In the face of climate change, economic and political convulsions, and the coronavirus pandemic, it is our modes of living and of occupying our planet that we must urgently modify.
YOKOHAMA, Japan — The recently opened 2020 Yokohama Triennale is an ambitious affair; featuring works by 67 artists, about one-sixth of whom are Japanese, it is being presented at the Yokohama Museum of Art, near the waterfront of this large port city south of Tokyo, and at Plot 48, a nearby, temporarily repurposed, former commercial building. (An installation by the Egyptian artist Marianne Fahmy is on view at a third venue, the NYK Maritime Museum, a few blocks away from this zone, and, in the digital realm, the Triennale’s website offers Episōdos, a series of performance-art videos.) About half of the artists who are taking part in this big show, which will remain on view through October 11, are presenting their work for the first time in Japan.
Since it began in 2001, the Yokohama Triennale has served in part as a showcase for Japanese contemporary art in a broader, international context. Like all big expositions of this kind, it is, in principle, organized around a central theme. This year, it is “afterglow,” which is also the exhibition’s subtitle.
This triennale has been curated by Raqs Media Collective — Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula, and Shuddhabrata Sengupta — a New Delhi-based trio that was formed in the early 1990s. In the past, this team’s members, who are interested in urban life, media and technology, and contemporary engagement with the histories of their homeland and the wider South Asia region, have produced documentary films and works of art in various genres and media.
As the triennale’s artistic directors, their selections were motivated by their wide-ranging intellectual curiosity and their familiarity with the timely issues and global developments that are influencing art and culture today. The Sourcebook, a booklet published in conjunction with the triennale, contains texts written by Raqs Media Collective and by such disparate authors, living and dead, who inspired them, including, among others, an anthropologist, a Slavic-languages expert, and a Bengali woman who traveled from East Bengal (today’s Bangladesh) to Japan with her Japanese husband in 1912.
In the promotional materials accompanying the Yokohama Triennale as well as in the exhibition’s wall texts, the curators elaborate on their designated “afterglow” theme, but nowhere in these writings does its meaning ever really emerge with clarity or cogency.
In one statement, Ras Media Collective proposes:
For the first time in human history[,] we, all the billions from all parts of the world, have to undertake — in awareness of each other — the re-making of forms of life. […] We are now in the afterglow of an unfamiliar, viral, and partly unreadable time.
This is bemusingly wrong, of course; it’s not “forms of life” that we humans are obliged to “remake” or that we are even capable of “remaking” right now but, rather, in the face of global climate change, economic and political convulsions, and the dramatic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, it is our modes of living and of occupying our shared planet that we must urgently modify.
Still, even though the curators’ poetic-sounding “afterglow” theme (“a luminous interval, a glowing anticipation, a lambent flow”) never really comes into focus within the exhibition itself, as it turns out, this disjunction is quite okay. For out of this exercise in a theme searching for an exhibition (or of an exhibition trying to squeeze itself into the parameters of a nebulous theme), the spirit and character of some of the strongest works on view, rising like a mist from rain-soaked soil, still manage to congeal into a discernible, collective aura.
These works notably evoke a combined sense of history, memory, and, sometimes, head-slapping, heightened awareness. It is a vibe that feels right in tune with this pandemic-affected moment.
The Japanese artist Fumiaki Aono’s large-scale, mixed-media assemblages, for example, which he makes with old furniture and other found materials, charge the spaces they occupy with an air of nostalgia, mystery, and even sacredness, as if a viewer stumbling upon them were discovering an abandoned house or a forgotten shrine tucked away in a forest.
Aono studied under the Japanese artist Noboru Takayama, who was associated with Mono-ha, a modern-art tendency of the late 1960s and the 1970s in Japan, in which sculptors brought together natural and industrially made materials in austere assemblages.
Here, several of the 52-year-old Aono’s works are on view, including pieces made with doors he picked up on the shores of Miyagi Prefecture, north of Tokyo, where he lives. In 2011, that region suffered heavy damage from earthquakes and a tsunami that triggered the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in the neighboring prefecture to the south.
While there are visual bonbons on view among the Triennale’s offerings — the London-based, Spanish artist Eva Fàbregas’s big, colorful, intestine-like “Tangles” (2020), or the American Nick Cave’s delightfully riotous “Kinetic Spinner Forest” (2016 and 2020), a thicket of hanging, rustling, colored metal discs and ornaments, to mention two examples — in general, it is the Japanese artists’ works that interest me the most.
