“The beginning of an acquaintance,” wrote George Eliot in Daniel Deronda, “is to get a definite outline for our ignorance.” This is especially true of places: a visitor’s excitement can generate more misinformation than never having been at all. Japan—known for its hermetic, 250-year Edo period in which contact with the West was highly restricted, and equally known for its quick, subsequent dance with Western capitalism and industrialization—is especially prone to such things. It continues to present itself through the paradigm of trade, while zealously retaining its rich, coded mores and culture. In a kind of lost-in-translation exactly opposite to Sophia Coppola’s film, contemporary Japan can give tourists the mistaken impression that it, strange yet inviting, might be held in the palm of their hand.
On March 11, 2011, an earthquake and tsunami devastated the Tohoku region in northeastern Japan, causing significant reactor leakage at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Reported on worldwide, and now called “3.11” throughout Japan, the incident and its aftermath continue to colour a foreigner’s visit. I went to Japan last October as part of a press junket organized by the Japan Foundation to tour regional art sites. About a dozen journalists, including myself, expressed inevitable curiosity about how the Japanese were responding to ongoing reports of devastation and contamination at Fukushima. Various tour guides, translators, curators and artists seemed ready for our questions, but offered only fleeting thoughts. None were definitive.
Our questions did not emerge from (mere) gawping-traveller curiosity. Two of the biggest events we visited, the Aichi Triennale and the Mori Art Museum’s triennial, prompted them, for both claimed to be about Fukushima, and more loosely about disaster, reconstruction and recovery. Such themes are common in contemporary art, but there seemed a curious ambition here. I thought of Hiroshima’s Sadako Sasaki, who when ill with leukemia from radiation exposure following the 1945 American bombing of her city, folded paper cranes to effect her, and her country’s, remission. (After her death, Sasaki’s efforts were taken up by others and memorialized in Hiroshima’s Children’s Peace Monument in the city’s Peace Park, ongoing to this day.) I also thought of recent news of the Japanese government’s plan to build a 1.4-kilometre underground ice wall around Fukushima in an attempt, some said, to sweeten Tokyo’s bid for the 2020 Olympics. Our first visit in Tokyo was to the Museum of Contemporary Art’s “Crystallize” exhibition by Tokujin Yoshioka, whose large glass and crystal constructions seemed to fulfill my outlandish imagining of that Fukushima proposal: contamination suppressed with a structure of exquisite coldness, one that, in its fantastical design, recalled a sculpture or installation.
Were these triennial promises particularly Japanese? It’s not for me to say, but it’s worth noting that the contemporary-art industry is robust in Japan, supported by both private and public interests. The Aichi Triennale Organizing Committee is part of the Aichi Prefectural Government, and therefore public; much more than “Out of Doubt,” the event emanated aesthetic optimism. Our tour guides spoke briefly of dissenting, right-wing, waste-of-taxpayers’-money critiques, ones we were all, lamentably and to varying degrees, familiar with in our home countries. There seemed a better query: Was the Aichi Triennale like that Fukushima ice wall? Was it using spectacle to make promises of healing and reparation? Was it conflating seeing and believing? At any rate, the Aichi Triennale seemed sidled with a burden: to demonstrate that art can somehow participate in change, and/or act as therapy for a traumatized citizenry.
The specific title of the Aichi Triennale was the fulsome “Awakening – Where Are We Standing? – Earth, Memory and Resurrection.” In an opening statement in the event’s guidebook, artistic director Igarashi Taro writes, “I thought that, ‘If we are doing an urban type international exhibition at the timing of two years following 3.11, the theme of the Great East Japan Earthquake is unavoidable’…‘Awakening’ does not intend to make the whole festival a ‘Triennale Tribute to the Earthquake.’…The English title ‘Awakening’ has the meaning that ‘things that have not been noticed will newly become aware to people.’” The prologue is careful, but elsewhere in the guide one sees the kind of self-aggrandizement this curatorial mandate engenders, such as Japanese architect Aoki Jun’s interview with Chilean artist/architect/filmmaker Alfredo Jaar. Says Aoki: “Within the essentially swinging world, what kinds of stability can we find?…I think that this is the theme of the Triennale 2013, and it is the role that art and architecture is supposed to play in the first place.” Says Jaar: “Every enquiry and answer that society seeks can be found only in the free cultural domain. It is admirable that such a cultural domain is still left, such as the Aichi Triennale 2013, in which artists and architects are allowed to imagine a better world and ask questions of society.” A “swinging world” in search of “stability”; roles art and architecture are “supposed to play”; a triennale that “allow[s]” an “admirable” and “free” “cultural domain” in which we look for a “better world”: this critic’s eyebrow was emphatically raised.
