A journey in Japan

Print edition : October 13, 2001

The Yokohama Triennale helps the viewer understand the role of the artist as the restorer of lost humanity and the overtly political nature of this process of restoration.

IT would seem surprising to many, but it is true. Japan entered the field of international art exhibitions only with the first Yokohama Triennale that opened on September 2 at the "Port of the Future" area, a walker's paradise with its interconnected malls, hotels and conference halls. In all, 109 artists from 38 countries are participating in it. They include two from India, Atul Dodiya and Anita Dubey.

The importance of the Triennale, which will continue until November 11, was underlined by its grand opening, attended by Prince Takamado and his wife, as well as a number of other dignitaries and 1,000 eminent guests. An art critic said: "Almost everyone who is anyone in Japan's artworld was there." That may be a correct assessment, but one must understand that the artworld has still a long way to go to catch up with the real world. And questions were recently raised in the Japanese Parliament about the wisdom of funding contemporary art.

A child plays Narcissus: an indoor installation by Kusama Yayoi.-SUNEET CHOPRA

The estimated cost of the Triennale was 600 million yen (Rs.23 crores), of which half was provided by four organisations: The Japan Foundation, Yokohama City, the NHK television company, and the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. Other corporates provided 100 million yen. As unemployment rose to 5 per cent and the economic growth shrank by 0.8 per cent during April-June this year, it would appear that Japan is putting up a brave front in financing this enterprise. It is evident also that the country is making tentative moves to free itself from the overwhelming influence of the crisis-ridden economy of the United States and to give itself an independent image. The Triennale is part of that process.

Its theme, "Mega Wave: Towards a New Synthesis", strengthens this impression. Its four organisers - Kohmoto Shinji (senior curator of the Kyoto Museum of Modern Art), Nobuo Nakamura (Director of the Centre for Contemporary Art, Kitakyushu), Fumio Nanjo (an independent curator who was a member of the International Selection Committee at the Sydney Biennale of 2000), and Akira Tatehata (Professor at Tama Art University - who organised, among others, an exhibition on "Private Mythology: Contemporary Art from India") declared: "The image of a great wave called up by the title 'Mega Wave' is not intended to suggest destruction of the past or negation of systematic development. This wave is envisioned as drawing in the accomplishments of all fields of human endeavour, mixing them together, and breaking down the boundaries that keep them apart." Indeed, the two core venues of the Triennale - the Pacifico Yokohama Exhibition Hall, which was recently built for conventions, and an old refurbished red-brick warehouse dating back to the turn of the 20th century - convey this idea very well. It is evident that Japan is no longer satisfied with restricting its history to the period of the U.S. occupation and after.

But if the past is not obscured by the future, it is also not to be allowed to overwhelm the future. The Directors state: "We wanted the overall atmosphere of the show to be chaotic rather than systematic, so the groups of artists selected by each of the four directors are not separated in the exhibition. Also, there is no predetermined order or sequence for viewing the exhibition as is often found in museums or galleries. Viewers may feel a little disoriented at first, but we expect that as they wander through the exhibition site they will enjoy the experience of unexpected encounters with exciting works of art that would not be possible while following a planned route. We hope that this maze-like structure of the exhibition will act as a dynamic metaphor of agitation and fusion leading to unexpected results."

This is an ambitious programme but it works, to a great extent. I, for example, started with the modern venue and gravitated to the works I understood instinctively, like Atul Dodiya's shop-shutters, which could be pulled up by the viewer to see the painted figure of Subhas Chandra Bose or that of Shravana Kumar blindly serving his parents; Dr. B.R. Ambedkar painted over a Krishna, both serving to integrate the lower castes into the framework of a new synthesis, whether it is the medieval Bhakti movement or the modern Indian Constitution; the disturbing painting, under a Mahalakshmi shutter, of three girls who hanged themselves so that their parents need not pay dowry; Gandhi imprisoned in a see-through shutter, a rubber-stamp that is equally used by those who have failed to follow him today and those who were behind his murder; and finally, death. And death too, on the streets. The artist told me that the idea of shutters came to him when he saw a shopkeeper hurriedly down shutters during the Mumbai riots after the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

In the same way, it is easy to identify oneself with Orimoto Tatsumi, one of Japan's more popular artists whose activities remind one of M.F. Husain. At Yokohama, I constantly came across his haunting photographic image of bread being tied over his face, reminding us that many of us are seen only as bread-winners even by those closest to us. In fact, he organised a march of young people with loaves of bread tied over their faces through the venue to make his point.

Or again, the work of Cuban artist Felix Gonzales-Torres who died in 1996. He used objects that people could relate to easily, such as watches, printed paper, light bulbs and other manufactured articles. People take away these objects and they continue to be replaced in his installations even after his death, as is the case with the sweet installation at Yokohama. His work represents accessible art that anyone can possess, in direct contrast to the highly priced works on sale in the art market today.

Chirping silver balls in Yokohama harbour: Narcissus installation by Kusama Yayoi.-SUNEET CHOPRA

Nor was one surprised unduly with the self-centred art of our age, as in the case of Kusama Yayoi's Narcissus installation, consisting of silver balls that chirped like crickets (if you cared to listen carefully enough) in a part of the harbour near a fair ground with a huge Ferris wheel. From there it was but an imperceptible step forward to Oki Ketsuki's installation, which used quasi-medical computer simulation exposing the brain to the viewer, or the Chinese artist Sun Yuan's pillar of excess fat that had been removed from people through liposuction. The artist told this correspondent that the fat was there to remind one that great projects may be named after those who commissioned them but it was the sweat of the common man that really built them. The whole spectrum, from self-gratification to showing the unseen, was there.

