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What do you learn from bringing a Japanese art exhibition to Edinburgh?

PhD in Japanese candidate Olivia Putyer tells us about the public engagement skills she’s developed through Venus Bound, a week-long exhibition of over 30 artworks.

Artists and organisers of Venus Bound
Artists and organisers of Venus Bound. Olivia is pictured second from right.

It was while scoping out opportunities for a scholarship that Olivia Putyer first discovered Venus Bound, a contemporary art exhibition exploring sexuality and sensuality.

Olivia's thesis is on representations of intimacy in Japanese contemporary visual art; wishing to gain public engagement experience, she and some fellow students on our PhD in Japanese programme followed a departmental lead to the Tokyo University of the Arts, and an existing exhibition seeking a UK audience.

“We decided to bring it over and expand it”, Olivia explains, “adding to the existing collection of works with a few headliners by more established artists like Taga Shin, who generously offered us a number of his pieces.”

What followed was a week-long exhibition at Whitespace Gallery in Edinburgh featuring prints and interactive pieces by around 16 Japanese artists, held in conjunction with Edinburgh College of Art and Intervalle Arts and opened by Ian Astley (Senior Lecturer in Japanese), Chris Hayes (PhD student), and artists Taga Shin and Yui Ichikawa.

Video: Venus Bound: What do you learn from bringing a Japanese art exhibition to Edinburgh?
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New and invaluable experience

“If I compare myself to where I was around a year ago, I feel like I’m a completely different student, so to speak”, remarks Olivia, when talking about the skills she’s developed through Venus Bound.

“Networking was something that I was really uncomfortable with, but inevitably through having to speak to our partners in Japan and in Edinburgh College of Art… networking ceased to be problem.”

“I picked up a lot [of skills] in terms of events management… basic things, like finding a location that was available when the [headline] artist was, figuring out what we needed in terms of infrastructure. Now I know a lot about framing art, hanging art, what D hooks are!! Not necessarily hands-on academic experience, but certainly invaluable and something I didn’t have experience with before”.

“As a student, I’m mostly on campus or at home, doing my research and assignments. [Venus Bound has given me] a much broader study experience.”

Transcending the University's borders

All the works in Venus Bound were tied, “however loosely or indelicately”, to the theme of shunga – a tradition of erotic prints that flourished in early modern Japan (1600-1868).

The research, and bringing the works together, involved multiple partners that Olivia feels she couldn’t have hoped to access individually.

“We tried to be fairly self-sufficient and ask for as little help as we could, but the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures (LLC) really facilitated bringing a lot of people from a lot of institutions together. Also access to funding; that wouldn’t have been possible without going through LLC and our supervisors. The School made it possible to us to share everything and transcend the borders of the University.”

“We also developed very good connections to the Consulate General here in Edinburgh. Now, whatever we do doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to academic events, but can cascade into a lot of other things.”

Venus Bound will be on show in the dining room of the Scottish Arts Club during the Club's Winter Exhibition (Thursday 5th December 2019 to Saturday 4th January 2020).

Are you interested in Japanese at LLC?

Edinburgh is the only university in Scotland to offer undergraduate honours degrees in Japanese, enabling you to learn the language in the context of Japan’s history, politics, philosophy and culture, past and present. We also offer a number of postgraduate degrees, including an MSc in Japanese Society and Culture (from which Olivia graduated with distinction in 2018), and a MSc by Research and PhD in Japanese.

Find out more about studying Japanese at LLC