Art with some things to say

Yokohama Triennale works reflect the horror and hope

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When the Yokohama Triennale opened a couple of weeks ago, several people asked which of the pieces I particularly liked. When pressed, from the works of more than 100 artists on show, I singled out Yoko Ono’s “Freight Train” and Casagrande & Rintala’s “Bird Cage,” two large outdoor installations located in bayside parkland behind the Red Brick Warehouse No. 1.

Yoko Ono’s “Freight Train,” a 1940s German freight car

When I made my second visit to the Triennale, I almost missed the last Tokyo train when I lost track of time, transfixed for hours by the spectacle of defiant light that is “Freight Train” by night.

Then last week it happened, and my attention was torn from Japan’s biggest international art exhibition by the horror in America. It is only now it occurs to me how relevant “Freight Train” and “Bird Cage” are to the world we have been plunged into.

First shown in Berlin last year, Ono’s “Freight Train” is a real 1940s German freight car that was raked by heavy machine-gun fire under her direction. A powerful source inside the car shoots white light out through the hundreds of bullet holes, and a searchlight throws a beacon to the heavens through a vent in the roof. Meanwhile, a clanging dirge of a soundtrack crashes out from the innards of the dark blue car.

Ono described her 1999 piece as “a work of atonement for the injustice and pain we’ve experienced in this [20th] century, expressing resistance, healing and hope.” Though she says it is based on a 1987 tragedy in which 18 Mexicans in a sealed freight car died en route to the United States, it is for many a reference to the Holocaust.

This might be troubling, coming from an artist whose native country is repeatedly accused of hiding or denying its wartime atrocities. But it can also be argued that Ono is no longer a Japanese but a New York artist, and this is the side I weigh in on. Controversial, riveting, unsettling, “Freight Train” testifies to man’s inhumanity to man; it is the most powerful piece Ono has given us in her 40 years of artistic activity.

But we don’t need to be reminded about inhumanity, not this week. Maybe we need a message of hope, of peace. And that’s just what “Bird Cage” is about.

Every day for the next 10 weeks, a helium balloon will escape from a hole in the top of the 5-meter-high hemp “Bird Cage.” Trailing a 60-cm-wingspan balsa bird, this will rise 10 km before the thin air causes it to burst, freeing the bird to glide earthward.

“Bird Cage” was realized by Casagrande & Rintala, an ambitious and artistic Helsinki architectural company that has in recent years raised barns on stilts (before burning them), suspended a 400-kg iron beam between buildings at the Havana Biennale, and planted thousands of white surrender flags on deforested land in their native Finland.

Antti Antinoja, one of the “Bird Cage” project artists, speculates that the jet stream may carry the birds far from Yokohama, where, hopefully, someone will find both them and the “positive message” in the belly of each. The message also asks finders to e-mail Casagrande & Rintala so the touchdown point can be recorded. “If just five people find the message,” says Antinoja, “if even one person finds the message, we would be very happy.”

Sometimes a little hope can go a long way.