First wave

Yayoi Kusuma, Narcissus Gardens, 1966

Brace yourself for Japan's latest art extravaganza, the Yokohama 2001: International Triennale of Contemporary Art. John McGee has the story.

Think art in Japan means kabuki and Kyoto? Try Yayoi Kusama and Yokohama. Having scored World Cup Soccer 2002, Yokohama’s trophy quest this year is the gilt-edge of “premier art destination.” This week the city welcomes 110 artists from around the world to Japan’s first major exhibition of its kind-Yokohama 2001: International Triennale of Contemporary Art, a.k.a. the Yokohama Triennale.

388 FEAT 4.jpg (11100 bytes)

Yoko Ono, Freight Train 2000

Titled “Mega-Wave-Towards a New Synthesis,” the Triennale is an expo of some of the best artists in the world, from the entrancing, landscape-based, phenomenologial sculptures of Icelander Olafur Eliason to the lively, handwritten-note collages of hearing-impaired American Joseph Grigely. Documenting the complex currents of today’s cultural zeitgeist, this kind of behemoth, super-museum exhibition has become a popular way for cities to position themselves on the expanding contemporary world art map.

Stelarc, Exoskeleton

With four years of planning and a JY600 million budget, the organizers are making a bold announcement of Japan’s arrival on the art scene. Half of this funding comes from the four main organizing bodies-the Japan Foundation, Asahi Shimbun, NHK and the City of Yokohama. The remaining 50 percent, just less than US$3 million, will come from donations and entrance fees. That’s a lot of entrance fees, especially when the average contemporary art museum show in Tokyo gets just 10,000 visitors. Triennale organizers hope to attract 300,000-roughly 1 percent of the population of the Kanto region. They feel that Japan wants and needs this kind of show partly for “entertainment” purposes, but more so because contemporary art can effect positive social change in the country by exposing visitors’ minds to exciting, unusual and new ways of thinking.

The “Mega-Wave" of the exhibition’s title refers to “great waves of change…inundating our entire society," waves of new technology, social revolution, and global environmental problems.

Japan may need a contemporary art expo but, with Venice, Kwangju, Documenta and others, does the art world need Japan? To further complicate things, last summer’s debut of Niigata Prefecture’s triennial, “Echigo-Tsumari Art Necklace” (136 artists from 32 countries), would seem to have been this country’s first art extravaganza. Despite the ambitious curatorial guidance of Daikanyama’s Artfront Gallery, however, the Art Necklace was essentially a public art project, an economic salve for a far-flung farming region short on tourists.

388 FEAT 5.jpg (22592 bytes)
Navin Rawanchaikul, Unmapping (over the nights in Kwangju, 1997)

Think different

To prove the significance of the Yokohama Triennale to Japan and the world, the show’s four curators (yes, four) have distinguished their exhibition with a strong theme, diversity, new work, and a plethora of Asian artists. According to their curatorial statement, the show’s title refers to “great waves of change… inundating our entire society,” waves of new technology, social revolution and global environmental problems. The interdisciplinary, new Enlightenment model for this show is a counter-balance to the 20th century drive toward academic over-specialization. The curators seek “to transcend the conventional framework of art… promote greater exchange and dialogue between a broader range of fields, including science and philosophy… [and] create a new, comprehensive vision that brings art and society together as we enter the 21st century.”

To draw connoisseurs and neophytes alike, the curators have compiled a diverse mix of artists, from 23-year-old animation installation artist Tabaimo to 77-year old Hungarian architect Yona Friedman. Production is equally varied. Artists and non-artists-an ethnologist, fashion designers, musicians-who make things that function like art will flow together in the mega-wave, creating, the curators hope, “whirlpools of communication... that lead to new images of human possibility.”

388 FEAT 6.jpg (18425 bytes)
Noboru Subaki + Hisashi Muroi, The Insect World, 2001

As if volume and variety weren’t enough, all of the artists were asked to make new work. Though this is unusual, expensive and complicated, it ensures that even jaded art jetsetters won’t want to miss the Triennale.

