Doing Time

Yokohama, Japan

Left: Artist Joan Jonas. Right: Yokohama Triennale curators Hu Fang, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and Beatrix Ruf. (All photos: Kyle Bentley)

After a long silence, punctuated by nervous giggles from the audience, Beatrix Ruf—one of the five Yokohama Triennale curators working under artistic director Tsutomu Mizusawa—leaned in to her microphone and said carefully: “I think the quality of exhibitions in general is that you have to see them.” She was responding to an audience member’s charge, of the type often directed at these large international shows, that in necessitating being there—and perhaps more strongly than most exhibitions do, given the performance program spanning its eleven-week course—this third edition of the triennial might be considered “elitist” or “undemocratic.”

The show does call for the viewer’s presence, of course, but even those in Yokohama during the opening week could be present only so often. There was a lot to see, with the seven venues (three of them considered “main”) and the performances that some of the artists contributed in addition to their more displayable artworks, likewise in response to the show’s abstruse and vaguely sci-fi theme, “Time Crevasse.” Dispersed among the venues and often scheduled simultaneously, or at times listed incorrectly, each performance caught seemed an added bonus—visitors would arrive too late, take in a rehearsal instead of the real thing, find Jonathan Meese where Sharon Hayes should have been. Daniel Birnbaum, another of the curators (the remaining three are Hu Fang, Akiko Miyake, and, predictably, Hans-Ulrich Obrist), mentioned to me lightheartedly: “The nature of the exhibition is that you miss half of it.”

Left: Artist Miranda July. Right: Dealers Misako Rosen and Taka Ishii.

There was a laissez-faire (perhaps undemocratic) air to the week, a breeziness that seemed influenced by the primarily waterfront environs. That first day, the Friday before last, began with a performance “by” Michelangelo Pistoletto—though it actually starred Galleria Continua’s Lorenzo Fiaschi, who stalked about one of the larger freestanding galleries constructed in the Shinko Pier Exhibition Hall and systematically smashed sixteen gilt-framed mirrors with a sledgehammer. “Michelangelo Pistoletto,” he announced during his curtain call, “says ‘Ciao, from Italy!’” Also that afternoon was Joan Jonas’s performance Reading Dante, in which the artist fragments actions (anxiously arranging objects on a desk, then walking away; drawing in charcoal, then balling up the results) as a video projection shows various locations, at times under a hallucinatory haze, all with a view to translating into multimedia the Divine Comedy.

As for the more static portion of the show, the strongest selection is at the Shinko Pier; the airy space facilitated a spare hang that serves the works well. Luke Fowler and Tsunoda Toshiya’s collaborative film installation stands out: A fan ripples parachutelike material that becomes a film screen for shots (of a glass of water filled to meniscus point, a blue sky diagonally bisected by a piece of rope, a pile of powder or maybe a snowscape) that periodically cut out as the screen is shocked by floodlight. An enigmatic but oddly affecting work. In the Red Brick Warehouse No. 1, the selection of Gutai films not only is a main draw but also seems a key to the curatorial focus on performance. The presentation in the NYK Waterfront Warehouse, the third main venue, is lackluster: the greatest hits of the international circuit, with works by Matthew Barney, Marina Abramovic, Paul McCarthy.

Left: Galleria Continua's Lorenzo Fiaschi. Right: Critic Catrin Lorch and dealer Jan Mot.

That night were two opening parties, the first in the Yokohama International Passenger Terminal—an undulating wood-planked structure on Osanbashi Pier with entertainment facilities inside and a park on top. The field of bubbles spat out of machines flanking the entrance gave way to a cavernous green-lit space bisected by two long salt bars onto which guests dabbed hors d’oeuvres. Alongside one of these, I chatted with Brussels dealer Jan Mot (who, it turns out, had traveled to Yokohama with Tino Sehgal, the artist’s aversion to airplanes having led them to take the Trans-Siberian Express), and met some gallerists from Tokyo—Taka Ishii (whose new six-floor space is soon to open there) and Misako Rosen. The second party was at a banquet-hall-like space, called Bay Side, along the highway in an industrial part of the city. Alex Zachary, from Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, showed up, as did artist Darren Bader, curator Klaus Biesenbach, and Irene Bradbury from White Cube. Jim O’Rourke made some ambient noise with a few other musicians—much to the puzzlement of audience members familiar with his catchier songs.

It must be a new direction, since O’Rourke performed in collaboration with minimalist musician and filmmaker Tony Conrad two nights later at the Red Brick Warehouse. A group of us had spent the day in Kanazawa, to visit the boldly named 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, and arrived halfway through Stephen Prina’s acoustic set of, mostly, bittersweet love ballads by female singer-songwriters (Carole King’s “It’s Too Late,” Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You”)—a selection that, falling as it did within the “Experimental Sound Program,” surprised some audience members. “It was pleasant,” one shrugged. O’Rourke and Conrad were next and last. Playing the cello and violin, respectively, the duo produced a series of drones and subdrones and occasional melodious scraps that together became almost sculptural, so brutal as to be transcendent. When the forceful sound abruptly let up—after beat, beat—the crowd erupted into a cheerful roar.

Left: Artist Jonathan Meese. Right: Artists Falke Pisano and Luke Fowler.

It was in one of the satellite venues, the Sankeien Garden, located twenty minutes or so by taxi from the main area, that I found the strongest illustration of that enigmatic theme, the “time crevasse.” To wander through this trompe l’oeil of a traditional Japanese garden, among the buildings spanning half a millennium and relocated by the wealthy silk exporter who commissioned the garden at the turn of the last century, among the women with lace covering their arms and parasols and surgical masks (worn by the Japanese when sick to protect others from germs, a striking sign of the country’s strict attention to both hygiene and politeness), is truly a lesson in shifting temporal plates. It was there that I sat in a gazebo behind a stack of papers printed with a story by Tris Vonna-Michell, and faded out while a recording of his quick incantatory narration merged with the sharp strain of crickets.

Left: Artist Cerith Wyn Evans. Right: Yokohama Triennale curators Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Daniel Birnbaum.