Homo Faber: A rainbow caravan was the title of Japan’s third Aichi Triennale. The festival has grown since its inception in 2010, and is now spread across the cities of Nagoya, Okazaki and Toyohashi. Lasting seventy-four days from summer to autumn, this year’s edition was overseen by the photographer Chihiro Minato and featured 130 artists from thirty-eight countries. Its diverse mixture of contemporary art, performance, music, film and opera marks the Aichi Triennale out as a strong presence on Japan’s cultural map, as well as the international art festival circuit, but this year literalism sometimes obscured its artistic merits.
Many artists took the festival’s theme – travel – at face value. Birds featured on canvases, in video, in sound installations, cut by laser from a 7-metre-tall vase and, most memorably, as live specimens fluttering in a flat furnished solely with complex, geometric bird stands: this installation by the Brazilian artist Laura Lima, “Flight” (2008–2016), invited a reverse-dynamic in which visitors became clumsy, gravity-burdened guests in the bird’s terrain.
In other works the theme was further from the surface: Mitamura Midori’s installation “Art & Breakfast” consisted of miscellaneous domestic items such as lamps, balloons, mirrors, figures, small tables, string, dolls, birds and toy aeroplanes, and tapped into a Japanese practice of gathering small talismanic objects – or omamori – to make oneself feel safe. Also at the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art was Ohmaki Shinji’s “Echos-Infinity” (2016) – a work that exists only in memory and on digital record now that the Triennale is over. It consisted of traditional Japanese painting powder stencilled on to 450 square metres of floor felt; its installation took fifteen people one month. Featuring peaches that are famous in the prefecture as a delicacy, and cranes encircling lime-green flowers with orange centres, the work had a lulling symmetry that echoed that of a Buddhist sand mandala. Initially, the work was protected from destructive smudging by visitors’ feet, but, as the Triennale progressed, people were allowed to walk over it with shoes in hand, blurring this carpet of jewel colours in which birds and flowers bloomed or touched beaks.
Overlapping with Aichi by a few weeks was the Okayama Art Summit, Japan’s newest international art show. It was launched under the directorship of the British conceptual artist Liam Gillick, and its inaugural edition presented thirty artists. The festival was significantly smaller than Aichi, but more cerebral in its curatorship. The theme was “Development” (or “Kaihatsu” in Japanese). As inspiration, Gillick gave participating artists a review by Fredric Jameson of David Wittenberg’s book Time Travel: The popular philosophy of narrative.
Among the artists resisting the idea of progress was Tatsuki Masaru, whose photographs of Japanese deer-hunting and fishing practices offered uneasy glimpses of lesser-known worlds. Masaru has an anthropologist’s interest in the relationship between humans, nature and animals. In “Is the Blood Still Red?” (2011), a deer’s death is carefully captured in close-up. The deer head takes up half of the print’s space; the rest is black. The scrutiny is shocking: hair filaments captured in precise detail, white ear tufts flecking to rust-red, vermilion drops beading a glossy, lifeless eye.
Ahmet Ögüt’s installation of bronze abstract-figurative sculptures “While Others Attack/Diğerleri Saldırırken” (2016), meanwhile, presented police dogs attacking protesters. Clothing covering the arms and legs of three bronzed figures is eerily taut, torn off by unseen forces. One figure, in a still of perpetual horror, is seen bending sharply to shake off the dog at his hip. Ögüt, who was born in Turkey and whose artistic themes include war, religion and social and rural customs, based his bronze installation series on photography archives from historical protests, including those in Cape Town, as well as Civil Rights Movement marches in Alabama. Ögüt’s use of bronze is significant: generally used for public monuments or aristocratic busts, it has official connotations; here, it is used to record violence carried out by the state.
The last Aichi Trienniale, in 2013, dealt with the effects of the Great East Japan Earthquake (March 11, 2011). Awakening – Where Are We Standing? – Earth, Memories and Resurrection took on a serious subject, but the artists’ output wasn’t all gloom. The architectural historian Fujimori Terunobu’s “Flying Mud Boat” (2010) was made from mud plaster and old sheaves of paper, suspended on tension cables. A comfortable space containing a stove and accessed by a ladder, “Flying Mud Boat” humorously combined the nostalgic with the never before seen.
From the last festival’s focal point of devastation, it felt right that this year the Triennale turned outwards. Its artists – many visiting Japan for the first time – hailed from a much larger number of countries. The aim was for visitors to experience the world through their collected art works. Conversely, encapsulating in miniature the theme of travel, a “Mobile Triennale” toured three cities and a town, delivering and presenting works to Ichinoyima, Anjo, Obu and Shitara. The hope was for cross-pollination to take place, as the art of the Aichi festival took root and helped to unearth provincial culture.
Rebecca Swirsky is a writer and critic whose work has appeared in Salt’s Best British Short Stories 2015 and Ambit Magazine.