Letter from Okayama and Kobe

This report from the Okayama Art Summit and TRANS-KOBE appeared in Art Monthly:

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Pamela Rosenkranz, Healer (Waters), 2019

On more than one occasion, the Cuban art historian and curator Gerardo Mosquera has criticised the kind of temporary art exhibition that descends on unsuspecting locals like a flying saucer, meets with bafflement and incomprehension, does its own thing among fellow Martians and then takes off and vanishes without a trace. Judging by the inaugural edition of the Okayama Art Summit, which left a lasting legacy in the shape of two large-scale permanent artworks, the second iteration of the triennial art exhibition will also leave behind visible traces of its passage, but in other respects the UFO analogy seems fitting.

The capital of a prefecture in central Japan, Okayama may be best known for its namesake castle and Kōrakuen, designated as one of Japan’s three greatest gardens, yet the city is rich in museums and cultural venues, albeit none specifically dedicated to contemporary art. The chief objective of the Summit – an initiative led by the entrepreneur and art collector Yasuharu Ishikawa, who set up the Ishikawa Foundation in 2014 – is, apparently, to revitalise Okayama by means of contemporary art of a conceptual stripe, in keeping with Ishikawa’s own tastes in art. Sculptural and text-based works from the Ishikawa Foundation’s collection by the likes of Lawrence Weiner, Dan Graham, Peter Fischli & David Weiss can be seen outside Okayama Shrine, on the facade of Cinema Claire Marunouchi and in other public spaces dotted around the city centre as part of the ‘A&C’ (Art & City) programme in a bid to turn the whole city into a contemporary art museum.

The Okayama Art Summit eschews a conventional curatorial approach, opting instead for an exhibition directed by an artist of international renown, starting with Liam Gillick in the 2016 edition. For this year’s show, which opened in September and runs until 24 November, artistic director Pierre Huyghe selected like-minded artists and past collaborators whose work has strong affinities with his own. This is only natural and it gives the loosely themed exhibition, titled ‘IF THE SNAKE’, its overall coherence at the risk of making some of the participating artists, particularly the lesser-known ones, appear like Huyghe clones. The works showcased at the Summit – not least the ones authored by the artistic director himself, who is also one of the participating artists – are often quite demanding, relying as they do on complex technological apparatuses, chemical and biological processes, algorithms and simulated environments, and in some instances (such as in works by Ian Cheng or Fabien Giraud & Raphaël Siboni) fiendishly complicated narrative plots. More could have been done to unravel these for visitors unfamiliar with Huyghe’s practice; the concise work descriptions are woefully inadequate in this respect and the barely intelligible director’s statement does little to clarify things.

Notably, most of the 18 artists and artist collectives featured in the Summit, including Huyghe, hail from France and the US; barring perhaps Mika Tajima, Japanese artists were conspicuous by their absence. Organisers clearly wanted to give the artistic director free reign in his choice of participants, but as a result little was done to engage in any meaningful way with Japanese culture, the local artistic community or, for that matter, the city’s art institutions.

A case in point is the Hayashibara Museum of Art, whose rich holdings – ranging from swords and pottery to Noh masks and calligraphic paintings – had simply been cleared out to make room for the Summit’s offerings. Huyghe’s animation Two Minutes Out of Time, 2000, featuring the manga character Annlee that he and Philippe Parreno bought and later relinquished their rights to, was shown in alternation with its live counterpart in Tino Sehgal’s original Ann Lee, 2011, against the eerie backdrop of empty museum vitrines. The works installed at the Okayama Orient Museum have the merit of being displayed amid the museum collections, at least in the case of Tajima’s abstract textile pieces in the ‘Negative Entropy’series, yet no real attempt had been made to create a dialogue with the permanent exhibits.

The use of outdoor spaces in and around the main exhibition venue, the former Uchisange Elementary School, was to my mind among the most successful aspects of ‘IF THE SNAKE’. Works in a range of media, appealing to different senses, coalesced around Pamela Rosenkranz’s bubbling pink Skin Pool (Oromom), 2019, whose lustrous surface reflected the image of a frog levitating between a scientist’s gloved hands in John Gerrard’s animation X. laevis (Spacelab), 2017, projected onto a building across the road. The morning glories growing beside the swimming pool area turned out to be two mutant, colour-changing varieties of the flower that artist Sean Raspet had bred using gamma radiation at the Institute of Radiation Breeding in Japan.

On the other side of a desert-like landscape with a bronze sculpture by Étienne Chambaud tucked between two earth mounds, a robotic snake confined to a sumo wrestling ring in Rosenkranz’s Healer (Waters), 2019, moved of its own accord, seemingly charmed by one of Sehgal’s interpreters. A short walk away, on the banks of the Asahi River facing the Kōrakuen garden, two site-specific installations by the artist duo Melissa Dubbin & Aaron S Davidson and Elizabeth Hénaff, respectively, tapped into the city’s hidden waterways and probed its aquatic environments, teeming with micro-organisms. The one artist whose research in the Okayama region ahead of the Summit actually led to collaborations – admittedly not with artists but with local food producers and companies, especially in the field of cellular agriculture – was Raspet: his meal kit, containing such delicacies as a seaweed broth with eugolina-fed cells or rice balls tinged blue and pink by spirulina (a cyanobacteria) and dragon fruit extracts, will be on offer at the popular CCCSCD cafe close to the river for the duration of the Summit.

Animated by similar aims, namely to unlock the host city’s creative potential and help it ‘move beyond’ the period of stagnation that followed the deadly 1995 earthquake, Art Project Kobe: TRANS- takes a radically different approach to that of the Okayama Art Summit. An independent curator, TRANS-KOBE director Sumi Hayashi, chose to focus on just two main artists, a tactic that she considers more sustainable in financial terms than having to divide up the budget among many artists, as is the case with most triennials and art festivals. Roughly the same age, Miwa Yanagi and Gregor Schneider are in some ways a safe choice: both are mid-career artists who have represented their respective countries – Japan and Germany – at the Venice Biennale and Hayashi has worked with them in the past. Yanagi was born in Kobe but has a troubled relationship with her hometown, whereas Schneider had never previously been to the city, although he had visited Japan before (both had participated in the 2014 Yokohama Triennale).

Japan’s sixth largest city, Kobe is the capital of the neighbouring Hyōgo Prefecture and its population is roughly double that of Okayama. Whereas the Asahi River is the lifeblood of the one, the other is a port city, sandwiched between a mountain range and Osaka Bay. The Summit’s temporary and more lasting exhibits are spread across Okayama’s ‘cultural zone’ close to the river; TRANS-KOBE, in contrast, brings contemporary art to historically significant but less affluent parts of town to the west of the more cosmopolitan city centre and to Hyogo Port, which served as a stage for Yanagi’s travelling drama ‘Wings of the Sun’ that took place at the beginning of October. Rather than invade the entire city, which was purportedly Huyghe’s ambition for his edition of the Summit, Art Project Kobe sets out to use ‘the town and people of Kobe as materials’, according to its director’s statement. And that’s exactly what it did.

Instead of exhibiting artworks in museums, cinemas, shrines, landmark buildings and castle grounds, the two commissioned artists turned to more humble, ordinary spaces like markets, subway stations, a shopping mall plaza, a hostel used by blue-collar workers, closed spaces inaccessible to the public such as the former Hyogo Prefectural Institute of Public Health and Consumer Sciences where animals were kept and experimented on, and even private homes in Schneider’s End of the Museum – 12 Stages, 2019, a title that seemingly encapsulates TRANS-KOBE’s entire agenda.