By Andrew Maerkle (ART iT) with Chihiro Maeyama (Kyodo News)
Installation view of “After ‘Freedom of Expression?'” at Aichi Triennale 2019. Photo ART iT.
The following interview was conducted at a location in Tokyo on the afternoon of August 14, 2019. The previous day Tania Bruguera was among a group of 11 participating artists at Aichi Triennale 2019 who released a statement announcing their intention to temporarily withdraw their works from exhibition in protest of the closure of “After ‘Freedom of Expression?’”, one of the sections of the Triennale. (The statement was also signed by Pedro Reyes, one of the curators of the Triennale.) Titled “In Defense of Freedom of Expression,” and dated August 12, the statement condemned the closure of “After ‘Freedom of Expression’” as an act of censorship, and called on the Triennale to reopen the section. At the time of its release the statement did not include any Japanese signatories (it has since been signed by Koki Tanaka). It followed an earlier statement on the closure released by Triennale participants on August 6, which now has 87 signatories, as well as an open discussion held in Nagoya on August 12 among Triennale staff, participating artists and the public. Accompanied by the Japanese artist Meiro Koizumi, Bruguera met with Andrew Maerkle of ART iT and Chihiro Maeyama of Kyodo News to explain her understanding of the situation at Aichi and clarify the intention of the “In Defense of Freedom of Expression” statement.
1. Understanding the Stakes
2. How Do We Protect Freedom of Expresison?
3. Negotiating Power
4. Revisiting “Loose Lips Save Ships”
5. On “Comfort Women” and Pain in Art
6. The Situation in Cuba
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
1. Understanding the Stakes
Andrew Maerkle (AM): This is such a huge issue that it’s hard to figure out where to start. Maybe you could start by telling us your understanding of the stakes of the situation.
Tania Bruguera (TB): Well, the day of the opening I actually gave an interview saying that the best part of the Triennale was the “After ‘Freedom of Expression?’” section, without knowing what was going on.
Artists were not informed about the closing of the section until afterward. Since then, we have spent the past 10 or 11 days discussing possibilities with the Triennale about how it could be reopened. And also waiting—because we understand that there was a threat. We are responsible, we understand that the police need time. But now they have caught two of the people who were making threats. Second, the politicians know that this is a problem and that they have to support the exhibition with security. And then we had a meeting with Japanese artists to figure out what to do, as part of which we also held an open discussion on August 12 with the artists, the director, the curators and the general public. It was really good to talk about what everybody feels and how to move on.
But we have a disagreement over one element, which is what artistic director Daisuke Tsuda calls “risk management,” and we call “censorship.” The difference is that risk management is something that can be achieved or overcome by very logical and traditional ways of administration—like more security, or involving the education department to provide people with more explanatory texts. There are ways for dealing with risk management that are already well known.
We feel that every time we address the issue of the closed section, the conversation keeps coming back to the content of the work. That’s why there is a difference of opinion. Because if what generates the problem comes from the content of the work, and the content is removed, then that is censorship for us. Right now we are in conversation with the curators and organizers of the exhibition. We talked to the director before we publicized our statement, we told him that we would put our work on pause until they reopen the censored exhibition, we negotiated the open discussion with him. I again told him in person when we would do it, and we sent the statement to him and chief curator Shihoko Iida first, saying that we want to continue the conversation, that it was not meant to close the conversation, that we don’t want to damage the Triennale. It is important for our group to have an ethical procedure, to be transparent, and to increase our response step by step if there is no resolution.
We are not leaving the Triennale. What we are doing is putting the work on pause until the situation is solved. If they don’t solve it by the end, then of course our work won’t go back on view. But our attitude is solidarity with the artists, not damage the Triennale. And our idea is that if “After ‘Freedom of Expression?’” cannot be shown, then we don’t want our works to be shown either. When they open again, we open again. It’s a very clear gesture.
Also, we don’t want the press to analyze this gesture as a problem between nations. We are artists. We are not representatives of any nation. We are a group of artists who have had our works censored before. So it would be very hard for us, having had people express solidarity with us when we were ourselves censored, not to take a similar stance in the case of other artists.
But we really, really, really hope that they will reopen. I was telling Meiro that for the first time in my career, over my many experiences of censorship, I feel there is a chance for the situation to be solved, and that maybe the Aichi Triennale could be a symbol to the world for how to deal with this kind of situation successfully.
AM: What gives you this hope?
TB: Because I think the curators are working really hard to find a solution. The Japanese artists are working really hard to find creative responses. And the foreign artists are also working hard with them to continue the dialogue. Now maybe people are starting to realize that censoring the show was too drastic and that it’s not fair to the members of the public who won’t have the opportunity to see the work and think about it for themselves. So it’s not a fracture. It’s more to see if we can put pressure on the politicians, because what is not acceptable for us as artists is that a politician should decide on the freedom of art.