Architecture, as Israeli journalist Galia Yahav reminded me as we bussed from venue to venue, was key to understanding all of this. Igarashi has a PhD in engineering and is a professor of architecture at Tohoku University, and his expertise appeared to push on that last concept of his title, “resurrection.” Indeed, despite contemporary architecture’s frequent insistence on conceptualizing rather than actualizing, Igarashi, as well as Aoki and the other architects he had enlisted, seemed modernist in their attachment to planning, building, retrofitting and transforming. Often in the Aichi Triennale, the very act of conceptualizing was equated with transformation, with few reservations about the act. A signature piece was architect Miyamoto Katsuhiro’s 1:1, coloured-tape plan of the Fukushima reactor on the floors, walls and ceilings of the Aichi Arts Center in Nagoya, headquarters of the event. Another Miyamoto maquette there placed irimoya- and hoygo-style roofing, typical of Shinto and Buddhist shrines, over the nuclear plant. Obviously the maquette urged for past and tradition to be implemented in Japanese strategies for Fukushima, illustrating a melancholy gulf/link between history and the present. The coloured tape suggested, in an ambitious metaphor, that the large size of the reactor could literally be swallowed and digested by the even larger Aichi Arts Center: culture trumps calamity. Neither work acknowledged futility, impossibility or irony. Both seemed striving.
In a relieving antidote, artist Yanobe Kenji qualified the Aichi Triennale’s ambition with self-awareness. “I think that I will have to present something which is almost embarrassingly positive,” he says in the guide about his sprawling work Wedding of the Sun. Yanobe is no stranger to art in response to nuclear disaster. For a performance project in the late 1990s, he went to Chernobyl dressed in an “Atom Suit”; in October 2011, his Sun Child appeared in the Expo Commemoration Park in Suita, Japan, months after 3.11. Sun Child—a large sculpture of a similarly suited Gavroche—reappeared at the Aichi Triennale as, essentially, a mascot, a key element of his sprawling Wedding of the Sun installation. Yanobe’s piece evokes the “embarrassingly positive,” but also makes awkward contemporary Japan’s aggressive culture of escapism and mollification as embodied in kawaii and anime aesthetics. Yanobe himself calls his Sun Child bittersweet, at once a kind of David-triumphing-over-Goliath and a false god of the nuclear. For Wedding of the Sun, Yanobe constructed a chapel and its accoutrements in the Aichi Arts Center and held weddings there, in what can only be read as an ultra-kitschy response to Igarashi’s interest in “awakening” and “resurrection.” The piece had particular resonance in Aichi, a prefecture recognized throughout Japan for its lavish weddings. (When our junket arrived in Nagoya, a wedding was taking place in the lobby of our hotel as if on cue; in the Aichi Arts Center, Wolfgang Puck’s café had a display table advertising elaborate wedding cakes.) And so Yanobe, who has, like Tokujin Yoshioka, collaborated with fashion designer Issey Miyake (that collaboration, an anthropomorphized dressing room called Queen Mamma, was included in Wedding of the Sun), created a meditation on Japanese industry, of which nuclear energy is only one part.
