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Conversation Creates New Art Appreciating Experience: Kenji Shiratori and Maiko Sato

SDGs × Art

No.003
Kenji Shiratori (right) and Maiko Sato (left). At 3331 Arts Chiyoda.

In March 2023, a book proposing a new way to appreciate art, “Shaberi nagara miru” (Viewing while talking), was published. It was authored by Kenji Shiratori, a completely blind art appreciator who holds art viewing events, and Maiko Sato, or Maity, an art educator and Shiratori’s friend who has been viewing art with him for many years. Having viewed more than 30 exhibitions to date, they appreciate artworks while conversing with each other. We spoke with the two about their unique approach to “viewing art while talking.”

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2024.03.21

Who You View Art With Matters

──I heard you first started viewing art together at Art Tower Mito.

Maiko Sato: I was an art educator at the Contemporary Art Center at Art Tower Mito (ATM). When I first started working there, my supervisor, Junko Moriyama, was conducting a kind of training program that paired new staff members with Mr. Shiratori to view artworks together. One day, Ms. Moriyama set up an opportunity for me, and I guided him on my own.

Kenji Shiratori: That’s right. I was working as a massage therapist in Mito at the time, and Ms. Moriyama was my client. She would tell me about the exhibitions on show, and each time I wanted to visit, she would appoint a staff member to attend on me. That day, it happened to be Maity. To be honest, I don’t remember my first impression of you...

──Can you describe Ms. Sato’s art appreciation style?

Shiratori: She doesn’t hesitate to say whatever is on her mind. There are times when she tries to say something from a different point of view, or dig a little deeper, or be funny (laughs).

Sato: I’m afraid of silence. That’s probably why I talk out loud about what I see. But it is also because I feel secure knowing Mr. Shiratori is open and accepting of what I say.

──I see Mr. Shiratori is good at creating an atmosphere that induces conversation.

Sato: I think he is a good listener and is even better at making appropriate responses.

Shiratori: Actually, there are quite a few things that I let slide (laughs). The important thing is to convey an atmosphere that “I’m listening.”

Sato: There are times when I am looking at a work but have nothing to say. Even when that happens, Mr. Shiratori enjoys the situation. In fact, he enjoys it more when I’m struggling to say something; he grins (laughs).

Shiratori: That’s what I look forward to.

Sato: Even when viewing art with someone, he doesn’t force the other person to talk. I guess that’s why I feel at ease with him.

──You enjoy the reactions and conversations of the person viewing the artworks with you, rather than which work you are viewing. You are not looking for an artwork description.

Shiratori: That’s right. I enjoy whatever the other person’s reaction is. When you are with someone and talking about an artwork, it is better to hear about the work in the person’s words rather than read the commentary on the wall.

Sato: Each person has their own words, and that’s what’s interesting. I think Mr. Shiratori savors the person’s honest words.

Shiratori: Since the time at a museum is limited, descriptive commentaries inevitably become a low priority for me. But I am not opposed to them, and sometimes I ask the other person to read them for me. I don’t have a set pattern for appreciating art.

──There are unspoken rules for viewing art at museums. Many people refrain from conversation and hesitate to share their impressions in front of an artwork. What do you think about the museum setting a rule like, “You can talk as much as you like on this day”?

Sato: Each museum should have its own rules, but having a “talk day” could send a message that you cannot talk on all the other days. It would be a shame if people could only visit museums on certain days because, for example, their children make too much noise. Museums should have diversity. We sometimes can talk without getting told off, but other times, it feels right to stay quiet. We find a way to enjoy viewing according to each museum.

From Meno mienai Shiratori-san, ato wo mini iku (Blind Mr. Shiratori goes to see art) ©️ALPS PICTURES INC.
Monogoshi (2015) by Ryota Shioya, 2015, at Muttsu no koten 2020 (Six one-person shows 2020, Museum of Modern Art, Ibaraki)

What Matters is Museum Experiences and Memories

──As mentioned in the book, you first encountered an art museum on your date as a university student. After that, you realized you might be able to enjoy museums as a completely blind person, so you started trying on your own and grew more and more interested.

Shiratori: It wasn’t so much that it became more interesting, but I got to know the people at museums. I was going to museums because I knew people there. I think that came first.

──At that time, you had to make a phone call and visit on your own. It must’ve taken a lot of courage.

Shiratori: I had to put some effort. But at first, I wanted to go to a museum to find out what I could enjoy, and I was able to do it out of that curiosity. If there is a cafe that you have always been curious about, you would venture in even though the atmosphere is somewhat intimidating. If the coffee tastes good, it’s a success. It’s similar to that experience.

──You have visited many museums together. Can you talk about some of the most memorable viewing experiences?

Shiratori: For me, it was Gunma Museum of Art, Tatebayashi.

Sato: All I remember is we went to a soba restaurant. What was interesting about the museum?

Shiratori: I don’t remember the soba place... We talked to the museum staff in François Pompon’s atelier, which is on view permanently. They told us about the shelf they brought from France and such.

Sato: The museum has an extensive collection of French sculptor François Pompon, who is best known for a white marble sculpture, Polar Bear. There is a room in the annex where Pompon’s studio is reconstructed. I remember something! I had lost a polar bear brooch I bought a long time ago, but I was able to buy the same one in the museum store. You bought one for your wife, Yuko, as a souvenir. I remember things like that, but not about artworks (laughs).

Shiratori: I’m amazed that you remember about the brooch.

Sato: As we try to recall what happened, we remember different events, leading to further conversation. This is exactly what we do at our usual after-museum get-togethers (laughs).

What Is Conversational Appreciation?

