Ideas of alchemy, ritual, tricks, mysticism, shamanism, animism, trance and apparitions ran throughout ‘Our Magic Hour: How Much of the World Can We Know?’, curated by Yokohama Triennale artistic director Akiko Miki. A league of Ugo Rondinone’s quasi-totemic sculptures, moonrise.east.march (2005–11), one for each month of the year, guarded the entrance to the Yokohama Museum of Art, one of the main venues for the Triennale, along with the NYK Waterfront Warehouse (BankART Studio NYK) and Yokohama Creativecity Center. Upstairs, Damien Hirst’s butterfly-wing paintings, reminiscent of stained-glass windows (‘The Tree of Knowledge’, 2008) were hung alongside a monumental, automated pipe organ made of scaffolding by Massimo Bartolini (Organi, Organs, 2008). Suggestions of worship were continually made by many of the works and their arrangements, but I could never ascertain what, exactly, was being worshipped.
Faddish occultism and contrived eeriness aside, there were many good works included in this Triennale and their presentation often managed to be both straightforward and thoughtful. In a dimly lit space dedicated to circles, spheres and cycles, Isamu Noguchi’s serenely powerful sculpture Sun at Midnight (1980) looked on to celestial pictures by Kazuna Taguchi, a young artist who makes oil paintings of images she has assembled from found photographs, before photographing the paintings and then retouching the photographic prints with paint. Also in this standout cluster of works was a selection of Lyota Yagi’s shrewd analogue sound sculptures, including his entropic experiments with vinyl records and his recent ‘Sound Spheres’ (2011) – revolving balls of cassette tape emitting audio through modified tape players in a way that renders linear time circular.
The running motif of temporality facilitated the seemingly compulsory inclusion of Christian Marclay’s ubiquitous 24-hour film amalgamation The Clock (2010). Ideas of chronology and continuation were also continued in a special exhibition by Hiroshi Sugimoto, which included several of his black and white photographs alongside meteorites and Japanese antiquities. As part of the Triennale’s public programme, the photographer (and antique-dealer, who is now turning his hand to sculpture, architecture and the traditional performing arts of Japan) also directed a Bunraku production and designed the set for a Noh performance.
The Triennale had a welcome emphasis on young local artists and art communities, which seems to be the result of both budget limitations and the directors’ conviction that large-scale international exhibitions have a duty to engage with their local contexts. Since 2003, Yokohama has been overtly branding itself through its ‘Creative City Yokohama’ scheme. As per the last edition of the Triennale, this year included a series of exhibitions and events at Koganecho, the city’s former black market and red light district, which has been converted into a cluster of galleries, studios, performance venues and artist residency spaces. Art as part of bureaucratic agendas for ‘revitalizing’ disreputable, aging or peripheral communities is a popular trend across this archipelago, but the problem with such initiatives is that local governments generally don’t make great curators. Offering disused city spaces to artists is one thing; it’s when art is treated as a means to an end that problems (such as mediocre works) arise. But that’s not to say the converted brothels of Koganecho had nothing to offer: highlights included Kato Tsubasa’s ‘pulling down works’, video documentation of all of the artist’s works from the past decade, and a video installation by Yuichiro Tamura that deftly reversed the spectatorship of cinema (NIGHTLESS -1, 2011).
The calamitous earthquake of 11 March struck just minutes before the Yokohama Triennale’s press launch was about to take place. The opening was subsequently postponed for five months, and during this time some of the participating artists changed their original plans in order to make works that responded to the ensuing natural and man-made disasters. One of these was Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s Breathing is Free 12,756.3: JAPAN Hopes & Recovery, 1,789km (2011), a project completed by the Vietnamese-Japanese artist and 173 volunteer runners hooked up to GPS devices in Ho Chi Minh City and around Fukushima, their long jogging trajectories tracing the outlines of sakura flowers and other shapes as symbolic offerings of hope and rejuvenation.