Sunday, September 24, 2017

Artful Adventures: Yokohama Triennale

If you read back far enough, you will learn a dirty, nasty truth about me.  Since I'm creeping up on 500 posts, I'll save you the time and energy that would go into learning what it is and just confess: I have not always been a very good art teacher, at least not when it comes to going out and being a part of the local art scene.  I'm going to blame this on the fact that until I moved to Mongolia, I didn't really have to - I don't teach anklebiters much about contemporary art.  Once I was teaching high school, I had at least some regrets that UB's galleries and museums didn't have better resources...or at least let you know about their openings more than a few days in advance.  So I was determined, when I did get offered a job in Japan, that I was going to exploit every single opportunity that I had, for my students as well as myself.
Although it has been almost a month since I've mentioned art, I haven't actually been slacking.  I'm almost a third of the way through with the first course of my master's.  It's a painting course, and I do my work and then post it in our blog-style forum.  To that end, I've had to buy art supplies about once a week, as well as finding my inspiration...I just haven't actually written yet about any of the art I've seen.  But this weekend I decided the time had finally come for me to visit the Yokohama Triennale (not least of all because I'm planning on leading a field trip there in two weeks).

Two years ago I wrote about the spectacle that is the Venice Biennale.  When I started reading up on Yokohama and found out that it has its own art exhibition every three years, I rubbed my hands in glee...but also held reservations that it could impress me as much as the Venetian Biennale.  For starters, there's the setting - the Giardini!  The Arsenale!  All sorts of old palazzos all over the city!  With so much space and it being the granddaddy of all international art festivals, the sheer wonder of it is hard to comprehend.  Of course, a lot of it is rubbish, and the video and sound pieces had a tendency to give me headaches, but into every life a little rain must fall, eh?

I have to hand it to the Yokohama Triennale, though - everything I've seen so far (my stamp rally card tells me I have 4 more sites to visit - yesterday I could only manage the Yokohama Museum of Art and the Red Brick Warehouse) has been pretty legit.  Even before you enter the museum you've seen your first work - Ai Weiwei's installation of rafts and lifejackets, a statement on the refugee crisis.  For the most part, it only gets better.

This year's theme is "Islands, Constellations, and Galapagos" - or put less poetically, connection and isolation.  This seems a lot more applicable and relevant than that of the two Biennales I've attended (I guess when you've done as many as Venice has, coming up with new themes could be a challenge - I shouldn't judge since I struggled with a yearbook theme after only a couple of those).  Since my audience isn't, in general, the art intelligentsia, I'll leave it to the website to explain that kind of thing and focus on what I actually care about.
One of those classic anime moments is the scene where the character discovers their passion when they see someone else doing it and it is just so sugoi that they take up piano/ice skating/acting...whatever the case may be.  Now, art is not new to me and neither is anime, but when I made it to Mr.'s installation, it's possible that my eyes lit up and there were sparkles hanging in the air.
Kind of like these eyes...
His work is the second installation you get to, right after the MAP Office's islands built on the museum's stairs.  I'd seen an image of one part of it, and I was looking forward to it, since the intersection of anime and art have been a specific study for me over the last year.  I was busily taking photos of EVERYTHING - the way he incorporates surface manipulation and paint spatter into his work feels particularly applicable to the work I'm doing for my painting course - and when I stopped to look up I saw a guy who looked JUST LIKE the dude in a couple of the pieces and he was wearing an "Artist" badge.  I almost said, "Senpai, notice me!" and then I realized I had no idea how to follow that up because I'm kind of awkward in art-social (ok, just plain social) situations like that and even though I've been to a lot of openings and been in the same room as a lot of artists, I'm still not sure of the etiquette and where do I even start and does he really want to talk to some crazy American art teacher about his artistic intent???

So I restrained myself, but when I got home and found out he's the protege of Takashi Murakami (who founded the Superflat art movement) I kind of wished I hadn't.  Maybe I'll get lucky though, and he'll be hanging around when I bring my students.

There were lots of works I just loved, and maybe this is the advantage of a smaller exhibition like Yokohama's - less crap.  I've been thinking of modern art for about a week, since someone posted a video of this hateful old white guy in my Art Teachers facebook group.  He was going on and on about how art has slowly been degrading since the time of the impressionists, and that now everything is crap.  Well, he was full of crap, for starters because his little spiel totally discounts everything outside of Western artistic tradition, but I wouldn't unconditionally qualify every work of art as valid.  I like to ask my kids what they think art is, to get them thinking about what they are doing, and as I was walking around the Triennale, I managed to come up with my own definition, and here's how it goes:

Art takes the experiences of our lives and puts them into palpable form, so that our thoughts and feelings can be shared at their deepest level.

I came to this conclusion after almost crying over Rob Pruitt's paintings of Obama (what I wouldn't give for a president like that right now), standing stunned before Anne Samat's Tribal Chief Series, and finally, standing in the middle of Hatakeyama Naoya's panoramic shots of his native Rikuzentakata, about a year after the 2011 tsunami wiped it off the face of the earth.  In each of these pieces, I felt that connection that the theme alludes to.
One last artist I have to mention before moving on to the second part of the Triennale is Kazama Sachiko.  She had these monster-sized woodcuts, with a slightly different take on Japanese culture and history than Mr., in the totally best way.  Her balance and contrast were on point, and they had such a great sense of action.  I've been in a lot of art supplies stores in the last month, and if it weren't for the fact that I'm totally submerged in this painting class I'd be dying to carve some woodblocks - I almost bought wood and knives today, but probably I can wait til January, when my schoolwork will consist more of reading.
After two hours I needed a break, so on the way to the Red Brick Warehouse I stopped at Hard Rock Cafe - in my defense, a huge burger seemed like a great way to get the energy for the next round of art.  When I got there, I found myself wondering if this was the counterpart to Venice's Arsenale.  Both years I went, I found the work at the Giardini to be of an overall higher quality, possibly because there were a lot more videos at the Arsenale, not to mention a few installations that seemed to be mostly composed of junk.  It wasn't, but I wasn't blown away like I was in the museum.  In fact, it wasn't until I was almost out of the Red Brick Warehouse that I was impressed.  I was enjoying works involving embroidery when I caught the strains of Ragnar Kjartansson coming from behind one of the curtained doorways.  I walked in on a bit of cacophony, which turned out to be a video installation showing people in different rooms of a house trying to play together while wearing headphones.  There was something disjointed about it that was nevertheless hauntingly beautiful.
The other piece which absolutely floored me was Dong Yuan's installation.  She recreated in incredible detail her grandmother's house - painted on canvases which give a sense of three-dimensionality to the work while retaining the feeling of a painted piece of art.  It was a neat trick.  The house will be demolished this year - one of those China things where the old must be done away for the new.
I'm not entirely sure how to bring this blog to a close, so I'll just leave you with blocks, and the feeling that if all I got out of coming to Japan was the exposure I'm getting to art and the way it is provoking me artistically, it would totally be worth it.  I'm still trying to figure things out in a lot of ways, but artistically, I'm good.

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