I’m vocal when this happens in my own country and in other countries too, so it’s a matter of principle. We know we are not from here, but people who are not progressive trying to stop artists from expressing themselves and increasing incidents of censorship in the arts are international issues. It’s not just happening in Japan. But I feel it might be possible to solve here because it’s a smaller scale compared to, say, the United States, and the people involved have the will to change it. It’s only the politicians who need to understand that they should never try to control art.
AM: Have you had a chance to speak with other stakeholders aside from Daisuke Tsuda? Have you had a chance to speak with Aichi Prefecture governor Hideaki Omura?
TB: I wish! I don’t have the access. I wanted to send an email or something, but I feel that everybody has a role in this political theater. Our role is to apply pressure from the international side, but talking to the politicians should be the role of the Japanese artists, because we are not from here and we don’t know the details of the politics. It would be different if all the Japanese artists were to go to speak with the politicians and we went with them quietly in support, but I think us meeting with the politicians on our own wouldn’t be appropriate, because it might feel more like an intervention than an expression of solidarity.
AM: Meiro, have any of the Japanese artists had a chance to speak with Governor Omura or Nagoya mayor Takashi Kawamura?
Meiro Koizumi (MK): Not yet.
AM: Maybe you both could talk about the nature of the conversations happening between the international and the Japanese artists.
MK: Sure. So, we wrote the August 6 artists’ statement soon after the incident happened. Our purpose was to have as many artists as possible sign the statement so that the artists would speak out against censorship in a unified voice. So we started contacting all the international and Japanese artists to get their signatures. We have gotten many responses and exchanged a lot of ideas since then, but the fear or difficulty we are having is that when you are in Japan, you know the context. You know who is a politician, who is doing this and that. So there’s a big gap between what we know and what other people know. We tried our best to fill in that gap.
Everybody has some experience of censorship—well, maybe not everybody, but many artists have experienced censorship and they know how complex it can be and how specific to each society, but also there are a lot of common things. So I tried to give the international artists as much information as possible for them to make their own judgment. It’s not “This is censorship and there’s a bad guy and da, da, da.” It’s not that simple. Everybody knows it’s not that simple. So that’s what we tried to communicate as much as possible to people. That’s what we’ve been trying to do so far.
AM: Tania, how do you feel the communications have been progressing with the Japanese artists?
TB: I think it has been very beautiful. Receiving the letter from the Japanese artists surprised us in a positive way. We were very happy because it was not possible for us, as foreigners, to make the first gesture. We needed the Japanese artists to make the first gesture. There were many things in the letter we didn’t know about.
I think that was the first thing, and since then we have been having more communication. We met with the Japanese artists to discuss the situation, and now we are chatting all the time on WhatsApp about what they are doing and what we are doing. We actually sent our statement to them before it was published to make sure it was OK, so there would be no surprises.
But for us it’s not about who is the guilty person. For us it’s a matter of principle that art is the space we have in society to say things that are difficult for people to process emotionally. If you close those processes, then you are closing the national culture, because you cannot progress. I was saying at the open discussion on the 12th that terrorism and censorship can be fought with education. We shared many ideas with each other at the discussion. We were joking that maybe artists could volunteer to guard the space, for example, or that it would be good to teach the guards about freedom of expression. Another artist suggested they could put the piece in a truck and go around the city teaching people what it’s about.
So the relationship is great, because we are putting our knowledge together—our experiences with censorship, their experiences with censorship, our creativity—to see if we can solve the problem and reopen the show. That’s the only objective we have, to reopen the show. Because if we are afraid of five people who don’t like something, and we concede to them because they are politicians or because they are out there with a megaphone outside the museum, then what happens is these people are encouraged and next time their claim is even more absurd and capricious, and maybe in five years you cannot show any foreign artists at all or use references to ancient times in art, for example, because they don’t like it. This is my fear. If you don’t stop the nonsense now, the nonsense will grow, and grow, and grow, and it will become impossible to fight for real.
2. How Do We Protect Freedom of Expression?
AM: How do you feel about the segment of the population, however many they may be, who do feel genuinely upset—not as a form of ultra-right agitation but out of their personal convictions—about content that is perceived as anti-Japanese? How do we protect freedom of expression for both sides?
TB: You’re right, we need to have space for everybody in the arts. I think that could be managed through open discussion, which is the proposal we made—to have systematic open discussions—because you cannot completely analyze everything in two hours. So we need to have a systematic program of open discussions until the end of the Triennale where people are invited to tell their opinions and have safe spaces for discussion. That’s one way. Another way is through education, so people can have the chance to hear another story. When you exhibit the work you can let the audience know that there are people who do not agree with it or that some people might find the content to be offensive. Then they can understand the complexity and decide if they want to enter and be part of the conversation or not. You give the audience the option to engage or not. Also, there are educational games. For example, people can stick post-it notes with their opinions next to a work they find offensive. So there are ways for people to express themselves without using violence, and art institutions can be mediators for that.