The faltering Japanese economy (due to, among other things, a declining birthrate, which the Globe and Mail recently called the “demographics of doom”) was indeed an inescapable aspect of the event, although never, to my recollection, explicitly referred to by curators. The cities we visited, including Nagoya—destroyed during World War II and rebuilt in an American grid conducive to chain stores—were bustling, but most of the Aichi Triennale’s site-specific works forced us to look intently at effects of national and global recession. We visited the Toyo Logistics Building, originally designed as a bowling alley (while there, the triennale’s affable community designer Hiroko Kikuchi showed me a fascinating old photo album of the building’s previous lives). The site worked very well as a space in which one could get lost. Even Nawa Kohei’s showy Cloud Landscape—its mountains of foam on the Toyo Logistics Building’s third floor reminding me of a rave, and tailor-made for selfies—retained mystery, its emerging shapes an eerie, chthonic response to “Awakening.” Mari Katayama’s piece at Toyo Logistics was also of note. Mari had her legs amputated when she was nine, and for the Aichi Triennale created an installation that purported to replicate her living space: a glitter-covered grotto filled with porny selfies, drawings, and childhood prosthetics. Her hideaway resembled a fallout shelter but also a materialized blog, suggesting the prolific, stylized niches of self-fashioning endemic to the millennial economy.
There were also installations at retail spaces, the latter of which, in their indeterminate, decadent states, were often as captivating as the art. In Nagoya, the Fushimi Underground Shopping Street in the Choja-machi area had an adhesive work by Taiwanese architecture collective Open United Studio, acting in counterpoint to Miyamoto’s Fukushima plans at the Aichi Arts Center, with to-scale blueprints becoming 3-D depending on where you stood, and, according to Open United Studio’s catalogue entry, “[evoking] memories of cities”—and so implying that the architect can help us focus on what is lost or never can be. (The over-thirty-years-old “Underground Shopping Street” had certainly seen better days.) The following morning we visited two of the triennale’s sites in Okazaki, just south of Toyota, home to the still-thriving car manufacturer. Among these was Okazaki CIBICO, a multilevel shopping centre with bottom floors full of 100-yen stores and vacant top floors, which, for the time being, accommodated some of the Triennale’s biggest projects. Tomoko Mukaiyama and Jean Kalman’s FALLING took up a large portion of one floor, akin to Kohei’s Cloud Landscape in spectacle—a truly cinematic, postapocalyptic space in which thousands of newspapers, stacked and crumpled, were moved by fans, amid broken pianos and floodlights which, in timed intervals, flashed brightly as if a murderous convoy were approaching. An additional element, however, for which viewers were asked to sit inside a movie theatre–like structure to watch the installation, seemed didactic and coyly metacritical. Japanese architecture collective studio velocity painted the roof of the CIBICO centre white, suspending above it a false, barely-perceptible ceiling grid of white thread. The project—pure design to the point of resembling a display at a trade show, or a Nuit Blanche piece—seemed to emblematize the general pitfalls of Igarashi’s triennale, where optimism was as obfuscating as it was constructive.
As if in direct contrast, the Mori Art Museum’s triennial in Tokyo, running to January 13, is called “Out of Doubt.” The title is short where Aichi’s is long; “Out of Doubt” suggests not only skepticism but, with “out of,” an equal acceptance of resurrection, albeit as a result of that nominal destabilizing act. As an institution and building, the Mori Art Museum is itself in stark contrast to Aichi. Founded by real-estate developer Minoru Mori, it is private, sitting on the top floors of Tokyo’s fifth-largest tower, which houses mixed-use offices, and whose edifice was purportedly designed to resemble a samurai’s armor. Before one enters the museum, there is a 53rd-floor observation deck, with a stunning panoramic view of Tokyo. The museum and its building, the centrepiece of the city’s revitalized Roppongi Hills area, has the feeling of a fortress.
