This summer saw a bounty of international exhibitions in Japan, with the return of the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale and the Yokohama Triennale, as well as the recently inaugurated Sapporo International Art Festival. Hosted by the city’s Asian Art Museum, the Fukuoka Triennale showed work by 46 artists from 21 countries and regions in Asia. Much of the work in ‘Panorama of the Nextworld – Breaking out into the Future’ addressed social inequality or government repression in the artists’ home countries. The prevalence of moving-image and lens-based art illustrated the disparity in technical sophistication and access between countries like China and less developed regions like Bhutan or Nepal. Chinese artist Lu Yang’s ambitious, elaborate project UterusMan (2013–ongoing), for example, which imagines an asexual superhero, spreads across several analogue and digital platforms including manga, digital video and gaming.
More subtle works demonstrated how photographic imagery can be used to rattle the political status quo. In Vietnamese artist Nguyen Trinh Thi’s Landscape Series #1 (2013), for instance, 35mm slides and prints showed people pointing at something in the rural landscape, but the pictures remained mute as to what the meaning of this gesture might be. Nguyen sourced the images from online articles about social problems in Vietnam. Their enigmatic quality indicates that, in a region where government censors must approve exhibited artworks, it is still safer to show rather than tell.
The spectre of government censorship also haunted Myohyangsangwan (2014), a video by Korean artists Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho. It tells the tale of the doomed love between a South Korean artist and a North Korean woman who works in a Shanghai restaurant – one of the 100 or so establishments that are remotely operated by the North Korean government in 12 countries. A note at the end of the video explained that, in these outposts, visitors can eat North Korean food and see traditional songs and dances performed by North Korean women. For Koreans on both sides of the border, they are ‘the only places to openly meet without restriction from their respective governments’. Told through realistic and oneiric scenes, this love story hints at a yearning for a united Korean peninsula.
As the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster of 3 March 2011 are still at the forefront of the Japanese collective conscience, works addressing disasters in other countries brought to mind the tragedies of 3/11. The most moving was Philippine artist Kiri Dalena’s three-channel video Tungkung Langit (Skywards, 2013), which told the story of the Philippine floods in 2011 through the conversations, drawings and games of two children who survived the deluge by clinging onto logs. The video’s aesthetic is murky, with some shots filmed in dark, rushing water. When one of the children asks the other, ‘How do you feel now they are gone?’ she replies, ‘I cry, I regret, I worry’. It is a heartbreakingly beautiful work. If only it need never have been made.
Dalena’s videos also appeared in the Yokohama Triennale in a small section devoted to her work. Under the artistic direction of Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura, the title of Yokohama’s Triennale, ‘ART Fahrenheit 451: Sailing into the sea of oblivion’, paid homage to Ray Bradbury’s eponymous dystopian novel. Work was installed across the Yokohama Museum of Art and the Shinko Pier Exhibition Hall. As its fatalistic title prophesied, the Triennale took visitors on a journey through a string of rooms with carefully curated groupings of works connected to the idea of oblivion, although the use of that term did stretch the limits of poetic licence. The heart of the exhibition began around the halfway mark of the route through the Yokohama Museum, introduced by four chapters of Taryn Simon’s A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII (2008–11), including a section devoted to the kidnapping of a South Korean fisherman that was censored when Simon showed the work in China. In Yokohama, Simon chose to absent this chapter by painting the wall with black redaction bands, as had been done in China. The room also included sculptures by Michael Rakowitz made out of Bamiyan stone, seven television sculptures made by Ed Kienholz and Nancy Reddin between the late 1960s and early ’90s, and Dora García’s Fahrenheit 451 (1957) (2002), a trestle table heaving with copies of Bradbury’s novel printed in mirror-image type. Books from the Yoshihisa Otani Collection of jingoist pre-World War II Japanese novels were displayed beside exquisite photographs from the 1950s by Ikko Narahara depicting life in a Trappist monastery in Hokkaido and a women’s prison in Wakayama. This selection of works – addressing the power of the media and its abuse by generations of political bullies – made a forceful argument about the capacity of artists to resist oppression.
In the centre of this room, people joined a short queue to climb three steps to a small white stage, resembling a pulpit, which held a large book. Moe Nai Ko To Ba (The Only Book in the World, 2014) was created by Morimura as a tribute to Bradbury’s novel and included sections by Austrian novelist Elfriede Jelinek, Russian poet Anna Akhmatova and filmmaker and former Japanese Red Army member Masao Adachi. The tome was a crucible of acts of resistance through creation, intended for destruction at the end of the show in a suitably dramatic-sounding Annihilation Performance, when it would be given over to the ‘sea of oblivion’.
First published in Issue 167