On the opening night of Parasophia, Kyoto’s first large-scale international exhibition of contemporary art, crowds gathered around a truck-trailer in the car park beside the 17th-century Shogun’s castle. The sides of the container opened up like an origami flower to reveal a colourful spray-painted stage, decked out with a disco ball and a metal pole. Two scantily clad dancers in feathered skirts executed acrobatic pole dances – the first of several performances to take place in Miwa Yinagi’s Stage Trailer Project (2015). There was something exotic but also slightly seedy about this burlesque opening-night show in the midst of a city known for its ancient traditions.
Parasophia sets itself apart from previous Japanese biennials and triennials not only because it is the country’s most ambitious arts festival to date, but also because it was initiated by a private individual – a Kyoto businessman who visited the Venice Biennale and dreamed of hosting something similar in his hometown. Together with other residents, he got the local and then national governments to support his vision. The artistic director for this first edition of Parasophia is Shinji Kohmoto, who was the highly respected Chief Curator of The National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto for 30 years. Kohmoto admits that his style of curating is not ‘hip’ or ‘in fashion’, and that he was not interested in shaping Parasophia in the mould of other global art exhibitions. Nevertheless, Parasophia bears many of the familiar fixtures of the biennial circuit: from the spectacular Cai Guo-Qiang installation placed centre-stage, to an outdoor sound piece by Susan Philipsz and the site-specific works installed in disused social housing and a former elementary school.
But the exhibition distinguishes itself by not having a complicated, overwrought theme (or any theme at all). The coherence of the show rests in the well-paced, spacious, almost conservative installation, in which each piece has a clear formal or conceptual link to the preceding one, and in between which loose themes gather and dissipate slowly throughout the course of the exhibition.
Early on in the main venue, the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art, the strongest thread to emerge is artists’ reconstruction of history using documentary techniques: in Stan Douglas’s cinematic reinvention of a 1970s studio jam session (Luanda-Kinshasa, 2013) and in Ragnar Kjartansson’s documentation of one three-minute song, ‘Sorrow’, performed by the band The National (A Lot of Sorrow, 2013–14). What starts out as a music video filmed from multiple angles morphs into a test of endurance for both band and audience – an original moment that slowly drains of inspiration. Both Douglas’s and Kjartansson’s artistically stage-managed musical performances re-create history for the sake of documenting them cinematically, but not in the service of a complete or larger narrative. Repetition ad absurdum is also the theme of Leaves Fall in All Seasons (2013) by Saudi-Arabian doctor and artist Ahmed Mater. The piece is a compilation of pixelated mobile-phone videos taken by immigrant construction workers of buildings being demolished in and around Mecca. The giant structures being dynamited allude to a disregard for history and the failures of modernization, but also inevitably to acts of war terrorism. The structures collapse one after another, like a bad comedic trope that becomes violent and tragic over time.
Among the most poignant staged events were Koki Tanaka’s Provisional Studies Workshops (2015), manifested on several screens and in sculptural traces from a series of collective actions that the artist organized before the show opened. Tanaka’s workshops were inspired by his research into the room’s former uses: as a recreation area for American soldiers when the museum was used as a barracks by the US Army after World War II and, later, as the site of Christo’s installation Wrapped Floor (1970). In the communal spirit of his work, Tanaka collaborated with groups of high-school students to re-stage Christo’s piece, but also to hold discussion groups about the role of US military in Japan – a subtle but salient approach to discussing the country’s changing military future. What stands out is Tanaka’s professional filming of these ephemeral acts. The camera crew is a sometimes intrusive presence that cuts through the earnest discussions – as when one student brings up the rape of female soldiers and the camera rolls through the shot. This piece is a continuation of Tanaka’s ‘Precarious Tasks’ series (2012–ongoing), which has examined (and questioned) the possibility for collective action after the events of 3/11. Through a canny combination of performance, sculpture, discourse, film and installation, Tanaka instigates forms of protest at the subtlest level. Provisional Studies Workshops, like this impressive and restrained exhibition as a whole, opted to point to the political issues facing Japan, rather than make a definitive statement or stage outright activism. Which form of action Japan needs most is still the underlying question.