A circus on the harbor

Yokohama Triennale show of the season


Following on its impressive inauguration in 2001, the second Yokohama International Triennale of Contemporary Art is finally here, albeit a year late, and I have to say it has turned out far better than I had anticipated.

There are 86 artists from 30 countries represented at the Triennale, but the person who has best shaped the exhibition’s atmosphere is probably artistic director Tadashi Kawamata. Better-known overseas than in his native Japan, Kawamata is an art university dropout-cum-urban interventionist extraordinaire whose bold outdoor wooden sculptural installations gave form to chaos and raised — nay, contorted — the bar for public art. The choices Kawamata made at Yokohama have resulted in a show that challenges people to see and celebrate everyday life from new and unexpected perspectives — reflecting the theme of the Triennale: “Art Circus (Jumping from the Ordinary).”

Last time round, the Triennale was housed mainly in the Pacifico Yokohama Exhibition Hall, a convention center with clean carpeting and pristine white walls (just last weekend it hosted the Japan Remodeling Show). This year, the Triennale is based in a couple of bay-side warehouses out on a pier just beyond a park: A far superior location, which lends the exhibition an edge, a grittiness that says, “The circus is in town.”

Risk and ambition are established immediately by French artist Luc Deleu’s precarious-looking shipping container installation “Speybank,” which stands at the entranceway and appears ready to tumble at any moment. From there one embarks on a tremendously long walk along the pier, a trek mitigated by the pretty red and white overhanging flags of another French artist, Daniel Buren. (These flags are associated with Buren’s “Cirque cie Etokan,” one of many performances at the Triennale — check the Web site for scheduling.)

As one finally arrives at the warehouses, the fun begins. I won’t attempt to detail the show, as there is so much to see here. Suffice to say that nobody will like everything, but everybody will like some things. The layout is easy to follow but not at all restrictive; one can either follow the arrows or wander as one likes. There are colossal pieces plopped down both inside and out on the pier, and there are more than a few little delights hidden away here and there. Truth be told, that “grittiness” of the warehouses could also be interpreted as “dank,” especially with all the rain we’ve had recently, but thankfully there are plenty of doors on all sides to let light and air in, so the overall feel of the interiors is actually quite pleasant. Plus one can slip out anytime to watch the busy harbor and gaze at the fabulous Bay Bridge. There are plenty of comfortable canvas chairs on the site.

Works that caught my interest included Chen Zhen’s “Purification Room,” a clay-impacted collection of household objects and the motorcycle from the Chinese artist, who passed away in 2000. One under-explored genre I very much enjoy is “odor art” (if there is such a term) — the olfactory sense being, it is said, our most nostalgic. And so I lingered a good long time at Michael Sailstorfer’s piece “Time is Not a Highway,” which comprises stacks of truck tires and a whirring machine spinning a heavy wheel, creating a richly aromatic coalescence of oil and rubber. Heavy duty.

One of the few white-cube gallery-like spaces here also ranks among my personal favorites — Tomoko Yoneda’s collection of decade-later Hanshin Earthquake photographs, showing not destroyed buildings, but the quietly empty spaces, often covered with grasses and weeds, where they once stood.

Among the videos here, I enjoyed the contributions from Moataz Nasr and Chie Matsui. And color me radical, but I absolutely loved the breakdancing-in-Tokyo-subway-cars piece by Shaun Gladwell.

I’ve never seen anything like the climb-up and gaze-down, opera and topography multimedia installation “Kagoshima Esperanto” by Tadatsu Takamine, impossible to describe but mysterious and engaging — my Best in Show for its total originality.

There are a number of “living art” installations here where one can kick back and have a chat and a beer or do craft work, and there are plenty of park-style amusements, like pingpong tables and a huge table soccer game — all good fun that I’m glad to see here, because why should visiting an art exhibition require finding a baby sitter?

Without question, this is the show of the season, possibly the show of the year, and is not to be missed by anyone with an interest in contemporary art — actually I’m convinced that even those who don’t much care for contemporary art will enjoy the Yokohama Triennale. There is a lot of walking involved, so wear comfortable shoes, and there is a lot to see, so allow yourself at least several hours.