Artists address pressing social issues at Yokohama Triennale 2017


  • Arts
  • Tuesday, 24 Oct 2017

Ai Weiwei’s works 'Safe Passage' and 'Reframed' at the Yokohama Museum of Art during the Yokohama Triennale 2017. They practically wrap the museum building’s facade, with red inflatable lifeboats attached to its windows and lifejackets snaking up the columns. — Photos: Organising Committee for Yokohama Triennale

Indonesian artist Joko Avianto is no stranger to immensely large bamboo installations and his new work called The Border Between Good And Evil Is Terribly Frizzy (2017), now on show at the Yokohama Triennale 2017, is a staggering statement piece.

The site-specific installation, bound tightly from 2,000 shoots of Indonesian bamboo, stands tall and welcomes visitors to the Yokohama Museum of Art, the main venue for the Yokohama Triennale 2017, which is hosting its sixth edition, themed Islands, Constellations And Galapagos.

“Joko’s installation is inspired by the traditional Japanese braided rope called shimenawa, but his concerns hit closer to his homeland, where he continues to explore the loss of traditional culture and re-examine the relationship between human beings and nature,” says Miki Akiko, Yokohama Triennale’s co-director.

“At the Yokohama Triennale 2017, we are thinking about the world through ‘connectivity’ and ‘isolation’. Through the artworks, we are shaping this conversation, to address pressing social issues from an artistic standpoint,” she adds.

Yokohama Triennale
Indonesian artist Joko Avianto's bamboo installation The Border Between Good And Evil Is Terribly Frizzy (2017). It is situated inside the grand gallery of the Yokohama Museum of Art. Photo: Dewi Utari

On paper, a total of 38 artists/groups and one project have been put together – and the end result, as you take in a Yokohama Museum of Art tour, does, arguably, look like a constellation of small solo exhibitions.

Internationally acclaimed artists like Ai Weiwei, Olafur Eliasson and Maurizio Cattelan, as well as Wael Shawky, underline Yokohama Triennale 2017’s pulling power when it comes to star appeal, while new works from Ozawa Tsuyoshi, Shooshie Sulaiman, Ujino and Prabhavathi Meppayil add to the triennale’s pedigree.

The history and landscape of Yokohama city also play important roles in identifying the other Yokohama Triennale 2017 venues like the Red Brick Warehouse No. 1 and Yokohama Port Opening Hall Memorial Hall.

Yokohama Triennale
A visitor views Yukinori Yanagi's nuclear-themed Project God-zilla in the basement of the Yokohama Port Opening Memorial Hall. The mixed media work is made from a demolished house, with video and sound installation.

The Yokohama Museum of Art, as the primary venue since 2011, drives the whole event forward, and also redistributes the art-loving masses – through free buses – to the supporting venues.

According to Miki, over 200,000 visitors have come through the doors since the Yokohama Triennale 2017 opened in August. As far as contemporary art is concerned, the Yokohama Triennale, established in 2001, showcases Japan’s second largest city, just south of Tokyo, as an international cultural and creative destination.

“Right now, here, in Yokohama, the first (Japanese) port that opened to foreign countries in the 19th century, we are now seeing how art can be used to derive a new vision and ground design for the future. We want to give viewers a deeper understanding of each artist’s creative worlds, and, at the same time, to embody the image of these worlds, gradually connecting like stars or islands, forming constellations and archipelagoes,” says Miki.

Yokohama Triennale
Malaysian artist Anne Samat's Tribal Chief Series at the Yokohama Museum of Art.

Islands, Constellations And Galapagos aims to blur the lines when it comes to imagination and creativity, identity and diversity.

“The world today is being shaken to its foundation by challenges such as conflict, refugees and immigration, and the emergence of protectionism, xenophobia and populism,” she says.

“At the same time, people appear to be banding together into small, disparate groups of ‘island universe’ communities.”

Miki, in not so many words, hopes the Yokohama Triennale 2017 comes across as a platform for sharing and discussions.

Perhaps, for most viewers, some islands might be better than others. Some “crossings” a matter of life and death.

Yokohama Triennale
The Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse No. 1, a historical building, is also part of the Yokohama Triennale's list of venues. The Red Brick Warehouse is currently exhibiting interactive and oddball works from Ujino, Christian Jankowski, Tsuyoshi Ozawa and Atsuro Terunuma.

In Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s works Safe Passage and Reframed at the Yokohama Museum of Art’s main entrance, viewers are left to ponder on the plight of refugees. Ai’s hard-hitting installations cannot be be ignored as they remind us of the tragedy of the migrant crisis in Europe, with red inflatable lifeboats attached to the museum building’s windows while lifejackets snake up its main columns.

The mildew, mold and smell from the lifejackets, to say the least, are unnerving.

If you needed hope, then Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s Green Light – An Artistic Workshop installation, featuring lantern-like lamps, exuded a warm glow. The project is to promote the idea that refugees are also resourceful and we should never dismiss their potential.

Malaysian artist Shooshie Sulaiman is also a prominent feature at Yokohama Triennale 2017, with her hexagon pyramid-shaped outdoor installations called The Myth Of Sanga Petara Pulau Champaka, Berbintang Syira, Berpaksi Khatulistiwa inviting us to soak in a certain mystical energy.

Yokohama Triennale
Shooshie Sulaimans The Myth Of Sanga Petara Pulau Champaka, Berbintang Syira, Berpaksi Khatulistiwa (2017).

For this work, Shooshie planted hybrid champaca trees on top of the pyramids, along with two sculptures and two “akupara” (world-tortoises). In between the pyramids are two Japanese stone gardens, positioned to portray the latitude and longitude of ancient architecture and islands.

The Yokohama Triennale 2017, against this backdrop of uncertain, sobering times and spiritual questing, might be a little too complex for the casual visitor. Yet, there is no denying that such conflicting concepts and phenomena are intricately interwined and constantly in flux.

If you are patient, this exhibition can be quite rewarding.

China’s Zhao Zhao, who has been tipped to become the next Ai Weiwei, is one such example of a memorable moment.

In his video Project Taklamakan, Zhao carries a refrigerator out into the Taklamakan Desert (his homeland, known for frequent ethnic conflicts) and connects it to power cables and drinks cold beers. Along the merry way, he gives the viewer an insight into the isolated living on the Silk Road, even with the exchange of goods and cultures.

Apparently, with a good dose of humour and some beer, you can make the most of any desert island situation.


The Yokohama Triennale 2017 runs till Nov 11. More info: yokohamatriennale.jp. This trip was made possible by the Japan Foundation.

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