Road to Oblivion

Left: Artist and Yokohama Triennial artistic director Yasumasa Morimura. Right: Artist Wim Delvoye. (All photos: Dawn Chan)

IN JAPAN, Yokohama’s a city that’s stayed ahead of the curve. We were told in our tour bus that Japan’s first-ever train line connected Yokohama and Tokyo. The newfangled transportation was so baffling that (absent any other protocol) the train’s first passengers politely left their shoes in neat rows on the Yokohama station platform—only to find themselves in Tokyo, twenty miles away, parted from their footwear.

Apparently, Yokohama’s progressive leanings extend to the realm of the art festival. While it seems that other major biennials and triennials will stick with the imported star-curator model until kingdom come, the Yokohama Triennale’s organizers took a bold step this time around, making artist Yasumasa Morimura this edition’s artistic director. Famous for his self-portraits dressed up as everyone from Marilyn to van Gogh, Morimura has a relatively short curatorial resume. Which, in the context, was a point in his favor: As the organizing committee put it, the 2011 earthquake and ensuing disasters marked “a great change in the Japanese consciousness,” which had people seeking out “the flexible concepts and views of artists.”

Flexible indeed. Morimura gave the triennial a theme (“oblivion”) inspired by a book (Ray Bradbury’s Farhenheit 451), and divided work by sixty-five artists into eleven chapters, each with a header and poetic explanation. Chapter Eight, for example, read: “We are helpless wanderers drifting between the waves of life and death, and the flashing light of the actual slide show.”

Left: Artist Residency Tokyo's Johnnie Walker and Kafka. Right: Blum & Poe Tokyo director Ashley Rawlings.

On opening day, we were all handed special-edition bottles of triennial water. Good thing, too: In between rainy season and typhoon season, this was the hottest time of the year. At the Yokohama Museum of Art—the triennial’s main venue—the central AC was on full blast, the edifice’s granite network of terraces and steps cool to the touch. A crowd both international and Japanese wandered through a labyrinthine route that doubled back and forth, winding past rickety, mechanized musical instruments by Yuko Mohri and then snaking around a lectern, where a queue of people waited to flip through the pages of a Taschen-size book by the group Moe Nai Ko To Ba that contained historical texts whose authors dealt with censorship and, of course, oblivion.

We navigated past giant red chairs and a monstrous clacking gavel—where a collective called the Temporary Foundation will stage a mock trial of sorts—and followed an elevator down to one of Gregor Schneider’s unsettling environments: German Angst, a dim, windowless concrete basement where bolder visitors could don a pair of galoshes and stomp about in a shallow pit of mud. (More unsettling, to some, was the prospect of plunging their feet into rubber boots that had borne the sweaty hooves of so many before them.)

Everyone regrouped at a midday press conference, where one critic in the audience tried linking the fact that Morimura was an artist to the triennial’s theme of oblivion. “You’re an artist; your work might be forgotten. So there’s a sense of crisis there. I wonder if that’s your starting point?”

But Morimura, it became clear, saw oblivion as something to be embraced as much as feared. “Some people speak in a loud voice, so we tend to focus on those people. But there’s also the world of silence and whispers,” he said.

And added: “There’s a huge amount of failure. We want to say it’s not meaningless to look at these things.”

No doubt that philosophy fueled his fondness for Michael Landy’s gargantuan Art Bin, given pride of place at the center of the museum’s atrium, dwarfing all around it. Landy’s piece (first shown in the South London Gallery) is a receptacle for other artists to dump their unwanted creations, and, one by one, as a crowd took photos, local artists processed up a narrow two-flight staircase to toss out their canvases, photos, and sculptural appendages. Morimura himself led the way by discarding a giant photograph of himself dressed as Frida Kahlo.

Why’d he choose to dump that piece? “It’s so big,” he explained to me lugubriously, “When I ask places to contain it, they refuse—which is why it’s a very sad piece of work.”

Left: Miwa Yanagi, Curator of Yanagi Project, with curator Sumi Hayashi. Right: M+ director Lars Nittve.

