Yokohama Triennale 2014: Remembering the forgotten

by Masami Ito

Staff Writer

Noise. Speed. Words. Images. We live in a digital era, constantly exposed to a massive stream of information, which we believe is vital to our daily lives.

Turn on the television and commentators warn us of the threats in the world. Turn on the computer, stream a news conference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in which he outlines what Japan needs to do to survive. Our phones aren’t used so much for calling as for staying logged in to the stream.

When was the last time you took a moment to block out all of the noise and think about the things that are truly important? What gets forgotten in the chaos of everyday life? Have you lost anything amid this whirlwind of information? These are the questions that this year’s Yokohama Triennale is attempting to address.

“Art Fahrenheit 451: Sailing into the sea of oblivion” wants to take visitors on a tour of the forgotten, to a place that will make them question what they think they know.

“In this day and age, there are so many things that have been forgotten, or remain hidden or unseen in our daily lives,” Yasumasa Morimura, artistic director of the exhibition, tells The Japan Times. “I wanted to create an opportunity for people to stop and contemplate.”

Held every three years, the Triennale is the nation’s largest art event. Opening today, the fifth installment will include 69 artists and groups from around the world, and will be held through Nov. 3 at several locations, including the Yokohama Museum of Art and Shinko Pier Exhibition Hall.

Upon entering the Yokohama Museum of Art, the main venue, the first thing attendees will see is Michael Landy’s “Art Bin.” The 7-meter-tall container dominates the room it’s in and everyone — from famous artists to art students — is encouraged to sign up and toss their unwanted works of art into the bin.

Hailing from London, Landy is known for a 2001 performance titled “Break Down,” in which he publicly destroyed all of his possessions. In all, more than 7,000 objects, including his family photos and car.

Morimura says he wanted to flip people’s sense of value by turning Landy’s massive trash can into the spotlight of the exhibition.

“Garbage is usually placed in a corner, viewed as something useless, worthless and completely forgotten,” Morimura explains. “But here, we wanted to shift people’s values to bring the trash can to the center as a symbol of this exhibition.”

The title of the exhibition was inspired by Ray Bradbury’s 1953 science-fiction novel “Fahrenheit 451,” set in a dystopian future in which books are illegal and the main duty of firefighters is to burn them. In Bradbury’s world, people are raised to obey authority and written literature is considered a threat because it makes people think.

“In ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ the government makes sure that its citizens don’t think, they all have the same mind-set and emotions so that they are easy to control. That is a reflection of a world that has forgotten things that are very important — and it’s exactly what this exhibition is all about,” Morimura says.

One of the most representative pieces of the novel is Spanish artist Dora Garcia’s “Fahrenheit 451 (1957),” in which she has piled around 2,000 copies of Bradbury’s book on a pallet. The catch is, they are all printed backward. Garcia, whose works are often interactive, invites visitors to pick up the books and see the mirror image of the science-fiction novel.

“I think Garcia published the books backward because ‘Fahrenheit 451′ depicts an anti-utopia and she is issuing a warning to ensure that society goes in the exact opposite direction,” Morimura says.

Another conceptual exhibit that takes the book theme into consideration is Michael Rakowitz’s “What Dust Will Rise?”

At first glance, his pieces appear to simply be stone sculptures that have been carved into the shapes of books. However, the pieces of stone Rakowitz used for his work were part of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, two gigantic statues of Buddha that were blown up by the Taliban in Afghanistan in March 2001. The stone has been carved into the likenesses of books that were destroyed during the bombing of the Fridericianum in Kassel, Germany, in 1941.

“Rakowitz recreated something that was destroyed by using material from another destroyed object, allowing you to get a glimpse of his perspective on things that have been lost,” Morimura explains.

Touring the Triennale itself is a bit like reading a book in that the sections of the exhibition are portrayed as chapters. The themes of oblivion and literature are examined from various angles, including with books that were published during World War II, the words of which were interpreted at the time as encouraging war. Making a statement on the forgotten in another chapter of the exhibition are canvases that look blank until you get a little closer to them. Morimura says these works are meant to convey the idea of “presence,” which, like air, is something that is always around us even if we can’t see it.

The late John Cage’s music score for “4’33″ ” represents the sound of silence. For this work in 1952, the American composer instructs performers not to play music for more than four minutes and 33 seconds.

“Silence is usually considered to have zero value as information because it leaves nothing, but yet, it exists,” Morimura says. “Sound exists because of vast silence. This is something that no one, not even Bach or Mozart, did.”

Morimura himself is an award-winning artist who takes photographic self-portraits, transforming himself into famous people such as Vincent van Gogh, Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein and Yukio Mishima.

The 63-year-old artist describes himself as being somewhere between a child and an adult, incorporating his childhood fantasies into current social issues for his works.

As the Triennale’s artistic director, Morimura chose the theme of “oblivion” to serve as a warning about the dangers of a society such as the one depicted in “Fahrenheit 451.” He also expressed a sense of crisis over the speed at which people discard information.

“We are constantly overwriting information and burying it into the forgotten,” Morimura says. “I hope that every person who comes to this exhibition will find the important things they have left behind or overlooked — because art is about discovery.”

Yokohama Triennale 2014 takes place from Aug. 1 to Nov. 3 at multiple venues including Yokohama Museum of Art in Minatomirai (10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; ¥1,800 for adults at the door, ¥1,200 for college students, and ¥800 for high school students). For more information, visit www.yokohamatriennale.jp.