But I feel whether it’s for or against, expressing yourself emotionally is not enough. Those emotions have to be processed, otherwise it leads to terrorism. Or people are angry. Even if the person is not convinced that it is not anti-Japanese, they have to have a way to process those feelings. You cannot just leave those feelings raw. That’s where the danger is, and that is what censorship does. People have the right to have their own opinion, but that opinion should not be black-and-white. It should involve an understanding of the other.
AM: My sense from observing the Japanese art scene and discussions about art in Japan over my career is that part of the response or reaction may also be fueled by an unstable relationship between art as an institution and the public in Japan. Some people perceive art, and especially international art, as an authoritative presence that forces ideas onto them. I wonder if either of you, Tania and Meiro, have any ideas about this. Have you made similar observations in your time in Japan?
TB: In my experience this is not unique to Japan. I’ve seen it happening in places where art has not taken such a big stage in the national discussion, so when somebody else comes their statement can feel very strong because the art itself is not strong there.
But the thing is you can only let somebody tell you what to do as much as you allow them to. If you feel that foreign art is authoritative and telling you what to do, it’s only because you have allowed it to be that way.
AM: Meiro, do you have a comment?
MK: I was educated in art in the UK and the Netherlands before coming back here. I’ve been here for 10 years now. So personally of course I don’t feel there is any authoritative quality to artists from the outside because they are my friends or people I studied with. But I feel maybe a lot of Japanese people—especially the older generation—think that I’m doing “Western art,” doing something political. I’ve talked to artists from the older generation—very, very good artists—who say they envy me because I’m doing something very “Western.” A lot of Japanese people have a big complex toward the West.
AM: But first you have the museum as one institution, and then, although it’s a bit amorphous, the art festival is another kind of institution. The public knows that a lot of money goes into it, they know that curators are making decisions about what gets to be shown there, and they may feel that their interests or voices are not being reflected in the museum, in the art festival, in the institution of art.
TB: A museum will never reflect everybody’s choice in art, and my answer to that is: Do more institutions. If you feel you are not being represented in the institutions you already have, then create your own institution. I’ve done that a lot. Create your own institution and shape the discourse that you want to be part of yourself. In contrast to cultural traditions, art is supposed to be experimental, challenging, irreverent, so it’s harder to put a value on it and agree on it. Art challenges the cultural norms that feed into our identities, so it’s understandable that many people feel uncomfortable about art.
MK: Of course in Japan we feel the system of the museum, or contemporary art itself, is imported from the outside, so no matter how hard we try, we feel our works are only a small part of the whole culture. Whenever a museum has a big show it’s always about Renoir, Vermeer, Toy Story. That’s institutional art. That’s how the museum makes money. So however hard we try or however radical we do things in a museum, the public never pays attention. But now over the past ten days the public are talking about art!
TB: I think this is very good! People say that what happened is negative, but I see it as a positive and exceptional moment for art and culture.
MK: So at least this is a small step for us to have a space in society where people pay attention to what is happening in a museum, and people start talking about freedom of expression, which has never been talked about. And I think this reflects the political situation right now.
TB: Not only here. The world is turning increasingly toward a pseudofascist attitude, and part of that is about controlling art and culture, because those are the elements that open you to imagination, to creating different identities, to questioning, and they don’t want that.
3. Negotiating Power
AM: Tania, you have lived and practiced under a repressive regime in Cuba, where you have been arrested for both your artistic and political activities. What can you apply from that experience to the situation here, if anything?
TB: I envy you guys, because in Cuba we could not have any of this. We could not have this public conversation. We cannot challenge cases of censorship in court. We cannot push politicians to change their minds. We cannot have artists questioning political decisions, or debating them, or even saying I don’t know what to do. It’s great that you can do all that here! That’s why I’m hopeful. In Cuba there is a law that was implemented over the past year to legalize censorship, Decree 349, and part of why it was possible is that nobody protested against censorship over the past 20 years. I was being censored, but not so many artists expressed solidarity with me in Cuba because they said it was my problem, not their problem. That kind of individualism is not good, because censorship affects all. And the fact is that if you don’t protest over one small act of censorship, maybe in a few years’ time you will also have a law here in Japan that legalizes censorship too. That’s why I think it’s so important to not be quiet.
AM: In fact, the Liberal Democratic Party has proposed changes to the Constitution of Japan that would not necessarily legalize censorship, but would allow for restricting expression based on “public order.”