A couple hours later, mourning gave way to celebration a fifteen-minute walk away at the triennial’s other main venue, Shinko Pier. There, as faint gusts of river breeze seeped into the exhibition hall, a spectacle-seeking crowd had gathered around artist Miwa Yanagi’s latest project. At first glance, it was a hot-pink RV of some kind. But as a bass beat blared over loudspeakers, the trailer began to morph. Powered by hydraulics, its innards unfolded into multiple panels decorated with lotus petals and fluorescent tendrils.

Yanagi will eventually use the mobile stage as a backdrop for her theatrical adaptation of Wings of the Sun, a novel by Nakagami Kenji about three old pilgrims. For now, no elderly travelers appeared on stage. Instead, there was one very young, very limber pole dancer, who strutted forth and performed for the crowd.

Later that day, familiar faces from all corners of the art world gathered beneath the chandeliers of the Yokohama Royal Park Hotel hotel, competing for space with an elaborate buffet-style cornucopia that would shame a Carnival cruise. Among those in attendance were M+ director Lars Nittve and Johnnie Walker, who runs Artist Residency Tokyo. Ashley Rawlings, director of the new Blum & Poe space opening next month in Harajuku, was impressed by the triennial. “Large group shows in Japan often tend toward being painfully didactic or utterly vague,” he said. “But this show has a clear, coherent vision.”

In the hotel lobby, I chatted briefly with artist Wim Delvoye, who revealed that it was his first time showing in Japan. (He’d gone in 2000 to propose Cloaca, his infamous shit machine, but couldn’t rouse much interest in it.) “I remember people were depressed in 2000,” he said. “Not so today.”

Not so, at least, this night: The festivities gathered steam, artists like Zhang Enli and Gregor Schneider joined in, and everyone moved from the hotel venue on to the blue-lit Seamen’s Club, where the party grew wild—or so I was told. What do I know? All the journalists, lured away by the promise of okonomiyaki, or Japanese pizza, had found themselves corralled back onto a bus promptly at eight.

Right: Miwa Yanagi's pole dancer. Right: Yuko Mohri installation.

If you close your eyes and squint, it would almost seem like the professional curator’s grown démodé in Japan. First there was Morimura, an artist, directing the triennial. And then, over an hour north, Ryuichi Sakamoto had guest-directed the art festival that kicked off this month in the bucolic city of Sapporo. A full-time curator Sakamoto is not. Many know his name from his electronic music group Yellow Magic Orchestra, as well as his scores for The Sheltering Sky and The Last Emperor.

Unfortunately, because of his ongoing battle with throat cancer, Sakamoto had mostly weighed in from afar. Still, his sensibility was everywhere. “He’s very serious,” said someone on the curatorial team. “He likes people like Beuys and Kiefer and serious ’80s art. He doesn’t, for example, like toy-like things.” Indeed, as part of the festival, the Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art featured—count ’em—three works by Kiefer. (“Shit happens,” one grump said.) But there was lighter fare, too. At the cacophonous “Internet Black Market” (which had the feel of a school science fair) young artists sold various objects and in-person services related to the Internet. One performer in costume promised to be a “physicalized” version of a Twitter follower: For a handful of yen, he followed you—literally. Around the room. Repeating things you said.

In his proposal surrounding the festival’s bipartite theme, “City and Nature,” Sakamoto wrote, “Issues such as energy and art, and urban agriculture and art defy easy solutions.” He’d wanted to “keep the remains of coalmines as works of art,” and hoped, specifically, to get Kiefer to preserve the coal-mining facilities in the neighboring town of Yubari. For years, Yubari’s economy had depended on coalmining. But the industry collapsed. (More recently, residents pinned the economic hopes for their city on a fruit: The Yubari melon can fetch top dollar at auction.)

All of this probably has something to do with why the most poignant moment in the festival was an exhibition featuring the scores of composer Akira Ifukube. Ifukube, a Sapporo native, famously wrote the sound track to the very first Godzilla movie. As we examined his original scores through dimly lit vitrines installed in a musty neo-baroque building, you could almost hear the sound of the original Gojira’s cri de coeur. I’ve always loved Godzilla, who reminds me of my cat. They’re entirely innocent. If anyone’s ever, ever at fault, it’s never them. It’s us.

We were told that Sapporo, meanwhile, was once mountains. It was humans who leveled the terrain into the flat city it is now.

Left: Curator Shihoko Iida. Right: Curator Yukiko Shitaka.