Natsu Koyobe is Japanese and grew up in Tokyo. She did a PhD in art history in the USA and wrote her thesis on Gutai, a Japanese Avant-Garde group who were active in the 1950s and 1960s. Her specialty is therefore modern contemporary Japanese art. As she worked at University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) as a graduate student her interest in curatorship which had already started when she was still in Japan kept growing. She is now the Asian art curator for UMMA located in Ann Arbor close to Detroit, and has now been working in this position for 5 years.
Art Flow: Natsu, you are the curator for Asian art at UMMA , can you please tell me about your job?
Natsu Koyobe : This museum, as you know , I think most university museums in this country they don’t have a very large collection of modern contemporary Asian art so in my work I work with a lot of historic material. Of course my own interest is modern contemporary art but l look at historic pieces through contemporary eyes and at contemporary art through historic eyes, so this gives me interesting situations. Although our collection is mainly historic, for special exhibitions I have the chance to work with contemporary artist and contemporary artworks so it’s a nice balance for me.
So the collection is more focused on historical works then and for the temporary exhibitions that’s when you can work with and present contemporary art and maybe link it with the collection?
Just last fall, I did an exhibition about contemporary Korean art with video artists collaborative duo called Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries . They actually are a duo of chinese-american artists who are based in Seoul (Korea). I did an exhibition of their work and for this we not only did an exhibition in our space but we also created an artist book I wrote the text. Their style is text based and video work. They always use a particular type of font called ‘monaco’ So this is their first experiment to do print work, not video. So I wrote the text about their work, their art and they designed this book so that it becomes their work. This was an interesting experience.
So the book is not about documenting the exhibition, with photographs, a catalogue, the book is a medium itself, an artwork. So how long did it take you to put the book together?
It took about one year. First I wrote the text and then they had three months to work on that text. We commissioned a work for our exhibition space and so at the same time they had to work on both the commission and the video, so these two projects were kind of going side by side. My proposition to them was an exhibition catalogue but they didn’t want to do just a regular exhibition catalogue as you said. An exhibition catalogue, especially for contemporary artists, it doesn’t really show what they’re doing as of opening of the exhibition because the production of printed material kind of has to come before the opening of the exhibition in most cases.
This can be difficult, often artists end up finishing their work right before the opening.
Did this affect the work they were showing then – the fact that they had to finish the book before the opening?
No, the video work was based on social or political issues, topics which are recurrent in their work. In the case of those videos they’re really good at manipulating our notion of popular literature genres like spy novels or blog entries for example.They use that kind of format but the content is something very social or political.
As it was a work commissioned for a venue in Michigan, did they use content referring/from the USA, its culture to integrate in their work?
They used American culture but their content was a bit like a critic. I think they conceived that work because it was shown in a university setting. So it was a critic about idealistic views of American students. There were two videos and one of them was a parody of spam mail and this old lady who lives somewhere far is asking for the reader of this spam mail to actually come to Africa and to do volunteer work. But she gets explaining how difficult this situation would be, you may have to learn to use a gun, you may be in a very dangerous situation, you may have to bury dead bodies.
Some spam look like they could be a real email but you’re not sure.
But she’s not really asking to send money or something, she needs YOU to come. So it kind of becomes idealistic that you can help someone in need. So that’s really funny, on border line of believing or not.
And were people aware that this was spam or did they let the viewer find out as he reads?
Yes, you find out as you read through that it’s maybe not really right.
And why did you choose this artist?
I was looking for an interesting artist whose work might appeal to the sensitivity of the university / college students, that level. But also relate to Asian art or Asian culture. Their content is not really, I wouldn’t say it is Asian or anything – their choice of choosing text and almost always black letters/characters on white background, this kind of simplicity, and when you look at their video work you can relate to that aspect of Asian art.
And the social media is also very big in Asia.
Yes and they also do a lots of critics on big Korean companies like Samsung. But their name itself is a parody of big korancompanies like Hyundai, heavy industries. Something that they are born out of, some kind of background, something I wanted to do.
Did the exhibition get a good response?
Yes, students really liked it.
Are there any educational or public programs that go hand in hand with the exhibition?
