8th Yokohama Triennale, Reviewed

Your Bros. Filmmaking Group, Ký Túc Xá (Dorm), 2023–24 (installation view, 8th Yokohama Triennale). Photo: Tomita Ryohei. Courtesy the artists

The latest edition, Wild Grass: Our Lives, asks us to take a long – and earnest – view of land, time and organic matter

A squiggly sentence spelled out in masking tape runs along the walls and edges of the stairs, in between the ramshackle tents and temporary wooden shacks set up in the foyer of the Yokohama Museum of Art: ‘The surface of the land where I stand now was created from inorganic grains of sand and dead micro-organisms mixed and accumulated tens of thousands of years before they became nutritious organic matter, which gradually became soil’. The pronouncement establishes the mindset for the eighth Yokohama Triennale, titled Wild Grass: Our Lives (held this spring as a postponed 2023 edition, due to the delayed renovation of the museum, the triennial’s main venue), asking us to take a temporal long view. The statement is an intervention by curators Carol Yinghua Lu and Liu Ding (rather than an artist’s work), and functions as a teaser for Lieko Shiga’s DIALOG IN THE FOG: FIRE – What Nozomi Onodera, a hunter, told me in the mountains of the Oshika Peninsula in Miyagi Prefecture. (2023–24), a set of photographs and texts that line the museum’s upstairs hallway. Snapshots of people making fires, and haunting, abandoned nocturnal forest scenes are interspersed with a deer hunter’s transcribed musings on humanity’s transactional approach to nature, the realities of eating meat and criticisms of Japan’s relentless drive for industrial growth. ‘What I am saying is romantic. But to put it simply, it comes down to whether we think from the perspective of humans or animals,’ he expounds.

Wild Grass: Our Lives is full of such earnestness, yearning for humanity to be more in tune with other life on Earth; there’s no irony to be found among the work of the triennial’s 90-plus artists and collectives, which is housed in the museum as well as in two ancillary venues and a nearby subway station and mall. There is beauty, wonder and rage, and ample evidence of protesting. But for every doe-eyed moment idealising nature and community, the curators ensure that there is a more self-conscious offering. Just around the corner from Shiga’s work is another forest philosopher, this one a bit more suspect: the camouflage-clad protagonist of Ingo Niermann and Erik Niedling’s video Walder (2023) practises self-defence in a forest enclosure, ranting about city-dwellers and mocking Hitler (“A single testicle – he was only half a Teuton!”) while chewing on a wad of raw meat. Isolation, it seems, is delusional.

The Chinese curators have positioned their show as a time-travelling pan-Asian gesture, drawing its title from a book of prose-poems by the popular early-twentieth-century Chinese writer Lu Xun, who studied in and began his career in Japan; words by Lu, and Japanese writers he translated into Chinese, stretch across the walls of several of the galleries. There aren’t any shouty showstoppers here, nor large works by a single artist dominating any one room. Instead, the approach taken is suggestive of integration, creating links between regions and time periods. What this usually means is Japanese and Chinese works from across the twentieth century, displayed as evidence of long ignored forms of Sino-Japanese artistic exchange, cocooned by contemporary international artworks.

Joar Nango, Ávnnastit (Harvesting Material Soul), 2024 (installation view, Yokohama Triennale). Photo: Tomita Ryohei. Courtesy the artist

In one room, Takashi Hamaguchi’s black-and-white photographs – documenting confrontational moments from the 1969 student protests in Tokyo against Japan’s security treaty with the US – sit next to Tomas Rafa’s video v65: Far right Identitarians protest against refugees (2016), documenting reactionary protests in Vienna. In a neat curatorial match, Rafa’s videos appear twice in the show alongside pairs of Josh Kline’s unsettling Productivity Gains (2016) series, in which lifelike models of what look like white-collar workers are curled up on the floor in foetal position, bagged in transparent plastic as if in stasis, waiting to be wakened and summoned to the hate-filled marches that Rafa has captured.

The exhibition also documents moments from the 2014 Sunflower Student Movement in Taiwan, the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong and countless protests from the pluri-crises precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which are placed alongside examples of, say, ancient Jōmon clayware that inspired Japanese artists to search for a new national art during the 1950s, or prints depicting life during the Chinese Civil War (1927–49). ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes’, a saying often attributed to Mark Twain, comes to mind around here. The curators might at points have overrelied on artists’ biographies to make their point, but they seem adept at pairing the ways artists have represented and responded to moments of crisis over the past century. The prominence of figurative woodblock prints throughout the show – whether earlier-twentieth-century works on paper by artists such as Yefu Zheng and Tadashige Ono, activist zines made by the Guangzhou duo Prickly Paper or the Inter-Asia Woodcut Mapping Group – is suggestive of the artist as social documentarian, who creates an imprint of the times and makes sense of chaos: art as the world’s litmus paper.

In a small untitled woodblock print, a man struggles under the weight of a basket of coal on his back; next to it, Small Mine (1950) is a drab, cubist-style landscape painting, dotted with murky smokestacks. Included in a room dedicated to the work of Takeo Tomiyama, these works are her attempts to document the miners of Japan’s Kyushu island; accompanying wall texts describe her frustration with the effectiveness of the results. They make a nice rhyme with Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave (2001) screening in the adjacent room, which is a reenactment of a conflict between miners and police during the 1984 UK miners’ strikes, the bemused spectators visible at the edges of the frame. The scene is echoed on the other side of the building, in Your Bros. Filmmaking Group’s installation Ký Túc Xá (Dorm, 2023–24), based on a 2018 incident of Vietnamese workers in Taipei going on strike. A room crowded with a maze of bunkbeds is strewn with handdrawn cardboard signs in Vietnamese; one of the television sets dotting the room shows a group of women lining up, facing the camera. ‘We don’t want to act for you’, a subtitle reads; they then proceed to reenact a strike meeting. Here, history is a poignant, necessary spectacle to be replayed again and again. But where does all of this time-hopping actually leave us?

We can only go out the way we came in: through the sparse encampments in the museum’s foyer, as lean-to tents by Joar Nango and Søren Aagaard, haunted by the floating, slouched partial figures made from purple cloth in Sandra Mujinga’s Unearthed Leaves (2024), and the mutant headless glitched figures of Janus and Mars (both 2022) by Miles Greenberg. Humanity as we know it has gone; perhaps it has ‘become soil’. Wild Grass is ultimately a statement of dystopian realism: art reflects its time, and humanity’s time is running out.

Yokohama Triennale: Wild Grass: Our Lives, Various venues, Yokohama, 15 March – 9 June

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