Knowing but not seeing

Yokohama Triennale 2011

The 2011 Yokohama Triennale had some important firsts. In what was a very understated first for the Triennale in its tenth year, women (Fumiko Hayashi, Eriko Osaka and Akiko Miki) headed all three executive roles. Secondly, it was the first time the event occupied the entire floor space of the city’s main art institution, the Yokohama Museum of Art. And most conspicuously, this was also the first major public art event in Japan to be held after the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011.

As was widely reported across the world, coastal towns to the north of Yokohama and Tokyo have been devastated by the tsunami; most infrastructure is gone, and tens of thousands are dead or still missing. Now, insecurity plagues the zeitgeist. It stems not only from the ongoing nuclear power plant crisis, but also from the threat of electricity shortages and the possibility of more large scale earthquakes. Whether or not these fears are founded, they are a major part of the current national psyche. In March 11’s aftermath, cultural events across the country were thrown into doubt—including cherry blossom festivals and art fairs—due to conflicting opinions about what are appropriate actions in a time of national mourning and uncertainty.

The Triennale, already in its final stages of preparation by March 2011, managed to stay on course. Its theme, ‘Our Magic Hour – How Much of the World Can We Know?’, was chosen well before the tragedies occurred. A statement released in April confirmed that the show would go on as planned. A handful of artists chose to alter their commissions in response to the disasters (three are discussed below). However, director Eriko Osaka, in her catalogue introduction, justified the original theme by arguing that it was still a fitting way ‘to see and know the world with nuance and complexity’.

In these times, an exhibition asking how much we don’t know about the world could almost automatically be interpreted through horror and fear, but these feelings did not have a strong presence at all in the show. The first part of the title, ‘Our Magic Hour’, certainly offset any anxieties, with a more cheerful tone than the subtitle would have had if left on its own. In post-earthquake Japan, surely a full and nuanced exploration of this topic would have touched upon the anxieties of such a question. Various contemporary artists could have provided works about the unknown, works that employ a sense of horror or menace, but they were not there. Overwhelmingly, the works chosen were optimistic, cute, marvellous; many even escapist.

Some of the first works visitors encountered at the Triennale, if you started at the main site at the Yokohama Museum of Art (YMA), were Ugo Rondinone’s twelve Moonrise sculptures positioned at the front of the YMA. They smile with goofy, slightly crazy grins, reminiscent of claymation characters. One of Rondinone’s rainbow banners (its text gave the event its title) also introduced the show. Once inside, two labyrinths occupied the foyer, setting the escapist tone found more than once or twice during the exhibitions. Yoko Ono’s Telephone in Maze invited audiences to enter, one-by-one, her transparent installation. If you happened to be near the phone when it rang, you could have picked up the receiver and talked to the artist herself as she offered messages of peace. It was reported that this work was altered by Ono after March 11 to ‘bring some happiness to Japan’. The other installation in the foyer was a spiralling, mandala-like space, One Sentence (2011), in which artist Xiuzhen Yin had taken people’s entire outfits and packed them into one hundred and eight round film canisters. This figure is also the number of worldly desires mentioned in Buddhism. The resulting art work is somewhere between a catalogue and a religious monument.

When visiting large-scale art events, small rooms and chance encounters often offer a pleasant resting spot for the mind. In a show devoted to mysteries, curator Akiko Miki knew these additions were a rather crucial part of the experience. The best small spots found inside the YMA were the three oblong-shaped rooms with photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto. The photos were hung with other objects from the artist’s collection, that compliment his art. In one room, Sugimoto’s amazingly detailed image of a lightning bolt was shown alongside a Kamakura-era statue of a thunder god.

Perhaps the most charming of encounters was Takahiro Iwasaki’s miniscule sculptures viewed in retrospect through telescopes. While one was touring through the museum, these works, reaching only a few centimetres tall, were almost unnoticeable. Cranes and steel towers made from fine fibres (borrowing from the grand industrial scenery just outside the building), were only easily viewed when visitors were presented with specially positioned telescopes at the end of the exhibition.

