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Together Alone: The Yokohama Triennale’s Everyday Oblivions

Across from the Yokohama Museum of Art is a picture-perfect neighbourhood where no one lives. Filled with stuccoed two-storey houses, faux Italian villas and sprawling bungalows, the block occupies the centre of the second largest city in Japan, but it is empty. A sign on the front gate announces the “Yokohama Home Collection,” advertising what is known as a “housing park”: a space used by real estate developers to showcase model homes to prospective buyers. In a country that still seems to be feeling the aftershocks of its early 1990s housing market crash—now seen by many as a preview of the devastating financial losses that would hit North America in 2008—these vacant, immaculate houses feel like a modern ghost town, a monument to the unattainable American (and now also internationalized) dream of suburban living.

These houses are also, quite accidentally, an ideal introduction to the themes that underpin this year’s Yokohama Triennale, an exhibition of more than 400 artworks that at times seems haunted by the failures of modernist utopian visions, and at others conjures unsettling predictions for the future. Curated by artist Yasumasa Morimura, this year marks the fifth edition of the triennial and brings together more than 65 artists under the theme “ART Fahrenheit 451: Sailing into the sea of oblivion.” The clunky title is a nod to Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451, which Morimura says inspired his selections for the show. Bradbury’s story is set in a dystopian future where firemen don’t put out fires, but set them, burning piles of books that have been found hidden away in a society in which they have been outlawed (451º F is the temperature at which paper auto-ignites). The novel has long been praised for its prescience, not just for the technological forms it predicted (versions of ATMs, cellphones and even a kind of Skype video-conferencing all make appearances), but for the cautionary tale it offers about censoring texts and the ideas they both record and convey.

If Bradbury’s novel is the basis for the exhibition, it is a fairly loose adaptation of the author’s themes, functioning mostly as an organizational framework for Morimura’s idiosyncratic choices. This is not a bad thing: in a world of increasingly flashy international art biennials, triennials and quadrennials that often bring together the same list of high-powered artists, the Yokohama Triennale has a distinctive curatorial voice, one that tends to wander into strange historical coincidences and micro-histories. Fittingly, the triennial’s presentation at one of its major venues, the Yokohama Museum of Art, is organized as a kind of “book,” divided into two introductions (physically separated by the museum’s twin staircases at its entrance, offering visitors two entry points into the show) and 11 thematic chapters. The chapters address various permutations of the idea of oblivion; sometimes these appear as literal acts of destruction, but more often as forms of disappearance, forgetting and entropy.

In the main lobby of the museum, for instance, British artist Michael Landy has re-staged his Art Bin (2010) project, an enormous transparent garbage bin in the centre of the museum where visitors are invited to “throw out” unwanted art projects. The work is an obvious play on competing systems of value, a tongue-in-cheek refusal to treat art as precious and a demonstration of the sheer volume of “bad art” that is created by both professional and amateur artists. But Art Bin also activates the cathartic glee that can accompany acts of destruction. On the opening day of the show, a group of schoolchildren marched up four flights of metal stairs to the top of the bin, tossing hand-painted wooden boxes into the enormous trash can, each one splintering into pieces at the bottom with a fantastically loud crash and roar of screams from the audience. (The press preview saw Morimura himself “cast” one of his unwanted art projects, a 10-foot-long scroll of paper, into the pile with a bit more restraint.)

Inside the museum, an opening chapter sets a quieter tone. Titled “Listening to Silence and Whispers,” the focus here is on legacies of withdrawal, restraint and destruction that have animated artistic practice since 1945. The score for John Cage’s famous composition of silence, 4’33” (1952), Agnes Martin’s exacting pencil drawings on paint, and Karmelo Bermejo’s tiny blank canvasses that are not canvasses at all, but constructed entirely out of layers and layers of white paint, each suggest a different mode of refusal: aesthetic actions that embrace the void rather than trying to fill it. If these works are characterized by a monastic asceticism, the chapter closes with some comedic relief, pairing a little-known series of black and white photographs by René Magritte, titled The Fidelity of Images (1925–55)—a companion piece to his famous painting of a pipe, subtitled with the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” whose official title is La Trahison des Images (1928–29), or “The Treachery of Images”—with Marcel Broodthaers’s Interview with a Cat (1970), an audio recording of the artist reciting “Ceci n’est pas une pipe/This is not a pipe” to his cat, who responds with a different, seemingly confused, meow after each statement. Set in a room staged to look like a séance, Broodthaers’s interview lends a mystical but also ridiculous quality to Magritte’s surrealist legacy.