Yes we invited the artists to come here and do a presentation to the students. It was part of a lecture series offered by the Art School here You know usually, they invite internationally renown contemporary artists and they talk about how they make their art, the career path they have walked through but instead, in Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries‘ case, they showed a video work. They didn’t really talk. They just showed video works, maybe 4 or 5 and each video goes along with one theme, for example, they knew that most of the audience came from art school and probably they wanted to become artists, build their career in the art field. So, for example they said ‘how to become a conceptual artist”, and showed video works according to that theme.
It was a bit cheeky, people in art school want to become artists, but not everyone becomes an artist, or there is a discrepancy of idea of how it’s working. It can be quite a strange industry in a way.
So this was a bit of a twist with the way they did their presentation. Like this book project, they didn’t want to do a straightforward kind of thing. This was a very challenging experience for me too, you have to draw a line in regards to what we can do, how far you can go/how much you can do.
You want to be quite open and faithful to the work of the artist. But you also have to restrict it to the exhibition, the place where you are showing I guess.
Yes, because we are part of the university there are some issues, some content you can’t really show.
Is it very different in a university museum compared to another museum, which within a university? In the way you are working? In what you are showing?
Most of the time I don’t feel there are restrictions but especially when we were talking about the content, just before the exhibition opened there was some shooting on a campus. It’s not the main point of the video but there still are references to guns and similar things so we just had to talk to someone in the upper hierarchy. It’s not really censorship but we wanted to make sure that the content is something that can be shown. So there was a little tense moment. Of course we want the artists to have the freedom of expression but sometimes/somehow it gets a little tricky.
Yes, you have to be aware of the context in which it is showing. And in your work – there are different departments and curators working in the museum – do you work together or it is really separate departments?
Because we are such a small museum we work together, we have to. But the concept part is always the curator, when I create a show, the concept is my product and for the implementation of the exhibitions, other persons will get involved. And probably this is a typical cultural specificity to American museums, fundraising is very important.
Yes, because some of the money would be coming from the government.
Yes, but there is also a lot of fundraising so the curators work a lot with the development department to identify who would be a good donor or a good foundation to approach. And this kind of thing maybe we have to begin thinking about at least two years before the opening date. Usually, exhibition planning starts maybe three years before and two years before we start working on raising funding.
It is a very long process.
Yes, very long. I used to work for a museum in Tokyo and it is very different.
How does it work in a museum in Tokyo?
Usually the exhibitions can be created in a much shorter span of time. Usually maybe less than one year.
And in Tokyo, would the money come from the government?
The museum I was working for was a private museum so a private company funds all the exhibitions. So money wasn’t really an issue. This was very different so, here it is a totally new curatorial work.
You’ve been working at UMMA for 5 years now. Do you feel you’ve had an impact on what’s being shown?
This museum was renovated and rebuilt 3 years ago. I probably did – including small and large – 5 special exhibitions. This was actually the first contemporary exhibition I ever curated and until then I was mostly doing exhibitions drawn from our collection which means more historic.
How much time would be spent with the collection and how much on a special exhibition?
I would say that 75% of my time is devoted to special exhibitions and I am now working one that is also going to HK (venue TBC) Isamu Noguchi who is a sculptor(1905 to 1980s). He was mostly known as a sculptor but he did lots of drawings. He lived in Beijing for 6 months and his teacher was Qi Baishi who is probably considered the most influential ink painter from the XXth century. Isamu Noguchi was a japanese-american artist so his connection with Japan is very strong but not many people know of his connection wit China and especially with artist Qi Baishi. So this is the first exhibition to show the relationship between the two artists but also Noguchi’s relationship with China. The exhibition will open in May so right now I am quite busy with the preparation. So we’re doing to organize an international symposium to coincide with the opening of this exhibition. Many scholars are coming to give a talk, not so much about Noguchi but we’re trying to look at east and west themes in more variety ways. We try to suggest that east and west encounter encompass not only about Japanese or Asian artists appropriating western techniques, not only that but also that there other kind of dimensions.