Yet within that fortress, in “Out of Doubt,” important unravellings take place. In a nuanced, finely historicized essay in the exhibition’s catalogue, Mori chief curator Mami Kataoka explains that “since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the confrontational relationship not only between Japan and the US after the war, but also between the cities and the provinces, the center and the periphery, prosperity and exploitation, and economic efficiency and risk has become clearer.” Disaster is not discrete, then, and can uncover underlying, implicit ruin—that which precipitates. The clarity of trauma, in the vein of Freudian psychoanalysis, is often not one of resolution, of ways towards change, but an excavation in which deeper, more troubling topographical details emerge. It is perhaps for this reason that Kataoka enlisted two non-Japanese curators, Reuben Keehan and Gabriel Ritter, to curate “Out of Doubt.” In this way, “Out of Doubt” welcomes outsiders not, like the Aichi Triennale, with a sense of vehemence tinged with trepidation, but with curiosity, what Kataoka calls a “pure spirit of inquiry.”
And so the many pre-Fukushima works in “Out of Doubt” still speak directly to the exhibition’s interests. In the first room, Japanese Neo-Dadaist illustrator Akasegawa Genpei’s satirical drawings of 1970s political and cultural figures are shown alongside massive new woodblock prints from Kazama Sachiko, some Fukushima-themed but all influenced by the sosaku-hanga printmaking movement of Modernist Japan and by German Expressionism. Adjacent are the incredible 1950s and 1960s paintings by Nakamura Hiroshi, surrealist works that hold onto figuration as a mode of high aestheticism and purposeful dissent—against, among other things, the post-WWII American occupation, and, perhaps, that occupying country’s then-reputation as a hotbed of abstraction. The curatorial intent with these archival works is not a through line so much as a bedrock of analysis. Next rooms feature video work by Niwa Yoshinori (who was also included in the Aichi Triennale) and Koizumi Meiro that are Godard-like in their illustrations of the failures of both radical leftism and conservatism. In Koizumi’s piece, balaclava-disguised Japanese voice rarely articulated desires, often violent and sexual (or both), in a critique of their country’s tenacious obsession with propriety. In Niwa’s, the wobbly, unlikely presence of communism in Japan and, now, around the world is lampooned through a series of Just for Laughs–style pranks involving evocations of Karl Marx.
Yanagi Yukinori’s World Flag Ant Farm, an art-world staple since the early 1990s in which ants make a home in a plastic grid of coloured-sand international flags in a commentary on migration and geopolitical networking, was a cue to Kataoka’s interest in the increasing “historicization of contemporary art curating itself.” A widely curated, political work of contemporary art changes meanings over time: Can it be constructive by, rather than marking progress, reminding us of stasis and devolution? Simon Fujiwara’s series of big rocks throughout the exhibition touches on similar paradoxes. Rocks are important in Japanese culture as Shinto containers of spirits. On one work, Fujiwara applies the primitive hand stencils of Spain’s Cueva de las Manos; for another, he fashions a plastic deck chair out of stone. The gestures are full of binaries: nostalgia vs. cynicism, meaninglessness vs. openness. It’s the fulcrum on which “Out of Doubt” sits—doubt falling somewhere between idealism and nihilism.
Musicians Endo Michiro and Otomo Yoshihide, along with poet Wago Ryoichi, led Project FUKUSHIMA!, which appears in both “Out of Doubt” and the Aichi Triennale. Project FUKUSHIMA! originated in August 2011 as an outdoor music festival held in Fukushima’s Shiki no Sato park on a 6,000-square-metre area thought to have been contaminated by radiation, and covered for the festival by a furoshiki or patchwork quilt of donated cloth from across Japan. The event attracted 13,000 attendees, and another 250,000 viewers online. At Aichi, a version of the orchestra that played the festival was reassembled, live; at “Out of Doubt,” the festival is recreated as an installation, the colourful furoshiki covering a large area of ground, with a video recording of the concert playing above it. One is archival and the other ephemeral and reinterpretive, but there is, in these and the original event (which transpired online and in-real-life), a sombre sense of remove. Disaster itself is elusive—what made it happen usually being our foremost and often frustrated question, and its effects, including its capacity to absorb and deflect empathy, becoming equally vague. In a metaphor both hopeful and dark, the more we touch disaster, the more, it seems, it wants to fall apart.