Among them, Takashi Arai, 42, who studied biology and photography and lives in Kawasaki, and Kei Takemura, 45, who studied art in Tokyo and Berlin and is now based in Gunma Prefecture, in central Japan, both create works that, like Aono’s, are shot through with psychological-emotional currents.
Arai’s video, “Anti-Monument for 1000 Women and the Former Imperial Japanese Army Clothing Factory, Hiroshima” (2020), features a grandmother, her adult daughter and grand-daughter, and a great-grandchild sitting together at a table making a senninbari. Embroidered with 1,000 red-dot stitches (“senninbari” literally means “thousand-person-stitches”), these good-luck-charm waistbands were produced by teams of women for Japanese soldiers who fought in the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and again in World War II. Arai is also showing tiny daguerreotypes, each one depicting a single senninbari stitch.
Arai evokes — and, open-endedly, seems to question — the communal mindset behind such creative undertakings. (Marginal note: Is such an attitude relevant in a pandemic-plagued time?) Arai told me, by e-mail, of his interest in “the idea that a larger number of prayers,” made by many people, together, could “conjure up more powerful magic.” He said, “My main objective is to establish an interface between others’ memories of pain and viewers’ sensations, emotions, and individual experiences.”
Takemura also toys with memories — those evoked by and symbolically residing in castoff ordinary objects. A coffee cup, a rice bowl, an electric fan, an alarm clock, a Hello Kitty toy — she covers them all with fabric embellished with fluorescent silk thread (made by inserting a luminous jelly fish’s genes into silk-worm eggs). Takemura says that she wants to impart light to such mundane “broken matter.” Her creations actually do glow — alluringly, with a peculiar pulse.
Several video works, in addition to Arai’s, stand out here, too, including those of Yuki Iiyama and Anton Vidokle. In “Moomin Family Goes on a Picnic to See Kannon” (2014 and 2020), Tokyo-based Iiyama, 32, attempts, as she told me, “to recreate the auditory hallucinations and visions of a family member” — her sister, that is, a young woman who is obsessed with Moomintroll and his companions in Moominland, a fairytale world created in the books written and illustrated by the Finnish writer and artist Tove Jansson (1914–2001). (Moomin toys and merchandise are wildly popular in Japan.)
In Iiyama’s video, her sister and her friends, dressed as Moomin characters, enact a shrine-visiting ritual, in which the artist allowed her sister to act out in real life what her past psychiatric treatments had discouraged. Iiyama explained that, “if she talked about her [hallucinatory] experiences in detail, she would be given more medication or placed in a protective room, so that’s why she never told her health-care providers or her family what she was seeing.” Iiyama’s video is tender but not mawkish — and unexpectedly riveting.
So, too, is “Citizens of the Cosmos” (2019), a half-hour-long video by the Russian-born, multi-genre artist Anton Vidokle, the founder of the art journal e-flux. It is the last work a visitor encounters in the exhibition. A Japanese-Ukrainian coproduction shot in Kiev and Tokyo, its striking, meditative imagery reinforces pronouncements from a rich stew of religion, philosophy, and ethics known as Russian Cosmism. More than a century old, the fundamental tenets of Russian Cosmism call not only for a radically transformed, all-new world, but also for the end of death itself.
“Death is the primary root of evil,” a nameless narrator intones. Skeleton-costumed figures perform a danse macabre, and a typical, uniformed Japanese worker dissolves into ectoplasm in a tatami-matted room. Expressing an unexpectedly ambitious idealism, the video’s narrator declaims, “Immortalism raises the question of interplanetarianism.”
Unmistakable in Vidokle’s compelling visual essay is an expression of a grandiloquent, preposterous hope for survival — an oddly perfect tonic for this agonizing, virus-infected moment.
Think of it as this large exhibition’s most precious souvenir — and as its most memorable, resonant, rewarding afterglow.
The 2020 Yokohama Triennale continues at the Yokohama Museum of Art (3-4-1 Minatomirai, Nishi-ku, Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan), Plot 48 (4-3-1, Minatomirai, Nishi-ku, Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan), and the NYK Maritime Museum (3-9, Kaigan-dori, Naka-ku, Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan) through October 11. The exhibition is organized by Raqs Media Collective (Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula, and Shuddhabrata Sengupta).