I am also working on a contemporary Japanese artist duo Paramodel  who do a lot of installations and they use all kinds of toys, train toys, trucks etc. And in one very famous work they use train tracks that fill one exhibition space, it’s almost like a drawing. The trains are not necessarily in motion but it’s like almost a drawing, all over the walls, ceiling, floor and even outside of the gallery space. So I am working with their project for an exhibition early 2015.
It must be quite difficult to work with artists with such a long lead time as sometimes at the time of the exhibition it might not be what they are working on anymore. Is it a problem sometimes?
Young-Hae Chang is the only experience that I have so far working with contemporary artists so we’ll see. I don’t really see this kind of problem with them because they always stick with ones style. I talked to them last summer and they were talking about doing similar work with train tracks but they may next time I talk to them change their mind so we’ll see.
I guess that at the same time a museum works with a different time frame.
That’s right. So far they say haven’t got any offer from any other museum from this country so it is going t be their first show in the USA and they said that for this kind of exhibition they want to show the most famous work that they are known for which is the train track.
Do you think as well that the museum has a real understanding of how important Asian art is? Maybe in this region of the country there is a lot Asian immigration?
Yes, historically, the Chinese are a large community around here but maybe starting in the 80s/90s more and more Japanese came to this area because of the old industry here, companies would establish their child company here here. Also this university historically has a very strong program in East Asian studies so we often collaborate with what we call the ‘area centers’ which oversee the departments people who for example specialize in Japanese studies, Japanese history, or Japanese art history. So these centers will fund research of these professors and also give funding to students who study in the area as well. But also, funding for art and culture or art reach so we receive funding from these sectors, we work very closely with them.
And do you also work on programs with the art school or departments of the university?
Yes. And there aren’t many curators who specialize on Asian art in this area, I am one of them. There is also the Detroit institute of arts that has one person there but in Michigan there are only two of us.
In East Lansing (MI) the Broad Art Museum  that opened a couple of months ago has the first chinese curator, Wang Chunchen, ever in an American museum who was working at the CAFAM museum in Beijing. So I guess there will be an influence on what they will be presenting. Do you work sometimes with museums within Michigan?
Well, I think I see more and more for our permanent gallery presenationsme we borrow works from the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) . Right now they have no gallery devote to east Asian art so I thought that since they have a great collection of east Asian art we should them so I borrowed some works. But we haven’t really developed exhibitions together, maybe we’ll see that in the future. We are four Asian curators from the USA and also Canada and we have more and more discussions about collaborations. So I see we will do more and more collaborative work between regional museums from the same area.
And more on a daily basis how could you explain your job? And do you have an assistant who works with you ?
Yes, I always have interns and since it is a university museum there is a great resource for finding a good student and there is always someone who is interested in working at the museum. So I usually tell them to support the everyday aspect of my work but at the same time I give them the opportunity to do a mini show within the permanent gallery so, not really a mini show but they select 4 or 5 works for example and write about these works, think about the connections between them . A mini project. And also being one of the few Asian curators I get enquiries about artworks that someone owns so these people send images and want to know about a particular work so I usually hand these enquiries to my interns. It is a great way to do research. And in a typical day I probably have one or two meetings as we always work together with other departments, and also I might go and visit a classroom and talk about artworks, sometimes I get visits from donors who like to see some of our collections.
Is the museum acquiring more works for the collection in terms of Asian art?
Historically, the museum acquires works through donations. I hope to purchase more works of modern contemporary Asian art. Just last year we acquired one tea bowl made by a young contemporary Japanese artist. So rather than bringing suddenly very contemporary works I want to find objects that connect to the existing collection. So a tea bowl was a sort of a good selection to do that.
Why do the donors want to see the collection?
These donors are collectors themselves so it is out of interest.
So if someone wants to donate works they have to fit in the collection I guess so do you get a lot of proposals?
Yes, we really have a long term relationship with some collectors and donors. We all present the gaps we have and the works we would like to get. Some donors are really generous to respond to that kind of request.
Is de-accessing (sale of works that don’t necessarily fit in the collection)something the museum does?
I think that because we are a university museum most of the collections donated here are from our graduates, usually we are not allowed to de-access or sell these works.
Interview by Severine Levrel