TB: Yeah, I know what I’m saying! That’s exactly what I said the first day I heard about the censorship at Aichi. I said, if you don’t do anything right now, this will become the norm.
AM: So as everyone who has read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is already aware, a lot of times when we have repressive or authoritarian regimes, they don’t say it straight. They say censorship is for “public order,” they say it’s part of the constitution. This time the word is “risk management.” So from your viewpoint is that just a euphemism?
TB: I think it’s a euphemism. If it’s really a problem of risk management, it’s very easy to solve. You just bring more education, bring more security, and that’s it. You could also put a text before the entrance telling viewers they might see something that offends them. So you prepare the audience for an experience that might be challenging for them. You can put a text saying you don’t have to agree with the artist, this is just one of many ways of seeing things. Preparing the public to be in front of something difficult is the work of the curators and the institution.
AM: Meiro, you’ve made works with the image of the kamikaze Special Attack Unit pilots and the image of Emperor Hirohito. What has been the reception of those works in Japan?
MK: I’ve been making these works because it is necessary for me. This is a very important subject—the emperor. It’s about this country, and it’s about our unconsciousness, and it’s about how this society is governed. So for me it’s a very necessary subject when I have to deal with nationalism and history. But I know that it’s not easy to show the works in a public institution. I can show them in my commercial gallery. They do everything and are prepared to show everything. But now our challenge is to show it in public space. We have to show it in a public museum using taxpayer money and people have to recognize that this is not just for private but something that is public, something to be publicly discussed and exhibited.
AM: Have you had your works censored in a Japanese institution?
MK: This is very difficult to answer. Censorship here is more like self-censorship. The whole system is about self-censorship. Whether you get to have your work displayed on the wall of the museum or not—there’s a lot of layers and processes to get to that point. But getting to have my work on display and then having it get censored? No, I have never experienced that in Japan. It always happens before my work gets onto the wall of the museum. For example, over the past two years I’ve made five works, and none of them were funded by Japanese institutions. I don’t get money from Japanese institutions to make artworks.
TB: But I think in terms of censorship there are many ways to censor without public knowledge. Many times the censorship already starts when the curator invites you. And there are cases where the artist proposes something and they say, no, that’s too much, which I’ve heard happened with this Triennale, too. And you go, OK, I’m not from here—or if you are from the place, then maybe you start pushing back. So censorship is not always a visible process. I told Daisuke Tsuda at the beginning that he was acting like an artist, because he has brought that conversation out front, which I think is unique about this situation. It’s interesting that the work was censored before and now it’s being censored again.
Chihiro Maeyama (CM): In this case, do you think the exhibition is censored by the Aichi Triennale organizers themselves?
TB: No. My knowledge and understanding of it is that the Triennale people are very collaborative. They are not sleeping at all thinking about how they can open again. What I understand is that it is the mayor who has been applying pressure and using political arguments to have the exhibit closed, because apparently it’s not convenient for his political points or something.
The thing that bad politicians never realize is that they make the work more important when they censor it, and they amplify the thing they want to shut up when they censor it. If the mayor didn’t do anything, nobody would be talking about the content of those works.
CM: So you would like to reopen the exhibition?
TB: The only thing we want, and the reason why we wrote the statement, is to put pressure on the politicians—not on the Triennale, but the politicians—to get them to pay attention to what they have done and to see how we see it from outside, with the hope that they will reopen the section that was closed. That is the only reason we wrote the statement—as a way to make clear that we are in solidarity with the artists who were shut down. As soon as they reopen, we reopen.
But time is of the essence. We have given time between the publication of the statement and making arrangements for closing the works so they have a chance to reopen before we close our works. Those responsible for the censorship have been given many opportunities to rethink the decision and fix it.
AM: For both of you, what is an acceptable amount of negotiation with the curators?
TB: There is never enough negotiation until they reopen. For me it’s not about the process. It’s about achieving the goal. I don’t care how much negotiation it takes, the important thing is the gesture of reopening it.
AM: How about for you Meiro?
MK: I mean, I’m in the middle of it. I don’t even know my position, to be honest. I’m taking all the opinions from everybody, I’m trying to connect people, trying to give information, sometimes communicating with the curators. There are four or five of us doing it. I’m sure the Japanese artists are softer than the international artists. We know each other well, we’ve worked with the curators before, so it’s more difficult.
TB: There are more consequences for you because we leave, but you stay. So we understand. That’s why we didn’t push for Japanese artists to sign our statement. We didn’t want it to be only foreigners’ signatures, because we didn’t want it to be foreigners versus Japanese. I didn’t think it would look good. We sent the statement to Japanese artists, but we didn’t push, because we know that it’s more difficult for people who live here, but it also their responsibility.
