Postcard from Japan
I recently returned from a press trip to Japan. Starting and finishing in Tokyo – and in the company of ten journalists from Cuba, France, Germany, South Korea, Thailand, the US and Vietnam – I visited Yokohama (for the opening of the Yokohama Triennale 2011), Kyoto, Osaka, Miyajima and Hiroshima. Packed into the space of one week, it was a whistle-stop itinerary, made possibly mostly by the extraordinarily fast and efficient shinkansen (bullet train) network and the meticulous planning of our hosts, The Japan Foundation – not to mention some brutally early mornings.
It’s impossible to visit Japan at the moment without thinking about the 8.9 magnitude earthquake that struck the north east of the country on 11 March this year, triggering a devastating tsunami and calamitous damage at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. As a visitor – there only for a week and with no more than four or five words of Japanese in my vocabulary – I can’t pretend to be able to give a great deal of insight into how life has been affected. Tokyo was as far north as our trip took us – some distance from the most afflicted areas of the country – and life there appears to continue as normal. But one doesn’t have to look far for signs of the after effects. The English language newspaper The Japan Times carries almost daily stories on the unfolding aftermath of the quake – on food scares, for instance, or demands for compensation from Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), who own the stricken Fukushima plant. Electricity rationing is in place; for visitors, this becomes apparent when you notice, for instance, that the air-conditioning is off in some buildings, or areas are unlit. (For their ambitious exhibition of work by young artist Kokei Nawa, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo installed a brand new LED-based lighting system, which uses just 50% of power compared to regular bulbs). And of course, conversation with Japanese curators we met inevitably touched on the effects the earthquake (which I heard a number of people refer to as ‘3/11’) has had on the Japanese cultural scene.
Atelier Bow-Wow, House & Atelier Bow-Wow, 2005
For an idea of how architects are responding to Japan’s infrastructural issues, an exhibition we were taken to see at the private Tokyo Opera City arts complex provided a fascinating and engrossing introduction. Entitled house inside city outside house, the show was an expanded version of last year’s Japanese presentation at the Venice Architecture Biennale. Looking at housing in Tokyo, three projects – by Atelier Bow-Wow, Ryue Nishizawa and Koh Kitayama – proposed ways of rethinking housing in the capital. At the entrance to the show was an eye-catching ‘time-lapse’ animation depicting rapid urban development in the city, clearly illustrating why architects call Tokyo a ‘metabolizing city’: The average lifespan of a house in Japan is just 26 years, and cities there are constantly being reconfigured. Post-earthquake, issues of housing and urban planning are more pressing now, and the participating architects were looking at how the ‘metabolizing city’ might be harnessed to deal with social conditions such as single occupancy (more than half the residents of Tokyo live alone and 1.86 is the average family size); Western living habits of shared housing; Japanese concepts of ‘open housing’ (the idea of housing security was, the exhibition’s curator Shinobu Nomura explained, a Western idea introduced to Japan at the end of the 19th century); how inheritance tax affects building (land is constantly sub-dividing since one third of owned land has to be sold off when someone dies); fire hazards; narrow alleyways (24% of streets in Tokyo are just 2–4 metres wide), and self-generating power.
Fish, possibly enjoying the view of Tokyo from the observation deck of the Mori Tower
From Tokyo Opera City, we headed over to the Roppongi area of Tokyo. There, from the top of the 54-storey Mori Tower, we could see the ‘metabolizing city’ in all its vastness. (I wondered, briefly, what the prettily coloured fish swimming around in a tank by one of the windows made of the horizon-to-horizon urban sprawl.) I was interested to learn here that the Mori Tower generates it’s own electricity and is independent from the main grid – more interested, I have to say, than I was in French Window an exhibition at the Mori Art Museum (MAM) of contemporary French art, as seen through the lens of the Marcel Duchamp prize. There were some notable exceptions – I enjoyed seeing videos by Anri Sala and Laurent Grasso – but with a head full of thoughts about cities and how we might live in them, works by artists such as Bruno Peinado, Camille Henrot and Xavier Veilhan seemed like shallow visual distractions. The room in which a Parisian collector’s apartment had been recreated in the exhibition, to give viewers an idea of what it was like to be wealthy and live with contemporary art, took my personal Marcel Duchamp prize for crassness.
Later that day was a performance and lecture by Yoko Ono, held in a function room of the Grand Hyatt Tokyo hotel. Programmed as the final session of the MAM Art Course, ‘a series of education courses exploring diverse facets of contemporary art’, Ono’s lecture drew a large and attentive audience. With the 66th anniversary of the Hiroshima bomb approaching the following weekend, and its clear resonances with the Fukushima disaster, it seemed clear that, for an artist who has campaigned for world peace for many decades and who this year was awarded the 8th Hiroshima Art Prize, there was no other topic she could address than the recent disaster. Speaking in Japanese (we listened to simultaneous translations), Ono began by talking about the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and her memory of Japan as a child in the immediate aftermath of the war, before discussing the March earthquake. In touching on how people might deal with the trauma, she seemed to hint that she has little faith in political process and that individual self-realization is all that matters. After she finished speaking she painted the kanji character for ‘dream’ on a blank canvas, signed it, and declared she would give it to the MAM, from which they can make copies to sell and donate funds to orphanages in the earthquake damaged city of Sendai.