Moreover, with the Triennale’s being in Japan, 45 percent of the artists are Asian, 30 of those, Japanese. Except for the work of a few people-Yayoi Kusama’s “infinity net” paintings, Yoko Ono’s Fluxus experiments, Takashi Murakami’s semen-lasso whirling manga cowboy and Yoshitomo Nara’s dour, knife-wielding kiddies-Japanese contemporary art has been, until recently, largely overlooked both at home and abroad. Most Japanese artists still gain international recognition as expatriates living in New York (Kusama), Cologne (Nara), or other major art centers. Likewise, the general availability of quality contemporary art exhibitions in Japan has long been inadequate.


Several years ago, the Japan Foundation (the cultural division of the Japanese Foreign Ministry), determined to remedy this situation, formed a study group of curators, professors and bureaucrats to outline the who, where, why and how of holding a periodic international contemporary art exhibition. Their mission: to promote and export native talent, import the best new art to Japan, spur free and critical thinking and, overall, boost interest in contemporary art in Japan.

388 FEAT 8.jpg (14635 bytes)
The symbolic aka renga, the Red Brick Warehouse No. 1

Yokohama, a town of 3.2 million often dismissed as a suburb of Tokyo, was chosen because it had a convenient location, ample space, a symbolic old, red-brick (aka renga) warehouse and money. Other cities were impractical for various reasons. Cramped Tokyo, the obvious choice for many, was bankrupt at the time of initial planning. Kyoto was good in theory-steeped in both traditional arts and radicalism (the birthplace of bosozuku motorcycle gangs and live houses)-but lacked appropriate facilities. Yokohama, on the other hand, is open, especially around the main venues in Minato Mirai 21, has European-style buildings as proof of an international history, and is easily accessed by the target audience of Tokyo and Yokohama's combined 15 million inhabitants.

To choose 110 artists representative of the diversity in current contemporary art, the organizers hired four curators-all men in their early 50s. Though anachronistically a-plural, the panel is varied. Shinji Kohmoto, senior curator at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, was responsible for the recent “Visions of the Body: Fashion or Invisible Corset?” Nobuo Nakamura is director of the Center for Contemporary Art CCA Kitakyushu, an art institute, and has written several books on art. Independent curator Fumio Nanjo has worked on public art projects, e.g. Shinjuku I-Land, and has been a commissioner for the Taipei Biennale and the Japanese commissioner for the Venice Biennale. Akira Tatehata, professor of contemporary art theory and criticism at Tama Art University, has also been Japanese commissioner of the Venice Biennale and used to be a curator at the National Museum of Art, Osaka.

Finding agreement among them was like a four-bride wedding-messy. Nanjo confesses, “of course it’s difficult... but if we completely agree, it’s not a collaboration.” Even collaboration wasn’t a gimme: The biggest conflict was whether the Triennale should be four separate shows or one big art mosh-pit.

“Mega-Wave” is a little of both. All four agreed on the first 30 artists. They split the remaining 80 choices equally. According to the theme “Asia as Cultural Passage,” Tatehata invited mainly Asian artists like Thai Navin Rawanchaikul (mobile gallery in a Bangkok taxi), and Chinese Cai Guo Qiang (traditional fireworks, kites, and Jacuzzi rock gardens). “Asia,” he says, “doesn’t exist as a fixed idea but is ambiguous, open, always shifting.” Nanjo took a journalistic approach, searching for unknown artists or people exploring the borders of art. For example, Masanori Oda, a Japanese ethnologist who will create an installation from the refuse of other artists and Frenchman Laurent Moriceau, who will collaborate with Japanese fashion collective 20471120. Nakamura sees the Triennale as “a starting point” for meeting and discussion. He followed his CCA interdisciplinary approach, choosing 28 international artists (like Yugoslav-born performance artist Marina Abramovic and Swiss video-maker Pipilotti Rist), architects and musicians under the theme “Future for Today.” Dubious of globalization and collective identities, Kohmoto’s “Advancing Matrix” uses biological metaphors to consider alternative social systems, like Noboru Tsubaki and Hiashi Muroi’s gargantuan inflated cricket nesting in the folds of the Inter-Continental Hotel, or pioneer experimental musician Yasunao Tone’s cell/parasite audio installation.

