View of Yokohama Triennale 2011, Yokohama Museum of Art. Foreground: Ryan Gander, A sheet of paper on which I was about to draw, as it slipped from my table and fell to the floor, 2008. Background: Rivane Neuenschwander, O inquilino (The Tenant), 2010. Photo: Kioku Keizo.

Yokohama Triennale 2011

View of Yokohama Triennale 2011, Yokohama Museum of Art. Foreground: Ryan Gander, A sheet of paper on which I was about to draw, as it slipped from my table and fell to the floor, 2008. Background: Rivane Neuenschwander, O inquilino (The Tenant), 2010. Photo: Kioku Keizo.

LET'S STATE the most remarkable point first: The fourth Yokohama Triennale opened less than six months after the devastating March 11 earthquake, tsunami, and ensuing and ongoing nuclear crisis, a testament to the calm resoluteness with which not only the Japanese artistic community but the citizenry of the country in general handled the aftermath of the catastrophe. Needless to say, logistical and psychological realities changed dramatically: Insurance costs skyrocketed, and there was no doubt a reluctance to mount confrontational work. But Akiko Miki, the event’s artistic director, braved all trials, giving the exhibition a promising premise, if an awkwardly worded one: “OUR MAGIC HOUR—How Much of the World Can We Know?” The theme, she explains, is “related to the mysteries of the world and everyday life and magical powers, as well as works that are rooted in mythology, legends, and animism,” without intending to “question the limits of science, glorify mysticism, or pursue art as a form of entertainment.” Regrettably, the exhibition itself does not quite demonstrate this range and hews too closely to the “entertainment” it purportedly disavows.

Even with the understanding that extraordinary sensitivity to the audience’s response was required in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami, it is hard to sympathize with a curatorial rationale that juxtaposes works based on lowest common denominators. At the very beginning of the exhibition is James Lee Byars’s The Diamond Floor, 1995, consisting of five large diamond-shaped crystals dramatically lit against a black carpet, followed soon after by Aurélien Froment’s clever Théâtre de poche, 2007, a video of a magician conjuring and rearranging an encyclopedia of seemingly unrelated images. In the next room, the viewer finds a coupling of Wilfredo Prieto’s One, 2008—one real diamond among twenty-eight million minuscule fake gems—on the floor, and, on the wall, the young Japanese artist Motohiro Tomii’s gold finger, 2011, a golden panel that, on close inspection turns out to be composed of brass thumbtacks. Light-reflective objects and sleights of hand quickly establish the definition of magic here—contra the artistic statement—as little more than visual trickery or dexterous prestidigitation, and other galleries also affiliate works for no discernible commonalities other than the pseudomorphological. Toward the end of this portion of the exhibition, the shotgun marriage of Ryan Gander’s crystal balls strewn on the floor (A sheet of paper on which I was about to draw, as it slipped from my table and fell to the floor, 2008) and Rivane Neuenschwander’s video of a soap bubble drifting through rooms for an unfathomably long time (O inquilino [The Tenant], 2010) sadly evinces what one colleague calls the “this looks like this” method of curating.

All of this is almost enough to make viewers think that the exhibition is about the most rudimentary ideas of magic—or, given the preponderance of loops and orbs, the circle. This is unfortunate, because there are a number of intriguing directions the show could have taken. Works from the Yokohama Museum of Art’s collection—including those by Magritte, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Rodchenko, and Meret Oppenheim—are deployed throughout, but they would have looked better together rather than interspersed among the work of young, inexperienced, and sometimes frankly weak artists. Displaying the collection as a collection would have made sense, given the pair of mini-museums within this exhibition, which provide pleasurable and meaty concentrations in the midst of an installation that is dispersed and flat-footed: Hiroshi Sugimoto’s mazelike structure, in which the artist smartly installed his own photographs alongside objects from his personal treasure trove (Buddhist sculptures as well as meteors), and Koichi Yumoto’s fabulous display of representations of yokai (ghosts) dating from the Edo period through the present.

The second venue, BankART Studio NYK, with its more open, raw space, fares better, as the works interpret “magic” less literally. Henrik Håkansson’s Tree with Roots, 2010/2011, a tree penetrating all three floors of the building, operates as an essential anchor for a dialogue among the offerings, such as Neuenschwander’s Prosopopéia (Yokohama), 2010, which invites the viewer to lift up eggshells to see an alphabet letter (in this case, Japanese hiragana) against a lightbulb. Perhaps the two most absorbing pieces in the exhibition are videos: Susan Norrie’s Transit, 2011, inspired by the recent string of natural disasters in the Asia-Pacific region, shifts between footage of a volcano eruption at Sakurajima in southern Japan and a rocket launch nearby; for Breathing Is Free 12,756.3: JAPAN, Hopes & Recovery, 1,789km, 2011, Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba devised routes through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (where he lives), and Yokohama that resemble cherry blossoms when viewed on GPS. He then broke the routes into sections, which friends and members of the public as well as the artist himself jogged, and the collective efforts are shown via video documentation and computer graphics. The meditation on human over-achievement and the overwhelming power of nature in Norrie’s work and the unabashedly sincere gesture of participation in Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s feel very much relevant to this exhibition’s time and place.

To that end, the exhibition flickers with suggestions of ways in which art might respond to Japan’s recent trauma. Like the last two examples, the site-specific, open-ended installations based on observed details of everyday life by Tam Ochiai, Shimabuku, and Koki Tanaka, all experienced Japanese artists, outshine the polished objects with humor and tenderness. In this way, too, the exhibition had the potential to enter the increasingly complicated dialogue about the role such large-scale exhibitions can play vis-à-vis locality, nation, civilization, and the world. If 2011 may be remembered as the year in which the biennial broke down—revealing profoundly irreconcilable views of culture’s place in society, from Sharjah to Venice—Yokohama could have played a part in addressing such global fragmentation. That it falls far short of such expectations may be an unfair criticism for an exhibition, but may be indicative of the newly raised stakes for all of us.

Doryun Chong is associate curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.