Following her talk, the audience was eager to ask questions. These were, quite understandably, variations on the same theme: after the tragedy of the earthquake, how do the Japanese people process what’s happened and move forward? However, Ono’s answers were, for the most part, variations on the same vague answer: be yourself, pursue your dreams, keep hoping. Even when a young woman stepped up to the microphone and spoke about how she had travelled to Fukushima, because she wanted to do her part in helping with the aftermath, and in doing so had been exposed to radiation, Ono gave the same answer. Perhaps offering meaningful advice in such a situation is nigh-on impossible, but for me, the emotional affect of what she was saying flat-lined into platitudes. Following the event, I took Ono’s advice by pursuing my dream of getting some sushi and an ice-cold beer.
Ugo Rondinone, Our Magic Hour (2003) and moonrise. east. march (detail, 2005) installed at the Yokohama Triennale 2011
Day two took us to the port city of Yokohama, for the opening of the city’s 2011 triennale. Featuring 77 artists exhibiting across three main venues – the Yokohama Museum of Art, NYK Waterfront Warehouse (BankART Studio NYK) and Yokohama Creativecity Center – this is the first triennale with which the Yokohama Museum of Art has been involved, and the show incorporates historical and modern works from the museum’s collection,. Taking its title from an art work by Ugo Rondinone, ‘Our Magic Hour’, and subtitled ‘How Much of the World Can We Know?’, artistic director Akiko Miki has themed the exhibition around aspects of life that remain mysterious, peripheral or enigmatic despite the advances of science, such as supernatural phenomena, myth and animism.
Tetsumi Kudo, Votre Portrait (1974)
At the opening press conference we learned how, inevitably, preparations for the triennale had been delayed and time and resources limited by the March earthquake. Some artists even decided to change their original plans and create work in response to the disaster. Given the logistical odds stacked against the triennale, the organizers did an impressive job in pulling the show together. In a concise statement that drew a round of applause during the conference, participating LA-based artist Koki Tanaka spoke about how, post-earthquake, it is more important than ever to value alternative attitudes and ways of thought, especially as mistrust of governments and corporations grows.
Garment from the Koichi Yomoto Collection
I have to admit I found it hard to follow the thematic threads of the exhibition, beyond identifying a loosely surrealist tone to the selected works (literally so in the case of the Rene Magritte and Paul Delvaux works selected from the museum’s collection). However, there was much to enjoy. A full review of the triennale by Amelia Groom will appear in the November/December edition of frieze, but my personal checklist of highlights would include: Koki Tanaka’s installation featuring a maze of crates, museum paraphernalia and TV monitors playing his low-key Fluxus-esque performances; Keichi Tanaami’s wild, funny and entirely trippy 1970s animations; a set of traditional ukiyo-e woodblock prints by Kuniyoshi Utagawa depicting dancing figures with cherries for heads (which, bizarrely, put me in mind of both Henri Matisse and The Residents) and a 1974 sculpture from Tetsumi Kudo’s series ‘Votre Portrait’ – an anguished-looking wax head in a luminously coloured hamster cage, with various orchid-like forms scattered around it. (It is said that the head depicts playwright Eugene Ionescu.) Massimo Bartolini’s Organi (Organs, 2008) – a huge pipe organ made from scaffolding tubes – played a limpid musical phrase by John Cage, a plaintive accompaniment to a nearby set of objects and images curated by Hiroshi Sugimoto. Next to this was an absorbing collection of items from the Koichi Yomoto Collection, depicting the yokai (Japanese ghost) in Japanese visual art and design, from traditional old prints to painting, fabric design and sci-fi monster movies. At NYK Waterfront Warehouse, Henrik Hakansson’s Fallen Forest (2006)– a large cluster of tropical plants tipped so they are growing horizontally outwards – was physically impressive and poignant in light of the idea of tectonic plates literally shifting beneath us. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s PRIMITIVE (2009) installation of video vignettes loosely following villagers in the Thai border town of Nabua village (the site of clashes between Thai government and Maoist forces from the 1960s to the ‘80s) trying to build a spaceship was compelling; its atmosphere generated from a haunted zone somewhere between dreamy, the everyday and casual. Jan Nguyen-Hatsushiba scrapped his initial plans for the show and made a thoughtful new project, in which a number of volunteers run along routes that, when traced on a map, form the shape of a sakura flower (also known as cherry blossoms) – a symbol of human life and transience in Japan. Ugo Rondinone’s big dumb monster sculptures (_moonrise. east. march_, 2005) in the public plaza in front of the museum were a big hit, especially with children. (And the children were right – they were funny.) Christian Marclay’s now ubiquitous video work The Clock (2010), was unable to be screened 24 hours a day due to power shortages.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul PRIMITIVE (2009)
An untitled new video by Peter Coffin was probably my highlight. With the help of a laboratory in Paris, he X-rayed a range of fruits, and animated them like brightly coloured meteors floating towards the viewer, as if emerging from deep space. Try as I might to articulate why it appealed to me (aside from delighting in Coffin’s use of animation technology) I’ve so far been unsuccessful; perhaps, like Weerasethakul’s PRIMITIVE, it hit both surreal and casually humourous notes that for me best reflected the exhibition’s sometimes oblique theme: something inexplicable at the peripheries of perception, akin to a hypnagogic state of awareness.
