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Thursday, Sept. 18, 2008


Yokohama Triennale curators puzzle locals

Special to The Japan Times

In its short history, the Yokohama Triennale has had its ups and downs. The critical and popular success of the first edition of this international art showcase in 2001 was squandered in 2005 when that year's director, architect Arata Isozaki, resigned after six months on the job. His successor, artist Tadashi Kawamata, had less than a year to prepare the event, already out of sync with the three-year cycle in its title.

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Time to reflect: Michelangelo Pistoletto's installation of smashed mirrors is one of the highlights of the Yokohama Triennale. MARK THOMPSON PHOTO

The organization of this year's Triennale, which opened to the public at multiple venues in Yokohama on Sept. 13 and runs until Nov. 30, proceeded relatively smoothly. Director Tsutomu Mizusawa came up with his theme, "Time Crevasse," when he assumed the appointment in late 2006. With the help of five international curators — including Akiko Miyake of the Center for Contemporary Art, Kitakyushu, and Hans Ulrich Obrist of London's Serpentine Gallery — he has brought together a show studded with contributions by international superstars, such as installation artist Matthew Barney, multimedia artist Douglas Gordon, and Peter Fischli and David Weiss, whose "Parts of a Film with a Rat and a Bear" movie features two children in a rat and a bear costume, respectively, wandering through a larger-than-life Rococo chamber, where they investigate a scale model of a reclining sow.

The exhibition's rather abstruse theme is intended to investigate the paradoxical coexistence of a flattened, digital world, in which space and time collapse into one dimension, and the schisms that still divide unique sensibilities or beliefs. In practical terms, the concept of time serves as a catch-all device for presenting a wide range of art influenced by performance practice and contemporary ritual.

New York-based Japanese artist Ei Arakawa's installation, inspired by American-football halftime entertainments, doubles as a workshop for plywood speed-constructions of the kind of sets used by bubble-era pop star Yuming. Legendary Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch presents video and photo documentation of his epic, gory "Orgies Mysteries Theatre" performances, in which large groups of players slaughter and string up cows as the backdrops for staged crucifixions of naked men and women. Paintings and a wooden apparatus resembling a torture rack, stained with ominous brown splatters, are also on display, functioning as artifacts from the actions.

Spread across four main venues and other locations, the triennale has a diffuse feel that is both an advantage and a detraction. At Shinko Pier Exhibition Hall, the layout by architect Ryue Nishizawa (of the firm SANAA) features a bold central axis that extends from one end of the building to the other, culminating in a view of the sea. Large, makeshift partitions splinter off from each side of this hallway, often housing no more than one work. While unfortunately recalling the aesthetics of high-end international art fairs such as Art Basel or the Armory Show in New York (itself staged on a pier), the layout is self-assured and promotes measured contemplation, rather than frenetic channel-surfing.

Perhaps the hit of this year's show, Welsh artist Cerith Wyn Evans' collaboration with famed experimental art and music group Throbbing Gristle occupies a central space at Shinko Pier. Titled "A=P=P=A=R=I=T=I=O=N" (2008), it consists of three giant mobiles from which hang scores of disc-shaped mirrors. The mirrors in turn double as speakers, emitting a high-frequency static soundtrack that evokes ice cracking. Spinning lazily, the mirrors punch holes in the exhibition space, while the sound tickles your sense of balance, creating a seductive, disorienting environment.

"A=P=P=A=R=I=T=I=O=N" finds a surprising counterpoint in Arte Povera pioneer Michelangelo Pistoletto's installation of ornate, framed mirrors ringing the Pier's final gallery. The mirrors have been smashed one by one with a mallet; shards of glass lie on the floor, while black voids gape from the partially intact reflective surfaces.

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Two characters from Peter Fischli and David Weiss' movie "Parts of a Film with a Rat and a Bear" DONALD EUBANK PHOTO

Also put to good use is Sankeien, the sprawling Japanese garden built in 1906 by silk trader Tomitaro "Sankei" Hara. Works here intrude minimally on the existing architecture and environment, protected as a cultural property by the Japanese government. Indeed, the very idea of their presence seems to be a foil for simply attracting visitors to this beautiful site, where caterpillars, ducks, turtles and foliage become part of the art experience.

Senior Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya's "Fogfalls #47670: Tales of Ugetsu" (2008) sends an ethereal white mist through the undergrowth of a small hillock. For "Smiling Disease" (2008), emerging American artist Cameron Jamie encloses a wooden pavilion so that it is dark inside, with only slivers of daylight illuminating the joints of the architecture. Viewers enter one or two at a time with a red, glowing lamp and must proceed, hesitantly, toward a latticed enclosure in which the artist has erected a forest of ghoulish masks made from contorted blocks of driftwood and shaggy, flowing hairpieces. The masks' pungent smell of cured leather and the distorted forms created by the lamp's shadows add to the feeling of a clandestine, occult encounter.

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Hermann Nitsch expands on his "Orgies Mysteries Theatre" performance series MARK THOMPSON PHOTO

Yet a growing consensus among Japanese and international art professionals who previewed the exhibition its on opening weekend is that the triennale is boring. With an already vague unifying theme, few works deliver a punch line to which viewers can relate. Some people were simply confused by works such as Marina Abramovic's "Soul Operation Tables" (2008) in NYK Waterfront Warehouse. Abramovic intended viewers to climb her group of three teetering black metal structures, resembling operating tables on stilts, and contemplate the Plexiglas sheets of color suspended around them. In instructions posted next to the wall labels identifying the work, she asks that participants first remove all their clothes. However, several visitors simply removed their shoes before climbing up to take in the view, while an exhibition docent watched passively. At least one hardy curator though, Takashi Azumaya, is rumored to have done the full Monty.

Of greater concern is that this year's triennale departs from previous editions, which featured strong contingents of Japanese artists and art groups. Of the 10 or so Japanese artists in "Time Crevasse," at least three — Ei Ararakawa, Yoko Ono and Aki Sasamoto — are better known in New York, while others, such as avant-garde butoh dancer Min Tanaka and dancer Saburo Teshigawara, come from outside the art establishment. A presentation of historical films by the postwar Gutai group of experimental artists at the Red Brick Warehouse No. 1 is given minimal representation in publicity materials.

As they continue to proliferate around the world, so-called biennial and triennial "mega-exhibitions" are undergoing reassessment. Curators neither want to be tied down to checklist-style identity politics nor to seem imperialist or old guard. "Time Crevasse" embodies such questions about what, exactly, comprises the constituencies of mega-exhibitions. Do locals want to see their artists elevated to the world stage, or do they simply want the best exhibition possible?

Obliquely addressing such issues in an interview (see below), Yokohama director Mizusawa said that his team simply came up with artists who fit the theme. Yet with an emphasis on European and American talent, the exhibition struggles to find an appropriate context in Japan. Professional, clean and tasteful, it nevertheless defines that most-damning of art-world pejoratives: It has randomly parachuted in to just another city on the international exhibition circuit.

The Yokohama Triennale is at several locations on the Yokohama waterfront near Bashimachi Station (Minatomirai Line) until Nov. 30. Ticket prices and times vary. For more information, call (03) 5777-8600 (Japanese) or (03) 5405-8686 (English), or visit www.yokohamatriennale.jp.

Other arts this week

'Nobuko Watabiki'


'Masaki Ogihara'


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