Still, the use of something from inside the human body as an art object seems to create a lot of squeamishness, although hair, and even heads and skulls, have long been used in art and decoration. In the same way, while people have no qualms about seeing Hindu mendicants hang objects from hooks pierced on their bodies, or the faithful in Islamic and Christian processions whip themselves or even get crucified, they are either horrified or explain it away as sado-masochism or "ritual" when artists use the human body simply to remind one that the body exists even in a situation when the mass of people are either "bread-winners" or marginalised persons. It is none of these, as is evident in the art of Australian artist Stelarc or his Chinese counterpart Zhang Huan. It is a part of performance art and these practices are purely formal elements in it as an extension of the principles of modernism to the body of the artist. Under conditions of technological exploitation, only a limb or two of a person count as the earning member of a family while the rest of the body becomes redundant. Artists such as Stelarc and Zhang Huan subject their bodies to defacement and rigours to remind us that we are still there in totality and to incite us to assert ourselves. There is nothing to be squeamish about in that.

This perception allows one to approach the processes of genetic mutation without being afraid of them and to understand them through the work of the Brazilian artist Eduardo Kac. At Yokohama, he has a petri dish of a virus, created by translating the biblical dictum, "Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth" into the Morse code first and then into the language of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). This is decoded into language again according to the transformations the virus undergoes. This may look like a game, but through a revision of the biblical saying one is urged to understand one's responsibility more seriously, considering the changes taking place in the world today.

It does, however, call for an extension of the human body into the discourse of art, to challenge its limitations and hallucinations, as Italian artist Mauricio Catellan does with his miniaturised elevators that are real but of no use, or as Canadian Joelle Ciona does by creating three interconnected spaces: a studio space with peepholes that introduces you to a private space adorned with chewed-paper sculpture which, when you enter it, overlooks a building site. Ciona's installation reminds one that contemporary art is a public statement of a private perception that is deeply rooted in the ongoing processes of daily life, but that the parcelling out of different spheres of our existence into different pigeon-holes has broken the links between these. She restores the links to the viewer as he or she goes through her installation.

It is this role of the artist as the restorer of our lost humanity and the overtly political nature of this process that we come to appreciate them. One is not surprised to come to this understanding in Yokohama, for it is precisely over the question of the political nature of art that the Japanese artist Okakura Kakuzo differed from his U.S. mentor Ernest Fennolosa. It also reminds one that though contemporary art deals with universal truths, the way we deal with them in different places reflects the circumstances in which we wake up to them.

Orimoto Tatsumi's "Bread Man" performance at the Triennale venue.-SUNEET CHOPRA

This is evident from three video films one could just pass over; but at the end of this journey, the films seem more important than most others. There is Vietnamese artist Jun Nguyen-Hatsushita's Memorial Project Nha Trang, Vietnam "Towards the Complex-For the Courageous, the Curious and the Cowards". It shows rickshawpullers pedalling rickshaws under the sea, rising up periodically to take a breath of fresh air. Can one not see in them the plight of the vast mass of humanity that is condemned to being marginalised on the "level playing field" of finance capital? How indeed does a man selling brute labour power compete with those using all that technology has to offer? The image of rickshawpullers pedalling under the sea to make some kind of a living shows both their determination and helplessness - an image that is perhaps the most representative one of capitalist society.

There is the Polish artist Krysztof Wodiczko's "Tijuana Projection" showing how people, the only commodity not allowed to move freely in a liberalised world, are degraded and oppressed when they are forced to migrate from areas of surplus labour to those of surplus capital (in this case from Mexico to the U.S.) by the force of an economic law that is twisted by capital to squeeze the maximum out of the working class while preaching free trade to them.

The answer is forcefully given in the Swedish artist Mats Hjelm's mix of the documentaries taken by his father and himself, which reminds us that many of the things the media with their own type of virtual reality have declared obsolete are still very relevant. One realises the relevance of Stokeley Carmichael's speech on how the violent preach non-violence to those they oppress and how one has to understand that violence is and can be used to end oppression just as it can be used to oppress; and of the confessions of U.S. airmen captured in Vietnam. I found this reawakening timely, especially as it was set in scenes of everyday life. And the last thing I saw in my hotel room in Tokyo was television images of the World Trade Centre towers in New York collapsing and the Pentagon burning. And I realised how the expression of art in the exhibition hall rang true in the reality of the world as well. Indeed, the television images reminded one that truth is stranger than fiction.

Other strange truths were reflected in two works. One is the Austrian artist Franz West's collaborative sculpture with an Italian artist, Ettor Spoletti, outside the Intercontinental Hotel. It was a red Isamu Noguchi circle surrounding a white Pentagon, reflecting the curious relationship of Japan with the U.S. with all its tensions intact. The other is Yoko Ono's German railway coach, with bullet holes and a beam of light disappearing into the sky on top, called "Love and Peace". Both seem to indicate that suppression is unnatural and has to end, however complex the process by which that happens. And it did breed a sort of hope in one.

Still, not everything was hunky-dory. The individual vision of an artist often conflicts with institutional necessities. For example, Anita Dubey was not allowed to bring dust from India for her installation, Qai Guo-Qiang was unable to present his fireworks display because of the rules governing safety and Katya Guerrero could not block the roads with old cars in her performance. In such situations the artist may modify the perspective, as Dubey and Guerrero did. Others may opt out. That is the artist's prerogative. But the fact that the vast majority were able to create works of quality reflects on the wisdom of the four curators of the exhibition and their capacity to generate participation. And that, no doubt, will help give the Yokohama Triennale a lasting character among international exhibitions of contemporary art.

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