Walking through Yokohama’s streets trying to find one of the venues of the city’s third art triennial, I noticed a man wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a glorious tautology: ‘Nostalgia is always recalled.’ Its sentiment wasn’t miles away from the title and theme of the Triennial, ‘Time Crevasse’, which declared its desire to explore ‘the current moment, the now’ via a ‘performative or time-based contribution’ with ‘something that leaves a trace’. Call me literal-minded, but time’s relationship to art is a little like the relationship of air to humans: it’s unavoidable.
On the plus side, this curatorial conceit was broad enough to accommodate an enormous range of approaches – in this case videos, installations, photography, painting, sculpture and performance by 72 artists from 25 different countries spread over three main and various small satellite venues. It was hard though to get away from the sense that the theme was dreamt up by a committee in deadlock. Can’t reach a consensus? OK, let’s just say it’s about time. That should cover it. The artistic director, Mizusawa Tsutomu, and the five curators (Miyake Akiko, Daniel Birnbaum, Hu Fang, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Beatrix Ruf) came up with a competent show that included few surprises, some jewels – notably its performance programme – and a frustrating lack of Japanese content (just over 10 percent).
Worth the trip alone were the intense violin and cello performance by Tony Conrad and Jim O’Rourke during the opening weekend, Joan Jonas’ performance Reading Dante (2008) and a film archive of Japanese performance from the 1960s and ’70s. Also impressive was the enormous, airy Shinko Pier Exhibition Hall (designed by the architect Ryue Nishizawa), in which around 30 artists showed specially commissioned work. The nearby NYK Waterfront Warehouse suffered in comparison; despite moments of interest (by Gustav Metzger, Danh Vo and Jimmy Robert) this element of the triennial felt unfocused. The exhibition at Shinko Pier opened with a bang – or several of them. Seventeen Less One (2008), by Michelangelo Pistoletto, is a performance that involves smashing 17 framed mirrors with a mallet; for this incarnation it starred Galleria Continua’s Lorenzo Fiaschi, who wielded his weapon with the concentration of a hired killer. Once this oddly disturbing deed was done, he called out cheerfully: ‘Michelangelo Pistoletto says “ciao”, from Italy!’
Other highlights included: Luke Fowler and Toshiya Tsunoda’s installation Composition for Flutter Screen (2008), which, with its fans, Super-8, silk and lights evoked an atmosphere of some futuristic, vaguely Eastern, meditation chamber; Cerith Wyn Evans and Throbbing Gristle’s chic eight-hour sound installation of 16 mirror speakers which emitted birdsong, bells and the surprisingly mellifluous voice of Genesis P-Orridge reading a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé (A=P=P=A=R=I=T=I=O=N, 2008); and Ulla von Brandenburg’s La Maison (The House, 2008), a ghostly film of enigmatic relationships, interiors and card players projected onto billowing fabric. Also of engaging were Sharon Hayes’ meditation on a relationship, Everything Else Has Failed! Don’t You Think It’s Time for Love? (2007), and Mario García Torres’ understated homage to Bruce Nauman, Secret between Walls (Site with the Soundtrack of its Recent Past) (2008).
Some works were hampered by poor installation, in particular Oliver Payne and Nick Relph’s compelling film Classical Gas (2008), which was mounted in what was essentially a corridor; it was hard to hear, saturated with light, and viewers had to dodge the through traffic. Layers of time were literally visible at the historic Sankeien Gardens, where works installed among the ancient buildings and idyllic ponds struggled not to be overwhelmed by their surroundings. An exception was Nakaya Fujiko’s Fogfall Number 47670 – a fog-making machine installed among the foliage that heightened the park’s dreamy atmosphere. One misfire was Tris Vonna-Michell’s solipsistic installation Wasteful Illuminations (2008): a pavilion filled with speakers that emitted a rapid-fire narration of the artist's trip to Japan.
A pile of typewritten sheets of the story were placed next to a small, stoneware model of a structure that someone told me was London’s Cabinet Gallery (there was no indication of this). Yokohama has experienced more than its fair share of disasters. Most of the city was destroyed in 1923 by an earthquake; after being rebuilt, a huge section of it was bombed during World War II. Now, filled with endless tall buildings clustered around its photogenic harbour, it is one of the few Japanese cities with a multicultural population. The Triennial (the biggest show of its kind held in Japan) generates much civic pride – but why, exactly? Without some kind of conversation with the culture in which it finds itself in, these increasingly ubiquitous biennials and triennials are seriously running the risk of blandly homogenizing contemporary art and culture. Most of the sound-pieces, for example, were in English and, as far as I could see, had no accompanying Japanese translations.
Considering English isn’t commonly spoken in Japan, this seemed like a gross oversight, and a surprising one given that Hans Ulrich Obrist, in the press conference, declared that the 120 biennials now held around the world provide an opportunity to ‘resist globalization’. This won’t be achieved by creating biennials that all seem vaguely alike, united by a Western model of art history and dominated by English – whatever country they find themselves in. Surely biennial curators need to mine the context they find themselves in more deeply and, in so doing, avoid coming up with a show that, however interesting, could have been held anywhere.
Jennifer Higgie is editor at large of frieze, the presenter of the frieze podcast Bow Down: Women in Art History and is currently writing a book on historic self-portraits by women, The Mirror & The Palette.
First published in Issue 120