On the waterfront

The curatorial disagreement spilled from artist selection to the installation of the work-to mix the curators’ themes or separate them? The solution, again a little of both, was partly determined by the available space. For example, low ceilings in the brick warehouse allowed only 25 artists-almost exactly accommodating Kohmoto’s program. Other historic, Western-style buildings-the Port of Yokohama Archives and the Port of Yokohama Memorial Hall-and two galleries inside Queen’s Square Mall house only one or two artists each.

About 70 percent of the artwork, though, will be clustered in small spaces off a “main street” promenade inside the tail-finned Pacifico Yokohama Exhibition Hall, Minato Mirai 21’s waterfront convention center. Formerly docks and warehouses, futuristic redevelopment district Minato Mirai (literally “Port Future”) has been the site of feverish construction for several years. The result-part Akira, part Disney-is a fantasy of giant indoor malls, Japan’s tallest building (Landmark Tower), the sail-shaped Inter-Continental hotel and Kenzo Tange’s Yokohama Museum of Art. The art route-from the old town buildings, along the waterfront, past a port-side amusement park and malls to Minato Mirai-is an architectural timeline through the last 100 years or so of Yokohama’s maturation, linking the exotic, international history with the postmodern Japanese.

But the superficial exuberance of heterogeneous architectural novelty belies a deep-seated impotence and lack of direction in Japanese society. “Due to the educational system,” notes Tatehata, “the younger generation has lost its power, curiosity and eccentricity.” Nanjo says that the recent spate of wanton mayhem-stabbing children at school, hijacking buses-shows that “young people want to do something but don’t have models to show them what.” He continues, “We are in the mega-wave... we are in the middle of drastic changes... particularly in Japan.”

The curators, however, are as optimistic about the onsen-like regenerative properties contemporary art will infuse into Triennale-goers as they are emphatic about the need for change. More than just another entertainment option, they hope their “Mega-Wave,” their tsunami of possibility, can wrench young Japanese people from the undertow of apathy and rote thinking, give them a sense of purpose and, as Mr Nanjo says, “show them how to be creative, see things differently, and reconstruct society.”

Yokohama 2001: International Triennale of Contemporary Art

Sept 2-Nov 11. Daily 10am-6pm (admission until 5pm). Fridays until 8pm (admission until 7pm). Closed Sept 11, 25, Oct 9 and 23. Tel: 03-3272-8600 (Japanese only). Nearest stn: Sakuragicho (Tokyu Toyoko, JR Negishi, Yokohama city Subway lines). An information counter in front of the station will distribute bilingual maps. Tickets are available at regular outlets or at the door. Adm: Adults JY2000, students JY1500, seniors JY1000, children JY500. (Discounted advance tickets available through PIA, Family Mart, Lawson, JTB and other outlets through Sept 1). A variety of symposia, workshops and other events will also be held. Check the website for details:  