4. Revisiting “Loose Lips Save Ships”
AM: This incident with Aichi of course parallels an exhibition that Meiro was involved in at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo in 2015. The Japanese exhibition title is “Kisei no Seiki” and the English title is “Loose Lips Save Ships.” Meiro’s work on the emperor was not censored but it was not displayed.
MK: It was, like, self-censored.
AM: So how did that happen? Because that work is also included in the “After ‘Freedom of Expression?’” show.
TB: Is that a euphemism—“it’s not censored but not shown”?
MK: Please tell me if it’s censorship or not—you can be the judge. Three of us artists and a curator were trying to organize a show about censorship, but then we were told it would not be possible, so we decided to make it about self-censorship. We were discussing what we could do, sharing lots of ideas, going on for months without deciding anything. At one point I realized, OK, there’s no work about the emperor—which is one of the major taboos, as you now know. Nobody was talking about it. I said, we are censoring ourselves by not talking about this taboo. So I said, OK, I’ll do it. It was not a big deal to me, because I was already making works on the emperor. So I thought I would make a new work on the emperor and I told everybody my idea. Then the curator stopped us and said, Whoa, I don’t know how to deal with this! He was a junior curator and he always had to consult with the senior curator. But the senior curator had just been through a censorship issue right before our exhibition.
TB: So this is a recurrent issue? It’s fantastic that the Triennale is discussing it.
MK: And the situation was super complex and he couldn’t deal with it, so I went directly to the senior curator. Usually my work gets censored, or self-censored, without my knowing who is making the decision. It’s always blurred, always in the fog. But this time the senior curator told me I don’t want this work because of this and this and this.
So I said, OK, that’s clear, I’ll take my work out, but I want to show a text listing the reasons why it cannot be displayed. But I wasn’t allowed to put up the text. All I could show in the museum was an empty space and a wall label with the work information. During the exhibition period I showed the actual work and the list of reasons why it couldn’t be displayed at a commercial gallery in the neighborhood.
In any case, even two weeks before the opening we were still involved in negotiations over the works and there were lots of empty spaces in the museum. And in the end we were left with many empty spaces. I mean, there were some very strong works exhibited, but there were also empty spaces. And we created so much conflict, so much. I tried my best to explain, but it was too much for me.
TB: I tell you something. I feel like sometimes censorship, from what I’ve seen in general, has a lot to do with people being selfish. Sometimes you have someone in power who is afraid to look bad in the news, or afraid of losing his job. People censor without a real reason and because it is the easy way out. The real reason is they are afraid that something could happen, without understanding that if you let things go nothing happens. In my experience many times the person who censors is afraid not of the art, not of the people who are hurt because of the art, but because of their own personal interests.
But if you see the same symptom coming up over and over again, it signals a sickness that wants to be cured. So if you see that there are a lot of cases of censorship or self-censorship or people addressing taboos in recent years, that means society might be ready to start having these conversations. Because this is symptomatic. This is why what happened in Aichi is so important, because then it’s the best example of this, putting it in the international arena.
AM: I think with Meiro the result was that they claimed the image of the emperor is a religious symbol—
MK: Yes, a religious symbol, and that people might get hurt seeing the image. Another reason they gave was that dealing with that kind of taboo requires a lot of preparation time, which they said we didn’t have.
AM: So they turn ideas of hate speech or tolerance that are meant to protect minorities against the work in the end. But it also seems in Japan there is a contradiction in viewing the emperor as a religious symbol, because he’s also the symbol of the state, which goes against the principle of separation of church and state. Do they have laws about using Fidel’s image in Cuba?
TB: It’s very ironic that Fidel made a law before he died saying that he didn’t want any representations of himself. It’s actually forbidden by law to do a sculpture or painting of him. He himself asked for it. And since he’s the maximum leader, he has to be followed.
AM: He’s beyond representation.
TB: Exactly. It’s funny, because a group of us think he did it so his sculptures cannot be taken down. Because the symbol of every revolution is to take the sculptures down, but what can you do if there is no sculpture? So he cannot be represented. It’s like the Prophet Muhammad. Fidel was very smart.
AM: In your practice in Cuba did you have strategies for operating under the censorship regime, and did you ever intentionally test the limits of the regime?
TB: Both. I think I started being censored without understanding why I was being censored. Sometimes I laugh with friends that the censors are more opposed to the government than the artist, because they imagine all these things that you haven’t even imagined as the artist, and all these consequences and meanings of the work that you didn’t see as the artist. We sometimes say the censor is the biggest dissident, because they see the worst possible reading of the work.
I think art in general is a way to test politicians’ propaganda and see if what they are saying is real or not. In Cuba they want us to have a unified opinion about everything. Everybody has to agree, everybody has to be in favor. I’m trying to bring out a diversity of opinion by doing my work, and that already is a test, because they don’t like that. They like for everybody to have only one way of seeing things.
