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Restart of controversial exhibit at Japan art festival comes after both sides compromise

People line up for tickets for a lottery to enter the "After 'Freedom of Expression?'" exhibit at the Aichi Triennale art festival, in Nagoya's Higashi Ward on Oct. 8, 2019, as the exhibit was set to resume that day. (Mainichi/Koji Hyodo)

NAGOYA -- A controversial exhibit at an international art festival here that had been canceled after a deluge of complaints and a terrorist threat resumed on Oct. 8, just a week before the festival is set to end.

Festival hosts agreed that artists participating in the "After 'Freedom of Expression?'" exhibit could resume their displays in their original format, but reaching a common middle ground that both sides could accept took a lot of work, including changing the way in which visitors are permitted to view the works of art.

While no problems were reported on the first day the exhibit was resumed, criticism toward the Agency for Cultural Affairs over its decision to pull its grant for the Aichi Triennale, the art festival hosting the exhibit, is bound to spread.

The restart of the exhibit had originally been set to be announced on the morning of Oct. 8, only hours before the display would actually begin once again. The respective organizers of the Aichi Triennale and the "After 'Freedom of Expression?'" exhibit reached an agreement on the night of Oct. 6, and rushed on Oct. 7, a day when the museum where the display had been held was closed, to set up the display. The work was done in an unusually covert manner in an apparent effort to "prevent those objecting to the exhibit from flocking to the museum from all over the country."

On the morning of Oct. 7, Aichi Gov. Hideaki Omura, the head of the Aichi Triennale organizing committee, repeatedly told a regular news conference that talks toward resuming the exhibit were ongoing. In the early evening of that day, television networks reported that the display would resume. The governor held an emergency press conference that night, and finally announced the recommencement of the exhibit the following afternoon.

People line up for tickets for a lottery to enter the "After 'Freedom of Expression?'" exhibit at the Aichi Triennale art festival, in Nagoya's Higashi Ward on Oct. 8, 2019, as the exhibit was set to resume that day. (Mainichi/Koji Hyodo)

Resuming on a lottery system, those who win spots to get into the exhibit are given wristbands to wear. Thirty people are allowed entry to view the works at once, and they are required to show identification, check their belongings, and go through a metal detector. Those who visit the display must also submit a written oath saying that they will not post any photos of the exhibit on the internet.

All of these measures are a far cry from those that were taken at the initial outset of the "After 'Freedom of Expression?'" exhibit. But they were measures that Gov. Omura, who feared the resumed exhibit coming under fire online, had insisted upon. Meanwhile, organizers of the "After 'Freedom of Expression?'" exhibit insisted on the freedom of visitors to post and spread their photos of the display via social media. Organizing committee member Arai Hiroyuki declared that "taking photos and posting them on social media is the right of viewers." In particular, a statue of a girl symbolizing wartime "comfort women" is a work that is meant to be appreciated by sitting next to her, seeing her at her eye level, and taking a photo with her. To the argument that "freedom of expression" extends to those who are viewing the artwork, one Aichi prefectural official disclosed, "What the artists are thinking is of a different dimension from what we bureaucrats are thinking. We're not happy at all about the exhibit being resumed."

Talks to resume the display continued on and off behind the scenes of an international forum on "freedom of expression" that was held on Oct. 5 and 6. Both sides knew they could not afford to delay a resumption of the exhibit any longer, nor did they want to leave a record of having given in to violence. The organizers of "After 'Freedom of Expression?'" begrudgingly accepted the "oath" that visitors would be required to submit, which they had objected to, saying that it would limit the rights of the visitors. Gov. Omura, who had strongly requested that the statue of the girl symbolizing so-called comfort women be switched to a panel display instead of the actual sculpture, citing safety reasons, agreed to have the sculpture on display in its original form.

Meanwhile, a panel display that had not been there when the exhibit initially opened up was newly installed upon the display's recommencement.

A panel titled "New moves regarding 'censorship'" points out that in addition to "conventional censorship," in which those in power directly control or regulate, there is "modern censorship," in which artists exercise self-restraint as a result of overwhelming complaints and threats. In response to voices asking that politics not be brought into art, a panel titled "Points of contention regarding 'freedom of expression'" responds, "It's doubtful that there is any form of expression that is unrelated to politics." The panels also introduce visitors to the trends of art festivals and "comfort women" statues around the globe that squarely confront the world's social problems and political tensions.

An Aichi prefectural committee that investigated the display's cancellation sought that there be an "educational program" for visitors, but the exhibit's curator team has made a commitment to reflect the lessons learned from the cancellation in the display. "There's only one week left, but we hope people will come see the exhibit," a team member said.

(Japanese original by Naoto Takeda, Nagoya News Center; Yasuo Yamada, Nagoya News Center; and Akiko Nagata, Tokyo Cultural News Department)

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