Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Letter from Japan

Studio wall, Montparnasse. Screen print based on frottage by Masao Okabe. Chihiro Minato showing one of his Phototypes.

Dear friends:
Roland Barthes analyzed the image as surface on “Empire of Signs”, and although Barthes’ Japan was a fictional one, his observations nevertheless reverberate when one confronts firsthand the primacy of the printed image in Japanese visual culture, both traditional and contemporary. The printed letter becomes pure (de)sign when the eye cannot decode, and every printed surface can be experienced in graphic terms: composition, balance, scale, color, etc.

In Tokyo I had a very interesting meeting with Chihiro Minato, who was the commissioner for the Japanese Pavillion at the last Venice Biennale. The pavilion consisted of a large-scale installation by Masao Okabe. This Japanese artist originally trained as a printer, and he has for the past decades, done a series of collaborative projects that involve taking the imprint of streets, sidewalks and buildings. Using the “urban environment as a plate," Okabe collects rubbings of the surfaces. In Venice he covered the interior walls of the pavilion with rubbings of the stones from a train station in Hiroshima, which was subsequently demolished. The rubbings were accompanied by some of the recovered stones from the station. The visitors were invited to make their own frottages from of the historical boulders. Okabe’s considers these rubbings as a way to rediscover the environment, and he likes to work with volunteers, not only other artists but ordinary people and children as well. There is information on this project at the Japan Foundation's website:

Chihiro Minato is also an artist, and he has worked with Patrice Forest in France, one of the few workshops in the world that still does phototype. This is a technique is similar to lithography but uses a plate of glass to render exquisite details in the print. He showed me Okabe's silkscreens, done from the frottages, and his own phototypes.

From Tokyo, I traveled to nearby Yokohama to see the Triennial. This year’s team had two local and three international curators, two of which are seasoned Biennale experts and stars of the curatorial Olympus: the peripatetic Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Daniel Birmbaum, who is curating the upcoming version of the Venice Biennale.

Shilpa Gupta, Don't See, Don't Hear, Don't Speak, 2008. Cerith Wyn Evans and Throbbing Gristle, A=p=p=a=r=i=t=i=o=n, (2008).

The Yokohama Triennial’s theme was time itself, or rather how art creates an instance “outside of time”. Time Crevasse (its title taken from a poem by Paul Celan), included more than 70 artists, which makes it the biggest exhibition of this kind in Japan. According to the artistic director Mizusawa Tsutomu, “The best art arises when different forms of time twist, swirl, and collide, creating unexpected paths and crevasses through which we can glimpse a deeper abyss. By revealing this abyss and courageously descending into the ‘time crevasse’, art has the power to give us a more sensitive understanding of differences between individuals, societies, nations, genders, generations, races and religions in the context of our present circumstances.”

Despite the artspeak on the opening text, the Triennale was a great show by any standards. I found the scale of this event to be perfect: two main venues housed most of the works, which were well displayed, each in its own space. The curators took the opportunity to give visibility to a historic site (Sankeien Garden) by placing five installations in different areas of this incredibly beautiful park. More works were situated in other urban sites that required traveling to other places in the city, but overall the Triennial relatively small and pleasurable to visit. There were just the right quantity of artists per venue, so as to maintain the visitor’s interest yet not overwhelm him/her with too many works. Since the theme was time itself, performance was a strong component of the show, but video documentation of time-based art or long-duration videos, which are almost impossible to experience within an exhibition context, were shown in a series of small auditoriums, where the visitor could relax and see them in a proper setting. Moreover, there was a program of happenings and performances every weekend for the duration of the exhibition.
The complete information about the Triennial can be found here:

Fujiko Nakaya, Fogfalls #47670: Tales of Ugetsu, (2008).

At Sankeien Garden there were only five works, but each one was carefully selected and placed so as to highlight a specific building or area of this wonderful setting. This garden was built in the late 19th century by a wealthy businessman who reconstructed important 16th and 17th century buildings and temples from Kyoto and Kamakura. The visitor had to make first a long parcours in the park before encountering the first work of art, which was British artist Tris Vonna-Mitchell’s musings about time, a sound-and-text piece. At a point the visitor found herself walking in the garden amidst a dense fog, which highlighted the dreamlike character of Sankeien Garden. The piece, which could (or not) be identified as an artwork, was one of Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya’s mist installations. Nakaya has worked with musicians and choreographers like Trisha Brown and David Tudor, so the placement of the nozzles was very precisely done creating a mise-en-scene of the garden itself (the trees, the creek, the bridges and paths). The mist flowed from the high part of a slope, followed a little creek and branched into several small paths. I can truly only describe the experience as magical.

Not far from this installation was Argentinean artists Jorge Macchi and Edgardo Rudnitzky’s installation Twilight, displayed at Yokobuean, a Tea-hut built in the rustic “Inakaya” style. The visitors entered in groups of twenty and were expected to stay for the duration of the work, which was very simple yet powerful: a bare light bulb slowly descended diagonally from the top corner of the building to the bottom corner opposite to it, with a musical score composed by Rudnitzky with traditional Japanese instruments and electronic sounds. Macchi, whose work has always dealt with the printed image and with language itself, whose work was prominently displayed at the Mercosul Biennial in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Reena Seini Kallat, Synonym (2007).

In Tokyo I visited a very interesting show about contemporary Indian art at the Mori Museum. I confess that besides Raqs Media Collective, Shilpa Gupta and Hema Upadhyay, I am not very knowledgeable about the contemporary art scene in India. This exhibition helped me to understand the current situation of a complex country that is grappling with rapid modernization in one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, while struggling to maintain its identity and cultural traditions. Among the many interesting works, there was one that I found strongly print-related although it would not normally be considered a print: Reena Seini Kallat’s Synonym (2007), a series of sculptural portraits done with rubber seals. Each seal has the name of someone that has died in conflict. The pieces are visually striking, placed in freestanding frames taller than an average person. Kallat also does photographs of people's torsos with the shapes of a map inscribed with stamped names. The shapes vary, reflecting on the shifting boundaries of the territorial conflict.

J. Roca.

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