At Yokohama, art goes to the circus
On a note glued to a plain white wall in a temporary house he built for the Yokohama International Triennale of Contemporary Art, the Japanese artist Nara Yoshitomo put up a favorite phrase that he wrote in English in his diary ― “Never forget your beginner’s spirit.”
The words seemed to be both a perfect encapsulation of one of Japan’s biggest art events in four years which opened last month, and an alarming reminder to the art world about the direction its subject is heading.
The solution for Yokohama was hinted at in the show’s title, “Art Circus: Jumping from the Ordinary” which the triennale showed as they staged a series of public events and art performances that kept the audience entertained during its opening weekend.
The exhibit, which took place in two huge warehouses near a pier in Yamashita Park, showed the potential for dynamism that is increasingly lacking in contemporary art shows, or maybe is hidden behind the conventional discourses that permeate the art world.
Perhaps it was the exhibit’s dramatic setting that broke art from its rut. From the huge warehouses, surrounded by tire factories, one could still see container trucks and cargo ships transporting industrial goods from the nearby port to the neighboring buildings. Or it could have been the show’s artist-director Tadashi Kawamata, who allowed the exhibit to become less discursive but more lyrical, somehow making the space look more alive and rugged.
Whatever the case, this year’s Yokohama Triennale made a clear leap from other established bastions of Euro-American art such as the Venice Biennale or Kassel Documenta, as the artists freed themselves from the political agenda of the countries they were representing and focused more on the general concept of the show.
The critic Kim Young-soon explained that the promenade of striped flags set up by Daniel Buren on a walkway leading to the warehouse was the exhibit’s “ritualistic gateway” which served to purify visitors’ senses before they were led into the other realm of art.
“It was different from other biennales and international art events I’ve seen in recent years,” said Kim, an art critic and visiting professor at the University of Tokyo. “If you were a critic, you could easily brush off the show as poorly organized. But at least it was very honest, which made the show alive and attractive to viewers.”
Indeed, the dynamism showed, as the exhibit’s artists, like circus acrobats, were constantly on the move.
Tanishi K, a Japanese artist dressed up as a flight attendant, rode on an electric cart to deliver visitors from the park’s entrance to the exhibition venue, about 700 meters (less than half a mile) apart, while near the park’s gate, the art-circus performance troupe Buren Cirque held its show on an installation featuring lights and colored partitions set up by the French artist Daniel Buren. Ann Hamilton, an American artist, climbed up to the trusses of the warehouse; Akihiro Kuroda set up an easel in the gallery to draw visitors’ portraits; Kim So-ra, a Korean artist, hired a local brass band to play songs she collected from a South African radio station, in an attempt to connect unrelated subjects.
Outside the warehouse, Atelier Van Lieshout installed a mobile bar with the attractive name of “Rectum,” modeled after the human digestive tract, and sold drinks and snacks to visitors. In Yokohama’s Chinatown, Tazro Niscino set up “Villa Kaihoutei,” a temporary building thrown up in the middle of a park, and used it as a hotel during the festival. A lion dance weaved its way from the main venue to Chinatown, while on the other side of town, a Japanese art collective set up a mobile radio station to provide live programs.
Some would call it unrefined. Others, playful. The exhibit, which was a year late because the organizers couldn’t find an exhibition venue, had a bit of both.
There were visible flaws. The venue near Yamashita Wharf raised the issues of public access and poor publicity. Despite road signs in the park, most locals in the area seemed to have no idea where the triennale was. The artists’ attempt to collaborate with viewers was accommodating, but at times they seemed to mistake random participatory works for interactive art, a common misunderstanding.
On the opening night, a Thai art collective offered rice balls in the shape of female breasts to visitors in a room decorated with breast cushions. The feminine motif in the work was intended to explore issues of the body and motherhood, but put in context, the idea of feeding breast rice balls to adult art viewers seemed more cruel than anything else.
After all, the triennale’s curatorial team only had seven months to prepare for the exhibit. Plans for the second Yokohama Triennale were thrown into disarray when the architect Arata Isozaki, the show’s director, quit in December. Having a major event like Yokohama, which was funded by the municipal government, skip a year due to a lack of preparation is almost unheard of, but the triennial, which by definition is supposed to be held every three years, decided last year to hold off for another year, hinting at a possible rift between its management and curators.
“I’ve participated as an artist in many biennales,” said Kawamata, the show’s artistic director. “I knew very well how those exhibition were put together. When I decided to take this post, the only thing I could think was that I shouldn’t make this exhibition just like all the other ones I had seen, but focus on how the artwork could meet the audience.”
Kawamata posted messages on the show’s Web site saying that his biggest concern was to create an exhibit that arouses the human spirit, or as he called it, the “art of hope.”
Hope is indeed something the art world could use a jolt of.
by Park Soo-mee
“Art Circus: Jumping from the Ordinary,” Yokohama International Triennale of Contemporary Art runs at the No. 3 and 4 warehouses at Yamashita Pier through December 18th. The exhibition venue is a five-minute walk from Motomachi-Chukagai station on the subway Minatomirai Line. To get to Yokohama, take an airport limousine or Narita Express to Yokohama Station; it takes about 100 minutes. A day ticket costs 1,800 yen for adults. For more information, call 03-5562-3531.