Miki was pleased to have Yokohama’s biggest art museum as the Triennale’s main site. While temporary art sites, like abandoned buildings or public spaces were also utilised—spreading to a few outdoor art projects, a decommissioned dockyard, a sustainable architecture project, and the return of a temporary artist residency neighbourhood in Koganecho—problems with art insurance and conservation can limit the kinds of art that can be shown in those locations. Miki, who is also chief curator at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, seems to have taken great pleasure in the comparisons and contrasts that were created by utilising the YMA’s collection alongside borrowed contemporary artworks.

Themes were established for the path through the museum’s rooms. One room teamed more recent paintings with twentieth century Surrealist works from the Yokohama collection. Max Ernst and René Magritte hung next to Tetsuya Ishida, Tadanori Yokoo and Sungpil Han. Around the corner, the theme moved from Surrealist painting to psychedelia, featuring some highly detailed drawings by Ataru Sato, a 1970s animation by Keiichi Tanaami, and Danish artist Joachim Koester’s 16mm trash-dancing film, Tarantism (2007). Close by, some ghost-and-monster themed ukiyo-e prints, from the eighteenth century, made a surprising link. The next room, dominated by Mike Kelley’s radiating models of the capitol of Superman’s home planet, Kandor City 3 4/5 (2007–2009), together with Riyoo Kim’s half-animist, half-science fiction ceramics, evoked innocent fantasies of outer-space.

Further along, Christianity and fictional creatures were the prevalent themes. Bikky Sunazawa, a Japanese artist of Ainu heritage, creates wonderful abstractions of fauna, as was seen in his God Tongue (1980) and other wooden sculptures. The next room was introduced well before one entered, by the sounds of Massimo Bartolini’s Organi (2008), which floated throughout the atrium. Organi is a self-playing organ constructed from scaffolding pipes. The sounds are slow, simple notes, pumped out into an echoing space. Together with Damien Hirst’s Tree of Knowledge (2006) and Samsara (2006), the space was given the feel of a church interior. Consisting of thousands of butterfly wings on canvas, the Hirst exhibits give the impression of stained-glass windows and, on second glance, the pieces also include patterns that resemble Buddhist mandala.

The Bartolini/Hirst room brought ideas of death, via its association with religion, into the exhibition. However, common emotions to do with death, such as horror and loss, were not dwelt upon. Even ghosts were treated cheerfully or even as kitsch. The Koichi Yumoto collection of ghosts’ and monsters’ paraphernalia found in popular culture, ranging from ukiyo-e to movie posters, occupied one neighbouring room. Visitors were encouraged to play the monster-themed pachinko game in the corner of this mini-exhibition.

Over at the second largest exhibition site, the BankART Studio NYK building, more escapism and light relief was offered. One could easily lose an hour or more in front of Christian Marclay’s star attraction, The Clock (2010). As the winner of the 2011 Venice Biennale Golden Lion, it will certainly be in high demand in art museums around the world. As Marclay has shown throughout his body of work, he is a masterful remixer of the screen. The Clock demonstrates the artist’s ambitious vision, delivering a compelling narrative that also functions as an epic twenty-four hour clock.

Susan Norrie provided a thought-provoking video made in the wake of March 11. Transit (2011) juxtaposes footage of the Japanese Aerospace Agency against footage of Sakurajima, an active volcano off the coast of Kyushu. This video is the closest the Triennale gets to the underlying fear embodied in a statement such as ‘How Much of the World Can We Know?’. Norrie has been able to express the tension between the marvels of modern technology and the unpredictable, uncontrollable, destructive power of nature. Viewing this work is like listening to Norrie ask, if nobody could predict the scale of the March 11 tsunami as it came to shore, what hope does science have?

Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba responded to the March 11 disasters with a project that makes a visual language from GPS technology. Long-distance running is a common method used to raise money or awareness for a cause. In Breathing is Free: JAPAN, Hopes & Recovery (2011)the artist is documented running across fields and streets in Ho Chi Minh City, while volunteers also ran in locations around Yokohama. Their progress is tracked by a global positioning system. On a large projection inside the gallery, the GPS data appeared on a satellite map in the iconic shape of Japanese cherry blossoms.

