The Aichi Triennale mounts a restrained comeback

WHEN CONFRONTED by a Japanese journalist about the scandal that haunted the previous Aichi Triennale, artistic director Kataoka Mami responded with: “This has been asked too many times,” and “Let the [current] exhibition speak for itself.” Leaving us “outsiders” stunned, these statements seemed calibrated to banish from our minds that now-distant conflict, when outrage over a sculpture commemorating Korean women enlisted into sexual slavery by the Japanese military forced the closure an entire section of the exhibition (ironically titled “After Freedom of Expression?”), let alone the myriad other storms that have roiled international art exhibitions in the intervening years. Indeed, a rather flat sense of uneventfulness was this edition’s most lingering impression.

The main exhibition at the Aichi Art Center opened with an annotated map by Marcel Broodthaers. In these first few words the Triennale utters for itself, Broodthaers swaps the word “monde” on a commercially made world map for “utopia.” Sometimes the alteration of one word could change the world, Kataoka said during the guided tour, and that is the power of art. There was a certain elegance in this restrained opening act, which nevertheless seeded in me a skepticism toward the curator’s overly optimistic assessment of the role of art in our time. Following Broodthaers’s work were selections from the series “I Am Still Alive” (1969–2000) by Aichi native On Kawara, from which this edition of the Triennale borrows its title. A collection of telegrams sent by the artist to his family and friends over three decades, the work launches the exhibition into a discourse on the concept of temporality. Roman Ondak’s sliced-up tree trunks resemble the dials of clocks, each solemnly stamped with a key moment in history, from the founding of the Chinese Communist Party to the Battle of Stalingrad. Pablo Dávila’s Buddhist-inspired film consists purely of patterns reminiscent of white noise, which, algorithmically generated, can ostensibly flicker into eternity. Broodthaers’ iconic Entrance to the Exhibition, 1974, opened the exhibition on another floor; next to it was a work by US-based German artist Diemut Strebe, where Socrates, resurrected by AI technology, engages in a conversation on wisdom and truth with artificial intelligence. Kataoka seems to favor grandiose temporalities: When asked about her thoughts on the future, she referenced another work by Kawara, One Million Years. When the axis of time is stretched to encompass a mega-annum, the frictions and tremors before us today seem like little more than trivial occurrences. Such a shift in perspective, however, can easily be seized and violated by exigent realities. For example, it failed to dispel the anxiety that punctuated my first international trip post-pandemic, which felt uncannily caught up in current events: On the day of my visa appointment, the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association opened its door for the public to express their condolences on the passing of Shinzo Abe. On the day I returned, my flight landed at the Taipei Songshan Airport just a few hours before Nancy Pelosi’s. (According to the flight tracker, the plane that Pelosi boarded passed right over my apartment—I might have heard its whirring.)


View of Marcel Broodthaers’s Map of a Political Utopia and Small Paintings 1 or 0, 1973. Photo: ToLoLo studio/Estate Marcel Broodthaers.

After all, we must return to the world of mortals and, most importantly, to our own corporeality, the fragility of which has been made painfully manifest by Covid for some two years now. Conceiving the architecture of the Aichi Art Center as a human body, the artist collective mirukusouko (Milk Warehouse) + The Coconuts scaffolded the building with a gigantic steel tubing structure, metaphorically representing the edifice’s respiratory system. And then there were Jimmy Robert’s queer bodies, Momose Aya’s digitally generated body female (based on a male performer’s movements), and, in Kader Attia’s film Reflecting Memory, 2016, amputated bodies, haunted by limbs that no longer exist. Juxtaposing the syndrome of phantom pain with the agony inflicted by trauma, the work had already made a memorable appearance at the Taipei MoCA in 2018. Here, it reminded me that in the little world of the gallery space, four years had slipped by almost without notice. From Laurie Anderson and Huang Hsin-Chien’s collaboration To The Moon, 2019, to Shiota Chiharu’s dense networks of red threads (Uncertain Journey, 2016/2019), to Hsu Chia-Wei’s video game-esque VR piece from 2018 (even the discussion of VR technology seems to have stalled in the art world), to Cao Fei’s 2019 film Nova (which I watched remotely): These works, despite my having spent two years stuck on the island of Taiwan with limited exposure to exhibitions, did not feel particularly novel. This sense of familiarity could attest to the geographical proximity or to some cultural affinity between the two regions, or it might just be an afterimage of the recent past, having belatedly arrived.

It was mostly the artists from Japan and Latin America, as well as a small group of African artists, who brought in a feeling of freshness. Two giant landscapes by Yokono Asuka, born in 1987, flanked the exit of the exhibition hall, depicting the potteries and warehouses of the nearby city of Seto. Occupying an eighty-foot-long wall, Argentinean artist Claudia Del Río’s enormous chalkboard, on which viewers were invited to draw, write, and erase, evoked her home county’s rich legacy of participatory art while playfully riffing on the monumental scale of Latin American muralism. André Komatsu, a third-generation Brazilian of Japanese descent, conjures an image of third-world industrialization his installation Aphasia, 2022. If the neatly hung textile pieces by Malian artist Abdoulaye Konaté evoke the traditional dress of Senufo musicians in southeastern Mali and the Ivory Coast, Zimbabwean artist Misheck Masamvu’s effervescent abstract paintings index the contemporaneity of lockdown. While the show’s geographical breadth invoked a panoramic quality, it was hard not to spot the relative scarcity of East Asia (save for Japan, of course) on the Triennale’s world map. Given that the lighting rod of the show’s last edition, Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung’s Statue of a Girl of Peace, 2011, confronted the taboo history of Korean “comfort women” in Japan, the absence of any Korean artists on this year’s roster was particularly notable (the only “Kim” listed on the exhibition brochure was born in the United States).


