Studio International

Published 20/06/2021

Exhibition Cuttings, curated by Mathieu Copeland

Copeland challenges the usual perceptions of what an exhibition should be. Here he explores the idea of the closed exhibition and considers how organisms, like art shows, change according to where they are sited

Le Forum, Ginza Maison Hermès, Tokyo
23 April – 18 July 2021


The London-based Franco-British curator Mathieu Copeland (b1977, France) has for many years been rethinking and subverting the traditional format of the art exhibition. In 2009, he co-curated Voids: A Retrospective, at the Pompidou Centre, an exhibition of nine whitewashed “empty” galleries, for which the curators brought together historic “empty” shows, including Yves Klein’s Void, from 1958. He also curated A Retrospective of Closed Exhibitions at Fri Art Kunsthalle, Fribourg, in 2016, a medley of past exhibitions that had involved shutting gallery spaces, which showed how, since the 1960s, artists had explored alternative ways to show their works. Copeland likens his curatorial act to seeding and growing a plant: seeds of ideas brought from past exhibitions bring fruit to new ideas for each new exhibition.


His exhibition at Ginza Maison Hermès is in two parts, to explore the double meaning of the word cutting in the title. One part is in the form of a film, The Anti-Museum: An Anti-Documentary, documenting artists from his Fri Art Kunsthalle show, who have closed gallery spaces since the 60s. These include the Japanese radical art collective Hi-Red Center, which closed the Naiqua Gallery on the opening day of their show and turned the world outside into the art, the Argentinian artist Graciela Carnevale, who, in 1968, locked visitors inside a gallery on the opening day while latecomers found themselves locked out, and the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan who, for his first solo exhibition, closed the Galleria Neon in Bologna in 1989, leaving a notice stating: “Torno subito” (I will be right back). In this 30-minute film, Copeland interviews the artists to ask why they chose to close the gallery as a gesture of their expression.


The second part of the exhibition, Nurturing Exhibitions, the “seed” Copeland brought in, was actually a sapling transplanted from the Masanobu Fukuoka Natural Farm in Shikoku region, 800 kilometres from Tokyo. The Amanatsu orange sapling was brought in, along with a wooden planter for the sapling to grow in, wooden pedestals, wooden benches and audio speakers. Masanobu Fukuoka was a pioneer of natural farming who scattered seeds on the soil, leaving the ground unploughed and free from pesticides, relying on nature rather than human intervention. Copeland envisioned an organism in a gallery in an urban city, where the organism would adjust itself to the local environment, like seeing one idea pollinate another idea in a different culture. His hope is that, during the nearly three-month-long exhibition, the Amanatsu orange tree brought in from Shikoku, the climate of which is different from that in Tokyo, will adjust itself to the gallery environment. Daylight will filter through the glass-block walls at the Renzo Piano-designed building, while a sound installation of musical scores created for the exhibition by the experimental composer Phill Niblock “feeds” the trees and the soil. As time goes on, the experience will be different as the tree grows and the environment changes.


The Ginza Maison Hermès gallery had to be closed twice after Copeland’s exhibition opened to the public, because of the state of emergency put in place by the Japanese government to contain the spread of Covid-19. While Copeland was not able to come to Japan to prepare his show, and saw its opening online from his house in London, he felt the need to react to this situation. He told Studio International: “My feeling was: ‘How can we turn around this experience of closure into making art work that will be in line with the exhibition itself?’ I contacted Robert Barry, who is documented in the film The Anti-Museum: An Anti-Documentary with his art piece made in 1969 called Closed Gallery, in which he instructed his gallery to close and send out a mailer announcing the closure. The closure was the work. The day after Ginza Maison Hermès gallery closed, I contacted Robert to ask if he could create an artwork responding to this situation in Tokyo. He agreed to create a new Closed Gallery piece announcing the temporary gallery closure, turning the moment of gallery closure into a work of art.”


The newly added work by Barry reads: “During the exhibition the gallery will be closed.” The sentence encapsulates the fact that, even though the gallery was closed to the public, inside, the exhibition was still on. Copeland told me: “While the gallery was closed, the Amanatsu tree carried on growing and blossomed without any spectators. It seems to me poetic that the tree chose a moment of intimacy to blossom. To borrow the words of Gustav Metzger, it tells a lot about the exclusion of the spectator in art.”

Now that the gallery has reopened, Barry’s poster has been taken away. However, during the shutdown, his work spread via social media, becoming a reincarnation of the symbolic time of the gallery’s closure.

Copeland’s ability to react quickly to the gallery closure is an outcome of his past experience of observing closed exhibitions. He told me: “Together with the curators at Hermès Japon, we have worked on this exhibition for more than two years. During this time, the concept of the exhibition has grown in me before growing inside the gallery. I am sad not to be able to be on site in the gallery, because that is how I learn from my exhibitions, growing through my past shows, blossoming like Amanatsu trees.”