──In your new book, Shaberi nagara miru, you use the term “conversational appreciation.” The term “dialogical appreciation” is commonly used, but their connotations are different.

Shiratori: Simply put, we just casually chat in front of artworks. I had heard of the other term, which is based on school art education. What I do seems different from that, although there are some similarities. Initially, I called my activity “workshops,” but that could require me to bring home some results, which didn’t feel quite appropriate, either.

Sato: Dialogical appreciation has established methods, but what we do is simply a casual conversation-based art appreciation. It’s good that there are different styles. Some prefer viewing art silently, while others may be with their children. It would be ideal if there were many different ways to enjoy art, and each of us could appreciate it in our preferred way.

Shaberi nagara miru (written by Kenji Shiratori and Maiko Sato, published by Arts Council Tokyo, 2023)
Photo: Hiroshi Takaoka

──The book also introduces 12 key points, “Shiratori-style recommendations for conversational appreciation.” For example, it suggests that you “see artworks you like.”

Shiratori: It takes time to savor a piece of artwork, and we can’t see all the works on display. So, we pick and choose the works we like or are interested in and focus on them.

Sato: We spend 15 to 20 minutes on a piece. That means we can see maybe three or four at most in a single viewing event. With different people’s verbal descriptions of their experiences mixed in, the work becomes, abstractly speaking, “three-dimensional.” I believe this is a much richer experience than seeing everything but not really remembering what you saw in the end.

──I also liked “It gradually dawns on you.” The tip tells you that you don’t have to understand the work as you view it.

Shiratori: That’s true. We are not in a hurry to find the answer. Whether you can enjoy the work and deepen your understanding of it is only one aspect of the experience.

──When viewing artwork, you are sometimes pressured to feel something special. But that’s not the point. It’s about what you set as your goal.

Shiratori: In my case, the experience at a museum itself is important.

──Ms. Sato, do you also chat when you are at a museum with someone other than Mr. Shiratori?

Sato: Sometimes. It has become normal for me to appreciate art while talking.

──When it comes to viewing art while talking, you could also have a catalog spread in front of you and discuss the works in it. Is that different from the viewing experience at a museum?

Shiratori: You can achieve something similar, but what I look for is an experience, I think. For example, even if a sculpture can be touched, simply touching it is not enough to appreciate it. There needs to be something additional for it to become a special experience. Recently, I’ve been interested in outdoor sculptures. When I visit them with someone familiar with the place, I get to hear stories based on the person’s experience, like “the work looks like this when you see it from afar,” or “it changes like this when the light hits it.” That is when I feel “I had a great experience.”

Sato: You want to enjoy everything, including things unrelated to the artwork, like the path to the museum, the surrounding environment, the tone of the voices of the people you are with, or the soba restaurant and brooch we discussed earlier.

Shiratori: As you get to know more people, you visit the museums to see them.

──In the book, you wrote that you “like art museums,” but not “art.” You emphasize the importance of experiences.

Shiratori: I’m not interested in art. I often hear the expression the “power of art,” but it doesn’t really suit me.

Sato: I like both museums and art. When it comes to art, you can be looking at the same work but react differently. Each person’s background affects the way we appreciate the piece. And instead of leading to a confrontation, we can talk about how each of us sees it. That’s what’s interesting about art.

Photo: Hiroshi Takaoka

──Who would you recommend this book to?

Sato: Those who think they do not find the connection with art museums or aren’t interested in museums because they don’t have enough information or knowledge may unexpectedly enjoy viewing artworks when they try to express what they see verbally. I once met a mother at a talk-and-view event for children and their parents. She told me that she was able to talk about things she didn’t usually discuss or never discussed before with her child, even though they were family. Viewing artwork allows you to see a different side of the person you are with.

Shiratori: I don’t have anyone in mind to recommend the book to.

Sato: In our first meeting, we were concerned if we could make it into a book since we didn’t have any style. But as we continued to discuss, the supervisor of the book, Tsukasa Mori (Arts Council Tokyo), told us, “That is your style.”

Shiratori: That’s right. When Maity and I put together a program for ATM, we talked about how we didn’t want to standardize it. A style evolves as time passes, and we want to evolve, too.

──Readers of this book may find their own new ways to enjoy art museums as they adopt your style into their own.

Kenji Shiratori

Born in Chiba Prefecture in 1969. Completely blind art appreciator. Shiratori was born with very weak eyesight. By the age of around 12, he could only sense the light and became completely blind in his mid-20s. Around that time, he started his unique activity of viewing art while talking with others. For over 20 years since then, he has visited art museums around the country dozens of times every year. He gives talks and serves as a workshop navigator at various locations, including the Contemporary Art Center at Art Tower Mito. He enjoys music and drinking.

Maiko Sato

After serving as an art educator at the Contemporary Art Center at Art Tower Mito, Sato became a freelancer in 2021. She was an awardee of the Agency for Cultural Affairs Program of Overseas Study for Upcoming Artists in FY 2021. Based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, she researches museum education, writes, lectures, and serves as a program coordinator. She goes by the nickname Maity. She likes Gen Hoshino and beer.

Text: Emi Sato
Photo: Hiroshi Ikeda
Translation: Erica Sawaguchi

Shaberi nagara miru (Viewing while talking, written by Kenji Shiratori and Maiko Sato, published by Arts Council Tokyo, 2023) can be downloaded from the link below as a PDF file or the text data for converting the text information into audio.
https://tarl.jp/archive/shaberimi/

Documentary film
Meno mienai Shiratori-san, ato wo mini iku (Blind Mr. Shiratori goes to see art)

For screening and theater information, please see the official website
https://shiratoriart.jp/