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The Japanese Art of Reflection


ArtsPeople Director Kathryn Hunyor was interviewed by entrepreneur and women's mid-life specialist Natalie Yan-Chatonsky from Full Time Lives (FTL) about her recent tour to Japan for the Art Gallery of NSW. 


Read on for an edited transcript of their conversation.

FTLKathryn Hunyor, ArtsPeople arts consultant and curator, leads arts groups to Japan for the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) through their Members’ World Art Tours Programs.

After a hiatus due to travel restrictions to Japan, she shared her passion for Japanese art, design and architecture with a group of AGNSW arts patrons on a 10-day trip to Tokyo and the Japanese art islands in November 2022. 17 of the arts patrons were women over 50.

As she watched the sun rising above the Setouchi Sea from her balcony at Benesse Park Hotel, Naoshima, she reflected upon how art and culture can connect people of all ages with me in this interview. As she approaches her golden 50s and contemplates her second half of life, she found her group as inspiring as the Japanese works of art they explored.


FTL: What have been the trip highlights? 

KH: The enjoyment for me is always sharing my love of Japan, but also then seeing people starting to ‘get it’ and make connections.

About a week into our trip after exploring the urban arts scene in Tokyo then seeing some of the art islands, one of the women on the tour expressed how she was starting to see and approach the world differently. So it's not just that people on the tour are getting all this information about Japan and Japanese art. They're starting to take a different perspective.

Every day of this trip we ask ourselves, “How could today have been even better or different again?", so it has been fantastic. But I'd have to say Teshima Art Museum was the highlight and that is an incredible work. For the group, it's the most moving. We had some tears, as always. I can feel something's shifted in them.

FTL: Will your group go back home feeling transformed after the trip?

KH: I don't set out to transform anyone because I can't put expectations on how they will feel or change. But without a doubt, there’s been a degree of transformation for most people.

One of my earliest lectures on the tour was about the art of living and dying in Japan. I wasn’t sure if I should give the talk because it’s quite full-on in terms of talking about my father-in-law's funeral and how that helped me to understand the full cycle of life and death.

With 25 people in the group; everyone's lost someone or have had serious health issues themselves. So you have to be careful not to treat that content too lightly. You have to be respectful.

But it was the best decision because everyone has come up to me and said 'Thank you' because by understanding the Japanese approach to death and life and rebirth has not only helped them understand the art better, which was my intention, but has also helped them.

It may have given them the time and space to contemplate their own grief or fear. That's what this whole trip's been about, actually creating the time and space, through art, to contemplate your life.

FTL: You've spent over 10 years working, living and raising three girls in Japan.

On this latest visit, what has moved you?

KH: The art on these islands is never the same twice because it's trying to frame nature. It means the work is different every time you see it. I've been here five or six times; I'll never get bored.

Coming back to a place you've been before but with a different group of people makes you realise you're not the same person.

Just as the art is not the same, you're not the same. That's quite an unusual experience to have, isn't it? Often we change and life changes around us.

So much about Japan is about letting yourself respond intuitively, emotionally as well as intellectually. That mind-body connection is important. We're trying not to be too cerebral.

FTL: As an arts leader, how do you share enough information but not set any expectations?

KH: I'll guide them a little bit because they don't have the luxury of spending 10 years living here like I have. I give them a bit of insight and then step back and let them work it out for themselves. They may also find things confronting.

I don't want to rob the group of that joy of discovery, of the ‘penny drop’ moment.

One of the instructions I give them about packing before we come is, “Don't bring complicated lace-up shoes because you need to take your shoes off all the time. Do pack fresh socks, but don't pack your sense of Western logic”.

The point is that I want them to give themselves over to the logic of Japan. There is mostly a reason for the rules being so different in Japan, we just don't necessarily know what that reason is. So you need to trust, and that's hard for most people not to question it.

I tell them to “Relax. Just go with it”. That then makes them more open to the art. It's like a flower opening.

FTL: Who are the arts patrons you’re travelling with?

KH: We have a group of 25. Of the 17 women with us, 10 are solo women. They've either left their partners or husbands at home, or they don't have one. Some have recently lost partners, and then the other 7 women have come together with theirs.

The age range is huge - from 56 to 83 - which makes it so interesting. It’s a real privilege to spend nearly two weeks with them all the time. We’ve become like a family.

I feel like I have access to this brains trust of people with incredible life experience. They're well-travelled, well-educated, lead incredible lives and professional careers. They’ve experienced personal loss and joy.

I’ve been thinking about my next stage of life through them.

Everyone's just there being themselves. I’m quietly watching how these incredible women engage and it's brilliant. I see how some of them won’t let anything stop them from enjoying something.

FTL: Do you have any advice for women considering their midlife transformation?

KH: If you are going through any transition and you're thinking about what you’d like to do next, I recommend you go on a trip like this. The hassle, logistics and any of the anxiety that you may have, that any of us have at any stage of life, are all removed. You are completely freed up to have this transformational experience.

I know that everyone in my group will go home and make some different decisions about the rest of their life. I suggest you go on a small group trip like this with a cultural element. Having art to talk about, as well as Japan, is important because it's not too confronting.

Everyone can use art and culture to explore complex issues. For me as a curator, that's what art is for.

Note: This interview has been edited and condensed.

For more inspiration:

This interview was first published on Full Time Lives.

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