The summer just gets hotter and hotter for visual-art fans in Japan. Following on the heels of Art Fair Tokyo, which attracted 43,000 visitors to Tokyo International Forum last weekend, the nation’s largest art event of all, the once-every-three-years Yokohama Triennale, opens Saturday.

Yoko Ono, Damien Hirst, Tadanori Yokoo and Hiroshi Sugimoto lead a star-studded, international lineup of 77 artists and artist units at the event, which will take place at multiple venues throughout Yokohama from Aug. 6 to Nov. 6.

The theme of this year’s triennale was chosen prior to the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, but it has taken on even greater significance since then: “Our Magic Hour: How Much of the World Can We Know?”

“These days there is so much knowledge that you can gain at the touch of a button, via the Internet, but the fact is that there are many things about this planet — about humans ourselves — that remain a mystery,” explains triennale director general Eriko Osaka, who is also director of the Yokohama Museum of Art.

“I consider it one of art’s roles to help people understand those things that are not black or white, but gray,” she adds.

Osaka says that many of the artists participating in the triennale, particularly those from abroad, were initially worried that it would be canceled in light of the quake and the ongoing Fukushima nuclear crisis. “But after being assured it would go ahead, they became even more enthusiastic. Many decided to make new works that would reflect the current circumstances,” she says.

One of those artists is Yoko Ono, the conceptual artist and widow of musician John Lennon.

Because the triennale begins on Aug. 6 — the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 — Ono initially intended to create an artwork linking Yokohama with Hiroshima.

“Ono decided instead to send a message to all of the people of Japan,” Osaka says. The new work involves a large labyrinth made of transparent partitions. At its center is a telephone that will ring occasionally. Those who answer will find themselves talking with Ono herself.

“The work mirrors the situation in Japan now,” Osaka says. “The Japanese people can see where they need to get to, but they don’t know how to get there.”

The telephone at the center symbolizes Ono’s belief that communication and reaching out to other people is what is needed most.

This year’s triennale represents a major turning point for the event — one that reflects a realignment in priorities for the nation’s two main public sponsors of culture: the Japan Foundation and the Agency for Cultural Affairs.

It was the Japan Foundation that acted as the key sponsor of the first Yokohama Triennale, back in 2000. Keen to hold a large-scale international art event — Japan’s answer to the Venice Biennale — the foundation cast around for regional cities willing to play the role of host.

An entity under the jurisdiction of the Foreign Ministry, the foundation had experience organizing shows as it had always managed Japan’s pavilions at biennales held overseas. But it had no venue.

Yokohama volunteered to provide the 10,000 sq. meters of space the foundation required, and thus the Yokohama Triennale was born.

Over the next decade, three triennales were held at convention centers and then converted ports and warehouses around the city’s waterfront district.

But then, in 2009, there was a change in government and a renewed focus on curtailing government spending. When the newly formed Government Revitalization Unit turned its attention to the Japan Foundation, it decided that that body should focus on promoting Japanese culture (and language study) abroad and that events held domestically, such as the triennale, should be sponsored by the Agency for Cultural Affairs (within the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology).

And so, last year the Japan Foundation pulled out of the triennale, Yokohama City announced it would become the main organizer and then the Agency for Cultural Affairs was given a ¥300 million boost to its 2011 annual budget for “international arts festivals support.” Some of that money found its way, as a grant, to the triennale.

Some of the changes resulting from this organizational shift will be apparent to casual visitors.

“The biggest change will be that the main venue will now be the Yokohama Museum of Art,” says Osaka, referring to the city-run facility that she directs in Yokohama’s Minatomirai district.

“In the past, the triennales were held in venues that weren’t designed for showing art — warehouses and ports. That meant you couldn’t show old masterpieces or paintings,” Osaka says.

This year, she says, she will “explore the relations between old art and new art by pairing work by contemporary artists with old works from the museum collection.”

As examples, Osaka mentions that 1,000-year-old Coptic Christian textiles will be shown alongside butterfly-wing collages made by British artist Damien Hirst. Together with the textiles, the collages, which resemble stained-glass windows, will make viewers think about religion and spirituality — one aspect of life that remains “gray,” or unknowable, in line with the triennale’s theme. Also, in a section titled “Mysterious Landscapes,” ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) will be shown with otherworldly photographs of urban landscapes by Korean artist Han Sungpil.

The other change to the triennale this year will be an increased focus on linking its multiple venues and other cultural sites operated by Yokohama City.

Set-tickets and a shuttle bus will be available for visitors going to the triennale’s two main venues — Yokohama Museum of Art and NYK Waterfront Warehouse (BankART Studio NYK) — and then also to venues holding related events, such as the Shinko Pier Exhibition Hall and other sites in the city’s Koganecho district.

Still, Osaka and also curator Akiko Miki, who Osaka charged with being the event’s artistic director, were keen not to make the triennale overly expansive.

“There is a tendency with events like this to think that bigger is better. We wanted visitors to be able to comfortably see everything in a single day,” Osaka says.

One of Japan’s best-known curators herself — having headed the curatorial departments at the Contemporary Art Center at Art Tower Mito and then the Mori Art Museum before going to Yokohama in 2009 — Osaka was also keen to avoid a common pitfall of events involving contemporary art.

“I’ve been told contemporary art is difficult to understand so many times,” she says. To circumvent that problem — which she blames on a lack of education about art appreciation at schools — she was keen to broaden the event’s appeal.

The inclusion of not just new but also old art was a part of that. So too are the links the event has with performing-arts venues such as Kanagawa Arts Theatre. There, photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto will produce a performance of kyogen (comic drama) featuring the well-known performers Nomura Mansaku and Nomura Mansai.

In the current computer age, Osaka says, everything is linked. “There are so many collaborations going on, like with Sugimoto and the kyogen performance. So reaching out to those genres makes sense.”

Perhaps the most accessible works at this year’s triennale will be those that refer to the tsunami and nuclear crisis, which remain foremost in the public’s mind.

Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, an artist of Vietnamese and Japanese heritage, is making a new work in which he is trying to emphasize the strength of links between people in Japan and overseas.

He and other volunteers ran through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City carrying GPS locators. Their movements were plotted on a map and the path they ran traced an image of a cherry tree branch. They did the same in Yokohama, too — only there they traced the shape of the blossoms themselves.

“The two maps have been joined to form a single image of a cherry blossom in full bloom. It will be a flower bridging nations,” says Osaka. And there will be many other works like it.

“The thing with contemporary art like this is that they are being made now, in response to the same environment in which we, the viewers, are living,” says Osaka. “Everyone is sure to find something they can relate to directly.”

Yokohama Triennale will take place Aug. 6-Nov. 6 at the Yokohama Museum of Art, the NYK Waterfront Warehouse (BankART Studio NYK) and surrounding areas. Set tickets are ¥1,800 for adults, ¥1,200 for university students and ¥700 for high school students. Younger children can enter for free. For details, visit yokohamatriennale.jp. See The Japan Times on Sunday, Aug. 7, for an in-depth Close-Up interview with designer-turned-artist Tadanori Yokoo.

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