Nguyen Anh Tuan, artistic director of Heritage Space
Over the years, artist-in-residence programmes have remained a longstanding method of creating cultural and artistic exchanges, supporting artist communities, and encouraging the development of arts and culture in a city, region or country. However, this model has been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing it to move online for more than two years. I was invited to join the residency programme by S-AIR shortly after the international travel restrictions were lifted for foreign visitors (although some restrictions remained). This autumn the opportunity allowed me to observe the beginning stages of the recovery of art and cultural activities, particularly among the artists and organisations in Sapporo – which is the 5th largest city in the country.
S-AIR is one of the long-established organisations that runs international artist-in-residence programmes. They continued their programme throughout the pandemic by moving online. One interesting aspect of S-AIR’s residency programme is that it offers two types of residency: for artists and curators. Their programme for artists follows the familiar format of artist-studio-exhibition-community exchange and their curatorial residency has both short and long-term goals, focusing on research on a specific topic or a specific objective during the stay, creating diverse exchanges with the aim of future long-term collaborative opportunities. The resident artist produces work reflecting their experience and surroundings, whilst curators can observe the local arts scene reflecting on the ones they are familiar with. It is essential to understand the local cultural production process is key to designing a fruitful and collaborative project achieving a diverse impact. If curators are seen as the “gatekeepers” of today’s contemporary art world, then the curatorial residency programme aims to link those gates and entrances, establishing a robust, efficient, and enduring ‘art traffic system’.
As Japan’s fifth-largest city, Sapporo’s art scene seems quite limited given its population density and urban area, and (probably) small artistic community. It has been just over 150 years since the Hokkaido Development Commission was established by the Meiji Government, its capital city Sapporo shares many similarities with Saigon, a city with a three-century-long history, which has a strong economy in trading and international exchanges. Hokkaido has a complex cultural heritage, including Ainu culture, Western influences such as the US and the late Japanese settlement, which perhaps contributed to their intertwined cultural layers and the current artistic landscape.
During my stay in Sapporo, my goal was to understand the local art scene and the process of nurturing, operating and producing cultural factors for the region. To achieve this, I explored various institutions and locations with distinct roles, functions, and scales, including museums, universities, public art installations, galleries, independent art spaces, groups/collectives, and artist studios.
The museums I visited were the Upopoy National Ainu Museum and the Hokkaido Museum. These visits were very important for me so that I could understand the history and the formation of the material and the social life of Hokkaido. Here, I observed how history has been preserved in a clear and simple manner by displaying various forms of local architecture that showcase both colonial and foreign-influenced designs. We had a fascinating conversation with a curator at the Historical Village of Hokkaido about cultural appropriation, cultural heritage, and the marginalisation of communities who were denied the opportunity to speak about their own culture. This is a common issue in countries with diverse cultures and ethnicities. The Upopoy National Ainu Museum is a modern, massive, and relatively complete display of Ainu culture, including their history, daily life, customs, practices, beliefs, and contemporary culture. Not only does the museum provide a comprehensive public display of Ainu cultural history, but it also reveals a rich resource of the contemporary Ainu community and their ability to integrate their status in current social associations. Overall, the cultural history museum system in Hokkaido is of high standard, comparable to European and American institutes.
In addition to museums, I have always been interested in art education because I taught at the Vietnam University of Fine Arts in Hanoi for over ten years. I had a chance to visit Sapporo City University to meet designer and lecturer Motohiro Sunouchi, and the Hokkaido University of Education to meet artist and professor Ryusuke Ito and professor and director of S-AIR, Hisashi Shibata. Both institutions have better facilities and a better foundation than art training institutions in Vietnam. However, when discussing the curriculum, I noticed similarities in art education between Vietnam and Japan. Art education always faces stereotypes and pedagogy and has little room to support breakthroughs or experimentation within the confines of the classroom. Independent art organisations, such as S-AIR in Sapporo or Heritage Space in Hanoi, play an important role in providing places for art students and artists to experience new things and opportunities for international exchanges, which they might not find within the school system. These organisations help build networks for potential work in the future.
Alongside the academic system, my second biggest concern is the private/independent system, such as art organisations, artist studios, and artist-run projects. These are the places that create positive new energy and encourage the momentum from which creativity is nurtured and materialised, thereby energising the education system and forming new aesthetics and cultural values. They are also places for creating international exchange on many levels, from small, medium to large scale, that are very flexible, mobile, and low-cost. If we consider the educational system as the backbone and foundation of local culture and identity, creative individuals and independent organisations are the energy, blood vessels, and engines that operate that cultural body.
S-AIR and naebono art studio play vital roles in Sapporo. S-AIR has been running residency programmes for 24 years, including an online residency during the pandemic, which was made possible with the incredible efforts of the director Hisashi Shibata and staff members. Naebono art studio is a popular independent art space run by local artists and they provide affordable working space for local artists. They also run an exhibition space, which they often open to the public. S-AIR brings international artists and expertise and creates exchange opportunities. The combination of the two organisations in one location creates an organic relationship and together they present the arts to the public. This hub is well-connected with art galleries in the region, as evidenced by our visit to artists’ studios in Naebo area. As an example, the naebono artists came to a talk by myself and Meitao Qu, another artist-in-residence at S-AIR’s programme.
One of the highlights of my research trip was seeing artist-curated projects. For instance, the Tobiu Art Festival is organised by a group of local artists and has been running for over a decade. Initiated by established local artists, the festival has evolved by inviting friends, artists, donors, and the community to get involved in art events such as workshops and exhibitions in different locations around town. These events are integrated with the town’s geography, customs, culture, infrastructure, and physical conditions. This year, the festival was held in various locations throughout the town, including indoor-outdoor spaces, schools, community libraries, and small shopfront spaces. The most notable event was a photo exhibition by two renowned artists showcasing the area’s developmental history, residential life, and productive labour from over half a century ago, which was displayed on the beach and building walls. An abandoned fisherman’s house symbolised the fleeting nature of life.
I was impressed by Mirutobu, a collective project in Iwamizawa that uses a former school building as art studio, gallery, and community space. Artist Satoshi Katono showed us around and also took us to see his project where he turned an old train station into an exhibition space and museum. You can see that these artists’ projects clearly have a positive effect on the living environment and mental wellbeing of the locals, creating chances to engage with one another and unite people from different backgrounds. They preserve historical memories, serving as reminders of human presence and acting as a museum of collective values. This model is similar to recent projects in the Vietnamese art scene, such as the artist-run festivals No Cai Bum and IN:ACT. The former has 100 participating artists and the latter focuses on performance, which has been going for more than a decade. Grassroot projects showcase the creative energy and vitality of arts, culture and local life vividly reflecting on local history, politics and economy. They are authentic unlike most academic displays in museums.
To truly comprehend how arts and culture function in a specific location, extended stays are necessary, which can be facilitated through residency programmes. Residencies are an effective way to create immediate and future positive impacts through cultural exchange. However, it is important to continuously introduce new methods to enhance the depth and energy of cultural and artistic experiences, rather than relying solely on existing models. This is the view, which artist Ryusuke Ito and I have in common when we discussed various residency programmes in Japan, Vietnam and other countries. Hopefully, S-AIR will continue to evolve and remain one of the most dependable and significant destinations for artists visiting Hokkaido.