Levity is also at play in a room of sculptural works, titled “Laboring in Solitude, Wrestling with the World,” a space so crowded with objects that it seems impossible to contemplate the idea of solitude, except in its most abstract sense. Suspended from the ceiling and spilling out along the floors, works by Michio Fukuoka, Enli Zhang and Takuma Nakahira create a visual and auditory cacophony that, quite literally, drowns out a pensive and quiet installation by Japanese artist Yuko Mohri. The Mohri work reconfigures a broken band organ (a combination of a drum and keyboard that can be operated by one player) into a device that generates a musical score based on particles of dust that are carried into the gallery by visitors. I/O ―Chamber of a musical composer (2014) is characteristic of Mohri’s playful but sensitive approach, functioning as a memorial to the artist’s friend, Victor C. Searle, the original owner of the organ. It is an attempt to make a silenced instrument continue to produce music, long after the natural life of both the object and its owner. In the next room, Simon Starling’s new work—a painstaking research project that recreates three costumes used in a 1916 play written by W.B. Yeats and inspired by traditional Japanese Noh theatre—also attempts to reanimate the past while providing a much-needed visual reprieve. Working from the sparse archival material that documents Yeats’s production, Starling has produced the costumes in the exact grayscale tones of the only remaining black and white photographs taken of the performers at the play’s premiere. In typical Starling fashion, the project embraces a careful attention to the minutiae of history, while also rejecting the delusion that it might be possible to faithfully recreate the past.

At the triennial’s second major location, the Shinko Pier Exhibition Hall, Morimura’s narrative takes on a more nostalgic but mischievous tone, focusing on film and video works that explore the creative possibilities of embracing oblivion. Melvin Moti’s film No Show (2004), for instance, recreates a tour of the empty State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg that was offered to Russian soldiers in the Second World War by a museum guide. As the guide recites the provenance and story of each masterpiece, the camera fixes on the darkened and bare walls of the museum, where the works had been removed for safekeeping during wartime. The tour Moti documents is an imagined one, conjured in the minds of the guide, the soldiers and now us, as the audience, out of the absence that confronts us.

In a masterfully curated hallway that closes the Shinko Pier portion of the exhibition, Morimura examines the comedic bathos that accompanies projects of failure, framing films by Bas Jan Ader, Jack Goldstein and Ana Mendieta with the weighty sculptures of Tadashi Tonoshiki. Standing in the liminal space of the decommissioned pier, one finds oneself waiting for Ader to fall from a tree branch, for Goldstein’s thumping first to force a pile of plates to topple off a tabletop, and for Mendieta’s human form to emerge from the landscape, all amid Tonoshiki’s craters of beach debris that have been forced into holes along the shores of Hiroshima and then burned, creating massive, umbrella-shaped markers of destruction. Though this kind of waiting can be torturous in other circumstances, here it takes on a meditative quality, providing the time and space to think about the generative potential of non-useful time, of boredom, waiting and suspension.

It is in these moments of contemplation that the central tension at the heart of the Yokohama Triennale is most clearly felt. Whether the works in the triennial take a mournful or romantic approach to the theme of oblivion, what remains unclear is how the artist—or the artist as curator, in the case of Morimura—is positioned in relation to its more forceful iterations: the obliteration of texts, artworks and ideas through censorship, iconoclasm and war. While Bradbury’s heroes in Fahrenheit 451 resist these forces by memorizing books, transforming texts into embodied performances to be passed down to subsequent generations (a project Canadian artist Eve K. Tremblay has re-performed for the camera), Morimura’s exhibition is more ambivalent. While some artists rage against the dissolution of memory, history and ideas, others seem to happily sail off into the sea.

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