What I’m doing now is education. In 2016 I launched the Institute of Artivism Hannah Arendt (INSTAR). We have been working for some two-and-a-half years now. It’s all about educating people on how to dissent creatively in public spaces and how to process their feelings. Because when you don’t know how to process your feelings, it leads to violence.
The government doesn’t like what we do. When we invite foreigners we cannot tell anybody about who is giving the workshop until the person has entered the country. It’s very bizarre. We have to do all this secretive stuff. But, for example, this year we sponsored five prizes. We had a prize for independent cinema and another for a film on a socially taboo subject. We did a social art residency. We had a prize for history—a book about something historical that nobody has talked about yet. And the one I like the most is the prize for investigative journalism. The prizes are a way to educate people that not only, yes, they can do it, but also to provide workshops and training so they know how to do it. Even if you don’t get a prize, you learn something.
AM: So these different activities of dissent that you’re supporting through INSTAR won’t necessarily lead to a revolution, but—
TB: I’m not interested in revolution anymore, because I know how bad it can go. I’m more interested in long-term civic education. A revolution is an emotional state. Civic education is a solid base for building up. A revolution without civic education is not necessarily progressive.
AM: Then your project is about changing people individually and seeding the next generation?
5. On “Comfort Women” and Pain in Art
AM: One important thing I wanted to ask about is the “comfort woman” issue. It’s obviously a very sensitive issue in the geopolitics of the region. That said, as you suggest in your open statement, the stance of the Japanese government to deny or repress the history of the “comfort woman” system is in a way an act of violence against women. It perpetuates a culture of violence against women. And yet the argument on the other side is that it’s anti-Japanese to bring up the comfort women, that it’s inflammatory. How would you respond to that?
TB: Nothing coming out of war has ever been fair or good. Until you deal with it, it remains a national trauma, and if you don’t deal with national trauma, you cannot get to the next stage of your own national identity. Geopolitics cannot justify violence against women. I know the subject is very sensitive, but not talking about it won’t make things any better. It creates a culture of acceptance of what is wrong by silencing it.
AM: The nationalist line is that the “comfort woman” issue has been politicized in China and Korea. They say politicians in China and Korea are using it as a political tool to stir up nationalist sentiment against the Japanese.
TB: Every country has something they are ashamed of or that its enemies’ use for propaganda. But if you talk openly about it, your enemies can’t use it against you. There is no dishonor in recognizing that one has done something wrong. Indeed, every new generation has the right to look back at what they do not want to repeat from the past, especially when it’s 75 years later. If you transform shame into historical reflection, then it is not a taboo and it cannot be used against you. I’m pretty sure China and Korea have their own war horrors they are ashamed of.
AM: Is there any situation in which the denial or repression of a history of violence against women could somehow be acceptable?
TB: No. But also when I talk about recognizing the history, it needs to include a kind of reparation process. It’s not only about saying, yes, we did it, and then everybody shuts up and turns the page. No, it needs a process of historical reflection where you talk about it and process it collectively. But there is no way you can justify repressing historical events.
AM: And every country has its own repressed histories.
TB: Absolutely. For example, Regina José Galindo and Mónica Mayer, both artists who have signed the statement, have done a lot of work on similar issues in their own and other countries. This is not unique to Japan. I mean, look at the United States, the “land of freedom.” They created prison camps for Japanese Americans. How many years did they keep it silent? And now they are finally talking about it. So Japan is not the only country that doesn’t want to talk about painful stuff.
AM: Were you in New York for the controversy over Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till at the Whitney Biennial in 2017?
TB: Yes. This is a good analogy—on the one hand because the painting reflected something very painful for African American people, and on the other hand because the incident raised questions about who has the right to address another’s history and to whom that history belongs. I think it was very beautiful to put the bodies that carry that history of suffering—bodies that are still being killed by the police today—in front of the work. I think that was a masterpiece, one of the most beautiful performances I’ve ever seen.
AM: We’re seeing Donald Trump and the far right appropriate the language of political correctness in the US, and I’ve seen the same thing on Japanese Twitter with right-wing people responding to Aichi by saying that it’s hate speech or propaganda.
MK: They’re saying the Statue of Peace is hate speech against them?
TB: It’s fascinating to see people who are abusers and bullies posing as victims. This is the biggest irony—starting with Donald Trump. You cannot be the victim if you are in the position of privilege. And you cannot be abused if by your action you are silencing the victims again, which is what they are doing. They substitute facts with their own emotions. It’s about historical justice, not about them.
AM: Meiro, do you have any thoughts about this?
MK: You know, I’m already thinking about what to do. My mind is starting up!
TB: For sure. We’ll have a lot of ideas after this!