The Yokohama Triennale has always had its strength in local artists. Many of the 2011 non-Japanese artists’ works have already been shown and proven in previous biennales and art museums across the world. On the other hand, besides the big names such as Nobuyoshi Araki, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Shigeo Toya and Tadanori Yokoo, many of the selected Japanese artists provide glimpses at who might be the fresh new names to look for on the world stage. Koki Tanaka has been gaining more and more attention lately. His video performances, including Cups on a Car (2010), show his unique interactions with the world. In his new home of Los Angeles particularly, the contrast between his strange actions and those of the people around him encourages laughter as well as a fresh portrait of contemporary everyday life.

Motohiro Tomii is an artist who has a keen sense for making everyday objects into an aesthetic experience. In the Triennale, Tomii used hundreds of gold thumbtacks to create a shimmering wall. Tomoko Kashiki, seen recently in the exhibition ‘Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art’ at New York’s Japan Society, showed one fantastic but lonely painting. Atsushi Saga makes paintings with highly polished surfaces, placed at specific but subtle angles. Unfortunately, his work, looking quite like a blank white wall, was too frequently missed by visitors. Understatement is of course an essential part of Saga’s craft, but the work’s placement on the YMA balcony did not encourage many second glances.

Another featured Japanese artist whose works rely on subtle discoveries, Ryosuke Imamura, had a small room all to himself. In a mostly empty space, save for a couple of objects on the ground, Imamura lured the viewer in and then, in a series of small surprises, tiny lights went on and off, or small objects were dangled from the ceiling by invisible strings.

Lyota Yagi is a frequent sight in Japanese exhibitions lately. His obsession with records and John Cage-style prepared instruments grows from one project to another. A few years ago, he successfully played some records made out of ice. The Triennale included a selection of his videos and moving sculpture. In one of the videos, Portamento, Yagi uses a turntable as a pottery wheel. Among the sculptures, a sphere wrapped in cassette tape was being played on a custom-made tape player.

The fourth instalment of the Yokohama Triennale offers some interesting and worthwhile encounters. It does not concern itself with questioning the nature of the triennale itself, but seems satisfied to be a crowd-pleaser more than an academic exercise. However, it is hard to get past the gaping holes in what could have been a very important theme for post-disaster Japan. It is probably expecting too much to see a large public event, with artists already announced, pause for reflection after the March 11 disasters and make a significant statement about such recent affairs. While the positive interpretations of our unknown world made for a mostly appealing collection of works, the negative emotions associated with this topic are surely just as—if not more—essential to a curatorial program interested in ‘nuance and complexity’. I am sure many other artists would be keen to address the kind of issues touched upon by Norrie. In Japan, especially in the months following the earthquake, what is unknown in the world is a scary thing. The opportunity for a more influential and meaningful event seems to have been missed. Without delving into the anxieties as well as the ‘magic’, the Yokohama Triennale leaves a lot out of the conversation.

Jeppe Hein, Smoking Bench, 2002. Installation view at ARoS, Denmark, 2009. Courtesy Johann König, Berlin, 303 Gallery, New York and SCAI THE BATHHOUSE, Tokyo. Photography Ole Hein Pedersen. 

Telescope pointed at Takahiro Iwasaki, Out of Disorder (Media Tower), 2011. Photography William Andrews. Courtesy the artist and ARATANIURANO. 

Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, Breathing is Free: Japan, Hopes & Recovery, 2011. Photography Nguyen Tuan Dat / Nguyen Ton Hung Truong. Courtesy the artist and Mizuma Art Gallery. 

Yin Xiuzhen, one sentence, 2011. Photography Song Dong. 

notes: 

‘Yokohama Triennale 2011 Our Magic Hour – How Much of the World Can We Know?’ was held from 6 August – 6 November 2011, at various sites in Yokohama, Japan.

Emily Wakeling is an art writer currently based in Tokyo.