Yokohama Triennale: Islands, Constellations & Galapagos

By Fi Churchman

Dong Yuan, Grandmother’s House – Ancestors’ Layer, 2013 (installation view). Photo: Eric. Courtesy the Organizing Committee for the Yokohama Triennale Seo Natsumi, Voices from the landscape – a town beside the sea, 2011– (installation view). Photo: Tanaka Yuichiro. Courtesy the Organizing Committee for the Yokohama Triennale


Various venues, Yokohama, 4 August – 5 November

The sixth edition of the Yokohama Triennale, Islands, Constellations & Galapagos, ostensibly makes reference to a wide range of issues, from data overload, online communities, ‘island mentality’ and the rise of populism, to Brexit, the refugee crisis and public disillusionment with centralised political systems, throwing the whole theme open to ‘thinking about the world through “‘connectivity” and “isolation”’. But reading the exhibition instead through geography and human relationships, with each other as well as with nature, both softens the visual chaos of the group show and lets one seek out something more than instant visual gratification. Politics is popular and the digital realm affords escapism, but our natural environment is bigger than us, and provides a more profound lens through which to make sense of the 40 artists and artist groups involved in this year’s triennale.

The entire Japanese archipelago consists of 6,852 islands. One of the first works encountered in the Yokohama Art Museum (one of the three sites for the triennale), by Hong Kong-based duo MAP Office, directly addresses this, making miniature islands out of objects found on the shoreline, such as seashells, and populated by little plastic figurines of people, palm trees and dinosaurs. Each kitschy island, displayed in a Perspex box, comes with a title denoting its theme: fantasy, time, war, love. But it’s a work on the floor beside one of the islands – a circle filled with white sand and broken coral – that, while easily overlooked amid the gaudy dioramas, delivers the most affecting message. Coral Island (2017) looks like a Micronesian stick chart (a form of seafaring map of the islands made using sticks, coconut fibre and shells), only this map is made of pieces of dead, bleached coral from the waters of Oahu, Hawaii, where a temperature spike in 2014 made a significant impact on its marine ecology. Against the surrounding vibrant works, Coral Island offers a sad, muted message, charting the course of marine ecosystems: our reefs are dying.

Each work here presents a kind of careful, conscious salvaging of memories, livelihoods and banal manmade objects that are otherwise at threat of being lost or thrown away

After the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011, Seo Natsumi volunteered with relief efforts in badly affected areas of the Tōhoku coastline. Her ongoing project Voices from the landscape – a town beside the sea (2011–) is formed of interviews with survivors of the tsunami, whose memories are translated visually through bright colour-pencil drawings and paintings, forming a collected narrative and experience of the natural disaster. Elsewhere, Tatiana Trouvé’s knee-high, shacklike cardboard structures The Great Atlas of Disorientation (2017) call to mind the wreckage of human settlements in the wake of natural disasters, while Anne Samat’s Tribal Chief Series (2015–16) wall hangings, made with traditional Malaysian weaving techniques and brightly coloured threads, incorporate everyday household items like spoons and sieves, as well as metal washers, screws and circuit boards: small things we use and think nothing more of that eventually become litter. Each work here presents a kind of careful, conscious salvaging of memories, livelihoods and banal manmade objects that are otherwise at threat of being lost or thrown away.

Fossil Necklace is a string of worlds,’ explains the pamphlet accompanying Katie Paterson’s work. Understated but utterly captivating, the 2013 necklace, suspended from the ceiling by two nearly-invisible strings, is made of 170 beads of fossils spanning the beginning of life on Earth – from a sphere of single-cell organic matter (Archean Eon stromatolite in butterstone) to the carved fossil of a Cyprian hippo in the Holocene Epoch – and charts human evolution alongside plants and other animals. Each unique bead is both planetlike and otherworldly, an aeon of time made physical and turned into an item of jewellery to be worn and treated with care. A parallel form of perspective is provided by Kathy Prendergast’s Atlas (2016) at Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse No 1. A hundred road maps of Europe are laid open on trestle tables filling an entire room, each spread inked-out black except for the cities and towns, forming a new kind cartography that rejects notions of borderlines and territory. The volume of atlases becomes a night sky that encourages visitors to search through the tiny specks of civilisation like we would the stars on a clear evening. Both works remind us, through a macroperspective, of our place in Earth’s history.

A room away and the perspective immediately returns to the human scale. Dong Yuan recreates a domestic household with Grandmother’s House (2013), carefully constructed from layers of different-size oil paintings, depicting an altar table and cupboards on which stand more paintings of thermos flasks, trinkets and a fish tank, a fully stocked pantry, stacks of laundry, a radiator and flowerpots leaning against a backdrop painting of the window. Nearby, Ragnar Kjartansson’s nine-channel video projection The Visitors (2012) is playing, in which musicians each inhabit a different room of the same house, relying on the sounds of each other’s instruments to play a single musical score; each individual plays in solitude, highlighting not only the physical strain between the ear and sound, but also the condition of being alone.

In the basement of Yokohama Port Opening Memorial Hall, Yanagi Yukinori’s Project God-zilla (2017) forces us out of these lulling scenes of domesticity. The installation, largely situated in the dark, consists of a heap of rubble under which a giant projected eyeball (presumably that of the radiation-mutated lizard Godzilla) glares around the room, while mirrors etched with the names and dates of nuclear weapons tests carried out in the Pacific Ocean stand like monuments in smaller piles of debris. The mirrors lead visitors down a path towards a final room: red light emanating from LED screens cuts through the gloom as words – the text of Article 9 from the Japanese constitution, which outlawed war in 1947 – stream past. The work’s lack of subtlety can be forgiven; it sends us away with a reminder of our impact on the environment and the responsibilities we hold towards the planet and each other.

From the Winter 2017 issue of ArtReview