MK: For example, we should have a meeting with the right-wingers. Because they think that their voices are not being heard. So we should invite them. And we could probably include their voices in the exhibition space.
TB: This is why I talk about education. You can put a text before the entrance to the gallery or next to the work that says “Some people say this, some people say that, and you are free to have your own opinion.” This is what art institutions should do as civic institutions—because they are civic institutions. They should exhibit works that talk about difficult emotional or unresolved issues, but they have to do it responsibly by giving people the elements for processing their pain.
About political correctness, many of the artworks we love today were not politically correct in their own time. They were individual voices showing what they thought was wrong or honest about society. And then times changed and they became an example of what we believed later about those times. So there is a kind of time lag between art and its acceptance by society that can lead to friction, and we have to embrace it.
MK: I think we need her presence the whole time in this process with the Aichi curators!
TB: No, I don’t agree. I think the curators need to do their work, the Japanese artists should work to defend freedom of expression, and we as foreign artists should stand with the Japanese artists. I think everybody has a very clear role. Because it’s also dangerous for us to be inside something that is not our culture, not our history. I can be available for conversations or discussions on Skype—especially if there is another open discussion. Because the first one was a good conversation. But this is an issue only the Japanese can solve. It is their responsibility to themselves and their own future.
The only thing we want is for the censored section to reopen. And I think it’s important that we emphasize that we are not against the Triennale. We are not boycotting it, we have not left it. Our way of showing solidarity was to sacrifice our own art by putting it “on pause” at the exhibition. I hope it will be temporary because I want to believe that the “After ‘Freedom of Expression?’” section will be reopened.
Another thing I want to add is that it is interesting that we are looking at the pain of the audience and the pain of the staff and worrying about them, but nobody is looking at the pain of the artists who have been censored. We heard a very strong statement the other day by one of the artists who was censored, Ai Ohashi, who is really young. She has been in a very fragile state since this situation started and she publicly said she is thinking of not being an artist anymore because of the censorship and its consequences.
AM: This is the work about racial discrimination at the Chinese restaurant where the artist was doing part-time work?
MK: Yes. It is not the most difficult work to show.
TB: Everybody’s thinking about the right-wingers who have been offended, the audience who should not have access to the work for their own good, the politicians who cannot allow this incident to damage their careers. But who is going to think about an artist who has been traumatized by the intolerance of the right-wing nationalists?
AM: Did you have a chance to speak with the organizing committee of “After ‘Freedom of Expression?’”
TB: I only talked to one of the members in person, but now they are in contact with me via email.
6. The Situation in Cuba
AM: How have you fought back when your works were censored in Cuba? How have you responded?
TB: Well, I have responded with international solidarity, because in general totalitarian regimes are very nervous about international opinion. They want to look good. So I have been saved, literally, by international solidarity. I have also had big discussions with the cultural politicians, who now say I’m not an artist anymore. I try to show solidarity with other artists who are censored or imprisoned. I also create alternative spaces for people in Cuba to think freely collectively, to analyze our reality and research history from our own generational perspectives.
MK: Do they still ask you to exhibit work in Cuba?
TB: No, I’m completely forbidden to even enter an art institution. The national museum has my work in it, but I myself cannot enter.
AM: But are you allowed back into Cuba itself?
TB: Every time I go, they interview me—well, they call it an interview, although it’s an interrogation—for three hours at the airport. They always say we can return you and not let you in. There’s always this threat if I say the wrong thing. Or sometimes I say I’m not going to say anything, and they get very mad at me because even though it’s within my rights they perceive it as being confrontational.
But the last time I was in Cuba a few months ago they told me, “We are not going to put you in jail anymore, because we don’t want you to be the Ai Weiwei of Cuba. And we don’t want you to get”—as they said—“a Nobel Prize for being an imprisoned artist.”
And I said, “Great, can I get out now?” Because I was inside a car for six hours without air, with the windows up. I said, “Can I leave now if you are not going to put me in prison?”
They said, “No, you cannot.”
I said, “Well, this is prison.” It might not be a cell, but I’m in a car for six hours, under the heat, no air, and I cannot leave. And I have two guards in the car with me.
And then the next day—they always let me out after 25 or 27 hours because they know the pressure is too much—they took me again. They drove me outside of Havana, and at some point they asked me to close my eyes and put my head down. It was very funny because I’m a little overweight at the moment, so it was hard for me to put my head down. They were pushing me down because they thought I wanted to look. For 45 minutes I had no idea where I was going. I was with my interrogator and one policeman on each side, with my eyes closed. Then we entered a house in the middle of nowhere. It was very scary. I counted nine people in the house, all military people. And I was alone.
I said, “Can I talk to my family, can I make a phone call?”
