arguments presented by artists, Fujimoto says he is careful not to take them at their own word in the research process.

“For artists, creating and exhibiting their works is also an economic activity. What they say should be treated with caution, taking into account the social context of the time and trends in their previous works. Not everything an artist says is true. This is precisely why I think I need to visit art festivals and exhibitions as much as possible and come face to face with the works, all while carefully analyzing previous studies. After that, I will listen to what the artist has to say and try to shed light on the meaning of those words as I write my thesis.”

Theory is built on preceding practical knowledge

When Fujimoto was a student at the Kyoto University of the Arts (formerly the Kyoto University of Art and Design), he spent his days surrounded by people who wanted to become artists or curators (i.e., the professionals involved in collecting, storing, exhibiting, and researching materials at museums), but he was not learning about Western art history or contemporary art from a theoretical perspective. It was during this time that he saw Hirschhorn's work at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, which led him to start doing research on contemporary art and the work of Hirschhorn.

“I still vividly remember seeing Hirschhorn's installation the titled ‘Collapse.’” It is a work that recreates buildings ruined by disasters using inexpensive materials that anyone can obtain, like cardboard and duct tape. I was surprised to learn that contemporary art does not just consist of just shiny, crafted objects; rather there are also works that aim to challenge and tear down that kind of sophistication.”

Fujimoto, who joined the Graduate School of Core Ethics and Frontier Sciences to study contemporary art from an academic standpoint, has been developing his knowledge of basic theories, focusing on the history of contemporary Western art, and he also surveys literature from other fields including political science and sociology. Although he has a lot of knowledge to absorb because he is conducting research in a field he did not study in his undergraduate days, he does not consider this to be a disadvantage. Because of the practical knowledge that he has taken the initiative to acquire, he is able to deeply understand the underlying theories. In other words, every graduate student has their own approach to learning.

Inspiring environments and a new focus on Latin America

Fujimoto belongs to the Representation Division of the Graduate School of Core Ethics and Frontier Sciences, and aside from contemporary art, some of the graduate students in this division conduct research on topics like video games and literature. This environment is conducive to friendly rivalry, as members discuss each other's research across disciplines, which helps them come up with new ideas. According to Fujimoto, there are moments when, as a graduate student, he feels a sense of responsibility as a researcher of contemporary art.

“In my second year after coming to the Graduate School of Core Ethics and Frontier Sciences, my supervisor, Prof. Yumi Takenaka, suggested that I write an article for the Osaka Nichinichi Shimbun newspaper about an exhibition by the artist Danh Vo that was being held at the National Museum of Art in Nakanoshima in Osaka. So, I interviewed the curator and communicated with a newspaper reporter, and when my text was published in the paper, I felt the joy of having taken a step forward as a researcher. At the same time, it was a valuable experience that also made me keenly aware of the burden of communicating information to the general public as a specialist.”

Having accumulated a diverse array of experiences as a graduate student, Fujimoto has been selected as a RARA Student Fellow. Among the extensive program of talks from researchers in diverse fields, Fujimoto said he was most impressed by the workshop given by Kei Wakabayashi, the former editor-in-chief of Wired Japan (who now works for Blkswn Publishers). It afforded him with an unparalleled opportunity to think deeply about the significance of disseminating information and presenting research outcomes to the public.
Having taken this definitive first step as a researcher, Fujimoto is now focusing on contemporary art from Mexico and other Latin American countries.

“I had the opportunity to present at a congress in Brazil this past July, followed by a week of fieldwork in Mexico. I have long been interested in the kind of contemporary art that has taken root in Latin American, and I was able to encounter many interesting works when I actually visited the region. I believe that this fieldwork was very fruitful, as I was able to see works that have connections to my own research topic of violence.
Going forward, I would like to do more research on how contemporary art deals with the issue of violence while expanding my horizons to include contemporary art in Latin America as I delve deeply into individual artists and their works.”

In this world, violence and conflict are all around us. Many people, however, do not consider this to be their own problem. Fujimoto continues to search for the potential of "participatory art" to encourage audiences to think about things with a sense of tension and awkwardness.

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