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Left: At the Aichi Triennale opening. Right: Aichi Triennale curator Fumihiko Sumitomo and Aichi Triennale artistic director Taro Igarashi. (All photos: Lauren O'Neill-Butler)

A SHINKANSEN FROM TOKYO TO NAGOYA, the fourth-largest city in Japan and the capital of the Aichi Prefecture, speeds along at 200 mph for nearly ninety minutes southwest, briskly passing houses, factories, and fields. As your eyes lose focus, the view transforms into broad basics: horizons, striations, and soft earth. Landscape, abstraction, landscape, abstraction.

The Friday before last, Nagoya was hosting the opening of the Second Aichi Triennale, a sprawling, multisite festival spread over traditional exhibition spaces as well as a former bowling alley, a train station, a dusty department store, a parking spot, and an underground shopping mall. Its title, “Awakening – Where Are We Standing? – Earth, Memory and Resurrection,” alludes to the heavy weight the event shoulders as the first big art show in Japan to be planned since the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. When I ask for the meaning of the title in Japanese, our translator says “yureru,” which translates as “to shake.” “It’s more like shivering,” she adds. And I wonder: Maybe it’s closer to the chill we’re all feeling, in the midst of a record-breaking heat wave, as ceaseless news reports disclose details on the hundreds of tons of highly contaminated radioactive water still flowing into the Pacific from the Fukushima Daiichi plant (some 300 tons had leaked by August 20, according to the Associated Press).

Left: Artist Song Dong. Right: Aichi Triennale curator Lewis Biggs.

The opening weekend is hazy and steamy; my weather app says it’s 100 degrees. According to our faithful translator, it’s the warmest August in one thousand years, and an Aichi Triennale curator hands out salt candies. We’re in Choja-machi, a business district once renowned for its flourishing textile stores and factories, and one of the sites of the triennial in Nagoya. (The nearby city Toyota was likewise celebrated for its automatic looms and textile mills, before the cars.) Today, in the absence of those shops, many of which were made redundant in the face of globalization, vacant buildings are being used to exhibit art, such as Yoshitomo Nara’s spirited collaboration with friends, the collective the We-Lows, in a garage that they transformed into a café space and small gallery. I ask if they have one of Nara’s “No Nukes” posters, an image often seen at antinuclear protests, but sadly there are none here for us. “People make their own,” says our guide.

The triennial’s artistic director, Taro Igarashi, was selected in part because of his personal experience with the disaster: His architectural laboratory at the Tōhoku University Graduate School of Engineering was destroyed. Working with four curators—Lewis Biggs, Fumihiko Sumitomo, Shihoko Iida, and Masahiko Haito—Igarashi selected seventy-six artists and groups for the show, 50 percent of whom are from Japan. Many of these artists are presenting works in response to the disaster, including the Rias Ark Museum of Art’s Great East Japan Earthquake Archives. There are also a number of site-specific pieces, such as Katsuhiro Miyamoto’s installation in blue and yellow tape bandaging the floors and walls of the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, a transposition of the blueprint of the Fukushima power plant in a 1:1 scale. “The size of the Aichi complex, one of the largest art centers in Japan, is nearly the same size as the plant,” says Aichi Triennale community designer Hiroko Kikuchi as we tour the show. The work allows a “more physical understanding of the disaster.” And then I remember: This weekend marks the sixty-eighth anniversary of the atomic attack on Nagasaki.

Left: Architect and artist Katsuhiro Miyamoto. Right: Performers in Tomoko Mukaiyama and Jean Kalman's Falling in the Okazaki Cibico department store site.

While some of the selected pieces that are not explicitly about Japan are linked in overly obvious ways (see Mitch Epstein’s “American Power” photographs), others invoke little-known and obscure stories. Cornelia Parker’s Perpetual Canon, 2004, a ring of flattened instruments, was chosen, according to Biggs, “because of a school that lost all its instruments after the disaster.” He continues: “If instruments are people’s voice, and if the instruments are crushed, then there is no voice.”

Indeed, the festival is geared to the Aichi community, so much so that most of the works on view in Choja-machi were selected via a curatorial competition, granting locals the chance to vote. Later that day, on the bus to another hub of sites in Okazaki, Biggs (a former artistic director of the Liverpool Biennial) argues, “Art becomes generalized when it is good. We hope we’ve chosen good art about human loss and tragedy.” This leaves some of us perplexed, but we hold our tongues and decide to wait and see how the idea plays out in the event.

Okazaki is about an hour away from Nagoya, and it is mostly known today for companies that recycle old clothing into felt for lining new cars by Toyota. We arrive at a 1980s-era Cibco department store, currently being renovated, and are told that the art is on the vacant and decaying floors. “It’s like time stopped,” says our translator as we climb the stairs. “This store is so old, it feels like something from twenty years ago.” We’re a long way from Tokyo, “the capital of the future,” according to the government’s campaign for the 2020 Olympics, but not that far. On one floor, we encounter Tomoko Mukaiyama and Jean Kalman’s performance installation Falling, a theatrical, postapocalyptic tableau involving stage lights and a smoke machine (and a man buried to the top of his head in crumpled newspaper). I follow a pair of young girls in plastic animal masks around the work, not sure if they are part of it.

Left: Aichi Triennale curator Shihoko Iida and artist Richard Wilson. Right: Aichi Triennale curator Yuri Yoshida and artist Wit Pimkanchanapong.

That evening we attend the packed opening ceremony at the Aichi Prefectural Museum, a lively engagement that seems to have nothing to do with the ways human beings bring disasters upon themselves. The event seems especially crowded because it’s around the time of Obon, not a “public holiday” but three days that some take off from work in order to honor ancestral spirits and return home. There are numerous speeches by government officials and the show’s organizers. As the mostly rapt audience listens to the orations, a few people indulge in a glass of warm white wine. At the end, some silver streamers spurt at the crowd.

The following day, while making another art pilgrimage to visit the Chichu Art Museum on Naoshima Island (which is now participating in the sprawling 2013 Setouchi Triennale on isles in the Seto Inland Sea), I’m particularly drawn to Time/Timeless/No Time, 2004, by the late Walter De Maria. I recall that he once proclaimed, “Every good work should have at least ten meanings.” The ambiguity and allure of this statement, considered in step with Biggs’s earlier and perplexing dictum that art becomes generalized when it is “good,” seems to feel right. The best works in the Aichi Triennale, teeming with atmospheres and ambiances, certainly have more than ten meanings, and all were generated from moments of despair—a universal feeling if ever there was one.

Left: Kohei Nawa's Foam at the Nayabashi site. Right: Artist Noe Aoki.

Left: Artists Guerra de la Paz. Right: Artist Min-jeong Seo.

Left: Artist Ariel Schlesinger. Right: Artist Kristina Norman.

Left: Artist Mari Katayama. Right: Artist Marlon Griffith.