They said, “You watch too many American movies.”
That was their answer. The last time was a little . . . anything could have happened. So they are getting more and more extreme.
AM: This happens every time you reenter the country?
TB: Every time I reenter. And they follow me. One day I was talking to a friend of mine and somebody came across to us and said, hey, they’re filming you. Sometimes they do it in a way you know, because they want you to be afraid, and sometimes they do it in a way that you don’t know. Sometimes when they interrogate me they say, “We know you were talking to this person at this place.” And I’m like, how did they know? It’s because they followed me. But I don’t see it. So now I don’t care. I know they’re following me, but I’m not doing anything wrong, so I have nothing to hide. But it’s quite intense. Very intense.
AM: How about your colleagues at INSTAR? Are they harassed?
TB: They are a little bit, but less so. Before I was going back every month and it was very intense. They stopped people from coming to our events and there was a lot of harassment. Now we are trying to see how the government reacts if INSTAR operates without my presence. The harassment has not gone away, but it is less evident. So far, one of the people working on the project has been harassed and the police have detained some of her friends as well. So it has not been so nice. But our motto is that we are going to do our events in spite of them. We are going to do it no matter what they do.
AM: How about the students?
TB: It’s very hard, because for example we had people coming who were taken for interrogation by the police and told not to come anymore. It’s very hard to create a solid, core group because the police are watching my house and sometimes they don’t let visitors pass. Sometimes they talk to them and say “Don’t go there, they are bad people,” blah, blah, blah. They make them afraid. Sometimes they “buy” them.
AM: Buy them? With money?
TB: No, with opportunities! With art opportunities. Now there is a new thing where they don’t let people travel freely anymore again. I mean, you can travel, but if you speak out against the government, they can decide whether you go on your trip or not. Seven or eight people have been stopped from going out for conferences or exhibitions because they were critical of the government. All of this is in the air. So when we receive 12 or 16 people at the workshops we are very happy because that is a huge number, and these are people who are up against all this pressure.
We had a professor from an art school who brought his students to a lecture at INSTAR. The next day the director of the school called the parents of each student to forbid them from visiting again, and then the professor was fired. So this is quite intense, but we need to continue because one day the balance will be on the side of freedom of expression and respect for diversity of opinion.
AM: Has the repression gotten worse since Fidel died?
TB: Yes. At the beginning with Obama it was a little different because they wanted to look good, but now it’s bad again. And for the first time people are going out on the streets to demonstrate. We’ve already had three demonstrations recently. The first one was for animal rights. They wanted a law to protect animals.
People were like, “Why? This is not important.”
And I said, “No, no, no, everything is important, this is good!”
They said, “Yeah, but where are the humans?”
I said, “Don’t worry, it’ll come later. We have to start with something.”
And then they protested in favor of gay rights because Mariela Castro, the daughter of Raúl Castro, promised to recognize gay marriage, but the evangelical churches intervened. And the churches won. That was shocking for me because for a country that is not religious, it is very dangerous that the churches should win over a civic issue. And then the third one was a protest for lowering the price of the internet.
AM: This is also a very important issue.
TB: Yes. Since the spread of the internet there has been a huge change in Cuban society. People are telling their own stories, people are more valiant, less afraid. They have a community of supporters.
AM: So all of these experiences explain why you can’t just sit back and let this situation pass in Aichi.
TB: Exactly. Because I know what comes next. I’ve been there. If you let one injustice pass, another bigger one will follow.
MK: I think it’s important to have this conversation with every artist, so that we hear the story of Minouk Lim, and we hear the story of the other artists who signed the statement. It’s a very good lesson for Japanese society.
CM: I would like to confirm one point. Did you say your open statement is in solidarity with the censored artists and Minouk and the Korean artists?
TB: It is in solidarity with the artists in the censored section of the Triennale, and it’s a gesture to put pressure on politicians to reopen the section.
CM: And if the exhibition reopens you will be back?
TB: Yes, our work will immediately go back on view again. We have just put the work on pause until the “After ‘Freedom of Expression?’” section reopens.
CM: And this is about freedom of expression, not about national issues between Japan and Korea?
TB: It is not about the national and historical issues between Japan and Korea at all. It is about the right of artists to not be censored by politicians, the right of audiences to see art even if it touches on sensitive issues, the right of artists to have freedom of expression and the right of cultural institutions to bring complex issues into public discussion.
CM: An open discussion about the history?
CM: I think in Japan it is difficult to pressure the politicians. It is not part of the culture.
TB: I understand. It is always difficult everywhere. But for us, as the statement says, it is important to be in solidarity with the artists, and we will keep our work on pause until “After ‘Freedom of Expression?’” is reopened.
After “In Defense of Freedom of Expression”: Tania Bruguera and Meiro Koizumi