395: Generation Next
The world-first launch of NTT DoCoMo’s third generation mobile phone network represents a quantum leap into mobile cyberspace. Stuart Braun goes online.
394: Sister act
Celeb sisters Kyoko and Mika Kano have taken Japan by storm, but can they win over the West? Chris Betros and Maki Nibayashi spend an evening with the divine duo.
393: Reel time
Matt Wilce gets a close-up of the Tokyo International Film Festival's hottest tickets.
392: Lap it up
Michael Schumacher is champion again, but the unpredictable Suzuka circuit is still set to offer up a surprise-packed Japan Grand Prix on October 14. Stuart Braun goes trackside.
391: Everything old is new
You might think Azabu Juban is all swanky dining and dancing 'till dawn.....
390: Cooking the books
Celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s in town with his new book in hand.....
389: Up from the underground
Japan's literary superstar Haruki Murakami is home for the duration
388: First wave
John McGee dives into Japan's art extravaganza
387: Water world
Matt Wilce explores Tokyo DisneySea
386: Open house
Many people are sleeping on the streets of Tokyo
385: A moveable feast
Some of the city's best yatai fare
384: Hair
A look at Tokyo's salon industry
383: Summer in the city
20 ways to make August a little more bearable
382: Tokyo Tomorrow
Stuart Braun tracks the future of the metropolis
381: From zero to hero
81-year-old Zero fighter Sadamu Komachi looks back
380: Island escapade
Journey to Odaiba
379: Open-air fare
Tokyo's alfresco dining spots
378: Reel story
Reel in the summer's hottest movies
377: Sonic relief
Gear up for the summer's hottest music festivals
376: All at sea
No shortage of fun in the sun on the beach
375: Your cup of tea
Tea time in Tokyo
374: No time to waste
Tokyo's mounting problems with garbage
373: Freetown
Tokyo's stylish suburb, Jiyugaoka
372: Broken record
Tokyo's ecclectic array of record stores
371: Bottoms up
Tokyo's finest martini bars
370: Admit one
Regulations for foreigners wanting to live and work on Japan
369: After a fashion
Spring trends from the catwalks to the streets
368: Bandwidth wagon
Japan's move towards DSL
367: Just for sports
How to play ball this summer
366: Life's a hitch
Helpful hints for hitch hiking in Japan
365: Altered state
Try Tokyo's tailors on for size
364: The Fringe Club
Shinjuku's infamous Golden Gai bar district
363: Take two Tomatos
Design gurus Michael Horsham and Steve Baker
362: Stage left
Innovative and intimate shogekijo (little theaters)
361: The lowdown on TC
Everything you ever wanted to know about TC, but were afraid to ask
360: A reversal of fortune
Tokyo's home of racing, Fuchu Racecourse
359: Funny Valentine
How to do Valentine's Day in Japan
358: Two-faced
Heartthrob Katsunori Takahashi
357: Read all about it comes to Japan
356: Daikanyama
Central Tokyo's hippest hood
355: Wash out
Heaven Sento
354: Means to an end
Some good ideas to inspire you
352/3: Last Laugh
TC's rosey re-cap of the year
Signs of the times
Horoscopes for 2001
351: It's a wrap
TC's holiday gift tips
350: Cable ready
Cable and satellite broadcasting renaissance


With the Triennale training the international art spotlight on the Kanto area, most contemporary galleries and museums in Tokyo and Yokohama are pulling out all the stops. These spaces are showing contemporary artists not included in the Triennale.

Yokohama Museum of Art features a Yoshitomo Nara retrospective “I don’t mind if you forget me” (scowling little girl paintings, dog sculptures) and in the smaller art gallery at the museum and the nearby Portside Gallery, there’s “Space-jack,” a group show curated by Yukie Kamiya. Both until Oct 14. The Museum of Contemporary Art (MoT) in Kiba has a Takashi Murakami retrospective “Summon Creature? Open Door? Heal? Destroy?” until Nov 4. To see the two wunderkinds at work together, stop by Tomio Koyama Gallery in Saga to for the Nara/Murakami collaborative painting exhibition through Sept 8.

The Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in Shinagawa has Yasumasa Morimura Self-Portraits: an Inner Dialogue with Frida Kahlo until Sept 30.

Ginza’s Gallery Gan will be showing new work by Vik Muniz until Sept 29. Art Tower Mito and Shiseido Gallery have a joint exhibition of young East Asian artists called “Cute” and “After Kitsch.”

Akira Yamaguchi, at Mizuma Art Gallery in Jingumae, paints traditional Japanese landscapes with a contemporary edge-motorcycle-riding samurai, bathing salarimen, and bent-o salesmen.

For full exhibition listings, refer to the Art Page or look for Favorite!, a bilingual guide to some of Tokyo’s best contemporary art galleries, available free at many galleries.