Daido Moriyama, Yokosuka (1971)
Leaving Yokohama, we moved on to Kyoto where a brief couple of hours was spent at the National Museum – for an historical show of works depicting the representation of animals in Japanese art – and at the grand Sanjusangen-do Buddhist temple opposite the museum, which contains 1000 statues of the Thousand Armed Kannon. From here we were shuttled to Osaka, for ‘On the Road’ a superb retrospective of work by photographer Daido Moriyama, at the Osaka National Museum of Art. Featuring over 400 images from the start of his career in 1965, up to present, ‘On the Road’ included many key works, such as Stray Dog and Yokosuka (both from 1971); images of the seedier side of Japanese society contrasted against his landscapes, still lifes and a small room of delicately composed colour photos. After seeing the show, we were privileged to have a brief interview session with Moriyama. Asked about his subject matter, he expressed a bleak view of the world: ‘All human history is suffering.’
The Torii, Miyajima
From Osaka we travelled by train, then ferry across a moonlit stretch of water, to the island of Miyajima; a world cultural heritage site – and entirely free of contemporary art, which gave us something of a breather. Miyajima is the site of the ancient Itsukushima shrine, and a huge torii (gate), both built over water. We spent a night in a Japanese inn, or ryokan (with its beige fittings and buffet breakfast the one we stayed in was as much modern Travelodge as it was a place of traditional Japanese hospitality), and the next day strolled around the island’s shrines and lush hilly lanes, watching the wild deer that roam freely in the streets, completely unbothered by the hordes of tourists that visit the island during the day.
A deer on Miyajima, skeptical of the author’s photographic skills
Then it was back on the road, and on to Hiroshima. We arrived the day after the 66th anniversary of the 1945 atomic bomb attack. In the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, where the marquees from the previous day’s memorial ceremony were being taken down, crowds mingled around the Peace Museum and Cenotaph, and I saw the iconic ‘A-Bomb dome’, that stands as a symbolic reminder of the devastation and is a painstakingly preserved ruin on the UNESCO world cultural heritage list. At the Hiroshima Museum of Contemporary Art (the first public museum in Japan devoted completely to contemporary art), we had the opportunity to see Yoko Ono’s prize-winning exhibition, ‘The Road of Hope’. In the context of Hiroshima – and the earthquake – Ono’s work had far more resonance than her words did in Tokyo. As physical objects – free-standing wooden doors leading nowhere, origami cranes, tattered posters of her ‘War is Over’ and ‘Imagine Peace’ slogans viewable through binoculars – there was a little more space for contemplation in the gaps between her self-help exhortations to be ourselves or follow the road of hope. Browsing her retrospective catalogues in the museum reading area, gave me a salutary reminder of the important contribution Ono has made to performance art and Fluxus (not to mention some pretty great music), keeping my skepticism in check.
Isamu Noguchi’s design for the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Cenotaph (1952)
The museum’s chief curator, Yuki Kamiya, gave us a tour of works from the museum’s permanent collection relating to the legacy of the 1946 atomic bombing. It was an intriguing array of work, including artists as diverse as Nobuyoshi Araki, Keith Haring, Masuo Ikeda, Henry Moore, Isamu Noguchi and Tomoko Yoneda. Noguchi, I learned, had designed the handrails on the Peace Bridges in Hiroshima, naming them Tsukuru (To Build) and Yuku (To Depart). The exhibition featured his proposal for the Hiroshima Peace Memorial; rejected on the grounds that he was of mixed Japanese and American parentage.
A four-hour bullet train ride later, and we were back in Tokyo. The mouth-watering array of food on offer in the basement of the city’s Isetan department store was my final destination before heading to catch my flight back to New York. Waiting in the departures area of Narita airport, I saw posters that read: ‘Thank you for visiting Japan. We promise that next time you visit, Japan will be more beautiful and resilient.’