On Yokohama Triennale


Inviting the Indian artist trio Raqs Media Collective as its artistic director, the 2020 edition of Yokohama Triennale resonates with a diversification of voices. The selection of 67 artists and collectives displays a firm step away from the Euro-American centric legacy and towards the grounding of a postcolonial courtyard. The gesture demonstrates the awareness of the ongoing heated discussion around identity politics all over the world, from gender to nationality, highlighting the current anti-Chinese sentiment and Black Lives Matters movement that followed the spread of COVID-19. Such an intention is especially clear when compared with many art/cultural/touristic triennales prevailing in Japan in recent years, which often choose to isolate themselves from these discussions and feature an overwhelming percentage of established western artists next to local artists. 

This postcolonial courtyard gives each voice a position and advocates autodidacticism and luminosity (two of the five keywords proposed by RMC, the other three being friendship, care, and toxicity) which are by definition about indirect perseverance. With a number of works devoted to a historical or ethnographic approach, there are so many stories to tell, from generations’ endeavor in South Africa (Ke Sale Teng (I am still here), Lebohang Kganye, 2017) to an ordinary Japanese man’s work life between Japan and Sri Lanka (A mound of shells, Iwama Asako, 2020). Soulful narratives could be immediately accompanied by techno-nostalgia, like Park Chan-kyong’s film about a Buddhist quest in a radioactive world versus Elias Sime’s tableaux-like pieces from the Tightrope series and the Ants and Ceramicists series; or Sato Masaharu’s sentimental observation towards the end of his life versus Oscar Santillan’s relic-like sculptures Spacecraft (Venus). The inevitable discrepancies and distractions reveal themselves when the highly diversified voices in various languages and agendas come together—some yelling, some whispering, some with higher pitches and some lower… An exciting assemblage with little hope for convergence. Consequently, some of the softer lights run the risk of being dimmed by the surroundings, drowned in the crowdedness. Such may be the ‘cruelty’ of equality.


The wrong size

There is much to praise in this ‘Afterglow’ edition of the Yokohama Triennale, curated by the Raqs Media Collective, as it gives a voice to art practices seldom experienced or witnessed in Japan. Those that come with other narratives, beyond the spheres of Western models. Yet, within a local text, it is worth noting that even established Western contemporary artists shown in previous triennales were rarely given larger exhibitions; audiences seldom had the opportunity to engage with an artist’s work beyond one token piece. 

Very little international contemporary art made its way to that vicinity between those editions. Meanwhile, other biennales and triennales (notably the Berlin Biennale and the last Venice Biennale) have organized over the last decade exhibitions dealing with such current fare as post colonialism, politicized anthropocenes, as well as all that is owed to Donna Haraway. Either with mitigated results or new paradigms. A new generation of curators has also begun exploring other colonial histories weaving entirely new stories to be told.

The pandemic adds a new chapter to the curatorial process, as organizers had to address how and where the works would be displayed, eliminating older buildings where air circulation suffered, whose designs would have included smaller rooms and narrow hallways. Jan Hoet, whose seminal 1995 Tokyo show “Ripple in the Water” relied on an experience of peregrination within the Aoyama area of the city, and a number of venues that lended themselves more readily to the nature of specific works, would also leave its trace on the Yokohama Triennale.

The majority of the key pieces, the ‘star’ works, all find themselves in the Yokohama Museum of Art (1), very much an example of Japanese bubble architecture that is all about rigid geometries. Some rooms barely manage to contain the intricacies of a piece while others overreach in attempting a compromised cohabitation of artists. Afterglow finds merit in having those works enter the museum, but transforming the latter to suit their identity was unlikely to happen.

Unlike what happened at a noted former attraction for children, now going under the name Plot 48, whose second floor appears to be the flotsam and jetsam of tired sexuality. Whatever symmetry might have existed within the Yokohama Museum is dismissed here, where the afterglow is all but extinguished.

1- I would like to add however that the Yokohama Museum of Art has organized numerous remarkable exhibitions over the years, including Wilfredo Lam, Lee Ufan, Tabaimo, as well as Degas and Whistler.


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