View of Daisuke Kosugi’s Red Forests and Blue Clouds, 2022. Photo: ToLoLo studio/Aichi Triennale Organizing Committee.

This year’s Triennale has made it clear: Conflicts and debates are out of fashion this time around. Formal concerns prevail even in works that deal with language, as seen in the 3-D-printed texts by Adachi Tomomi, in Wago Ryoichi’s poetry, and in Shiomi Mieko’s mail art, in which lyrical instructions supplant the rhetoric of argument. “I guess I am just not the cynical type. I am more interested in finding solutions,” Kataoka suddenly said to me while answering another question. I had brought up the issue earlier, in reference to a comment by the Triennale’s two curatorial advisors, Martin Germann and Tobia Ostrander, who praised the exhibition for its “lack of cynicism.”      

Perhaps in an effort to clean up the mess left by the last Triennale, order and serenity ruled the day. Nowhere more so than at the venue housed in the former Inchinomiya Central Nursing School, where the display unfolded through tidy juxtapositions. On the top floor, Kondo Aki’s tragic love story HIKARI, 2015, was screened at one end of a corridor, in dialogue with Daisuke Kosugi’s Red Forest and Blue Cloud, 2022, a new sound piece contemplating solitude and death, which played on a loop amid hospital beds on the opposite end of the space. On the fourth floor, viewers encounter video of the Watermelon Sisters (Yu Cheng-Ta and Ming Wong) performing a drag number that is simultaneously gleeful and lonesome, while nearby footage shows Australian Aboriginal artist Kaylene Whiskey leaping and dancing in the wilderness. The symmetry extended beyond this building and spread to its periphery: In a nearby park, Barry McGee’s brightly colored public paintings were completed live, offering a counterpoint to Anne Imhof’s moody video work Jester, 2022, installed inside an abandoned skating rink. A few minutes into staring at this montage of agile, twisting bodies (the piece is a rework of Nature Morte, Imhof’s 2021 performance project at Palais de Tokyo), my cynicism couldn’t help but resurface: Perhaps “coolness” has an even shorter shelf-life than technology.


View of Anne Imhof’s, Jester, 2022. Photo: Guo Juan.

The systemized, rhythmic arrangement of works puts one in mind of the act of weaving, a motif that emerged more fully during my visit to the town of Arimatsu, another Triennale venue. Arriving by bus, I was immediately welcomed by numerous fabric stores flanking the town’s old street. Many works at this location are textile-based, for example Malaysian artist Yee I-Lann’s swags of traditionally woven fabric and the tropical landscapes painted on kimonos by Yuki Kihara, an artist of Japanese and Sāmoan descent. Frankly, it was hard for me to justify the placement of the works in Arimatsu, scattered as they were through different historical buildings. Of all the stops on my Triennale itinerary, the Arimatsu visit was the most hurried: What I remember most was the repeating cycle of taking off my shoes, putting them back on, lowering my head, and sweating. (Because air conditioners couldn’t be installed inside the old houses, it was said that the heat-intolerant artist duo Wolfgang Prinz and Michel Gholam had refused to perform live, sending in a video featuring masked actors instead.) In the city of Tokoname, the exhibition venues were similarly dispersed, but the viewing experience was comparatively more pleasant. Spread across the floor is a vast accumulation of round, mochi-shaped sculptures by Colombian artist Delcy Morelos, made of clay in various earthy shades. The work evoked ritual offerings made to the Andean “Earth Mother” goddess Pachamama, in which farmers bury seeds in the ground as gratitude for a bountiful harvest. Meanwhile, a crowd quickly formed around Theaster Gates, proving the charm of “AfroMingei”—a term coined by the Chicago native that refers to a fusion of “Japanese philosophy and Black identity” that can “expand the possibilities of cultural hybridization.” On the ground floor of a renovated historic building, he had erected a stage-like wooden structure that incorporated a record library. Gates was in the process of organizing the records behind a wooden cabinet-cum-bar counter. Given the press trip’s hectic schedule, my fellow international journalists and I only had time to briefly hear Gates talk about his connection to the city of Tokoname and his hopes to “revitalize” the declining local pottery industry with contemporary art. How exactly will he carry out this vision? Will this place be transformed into a bar, a hotel, a store, or an exhibition space? One struggled to imagine the future of this space, and, how, if at all, the city’s destiny will be swayed by the Triennale.


View of Theaster Gates’s The Listening House, 2022. Photo: Guo Juan.

Kishimoto Sayako and Koie Ryoji were two Aichi artists who left lasting impressions. Kishimoto, who was born in Aichi in 1939 and died there less than fifty years later, made vibrant work of irrepressible energy, here seen in documentation of her ’80s performances and her large-scale paintings, where felines dash out of gloomy backgrounds. At the INAX Museum, the ceramic masks made by Koie transported me into a state of chilling tranquility. A common thread emerged in the works of Byron Kim and Watanabe Atsushi, the former’s tirelessly painted images of the heavens echoing the photographs of the moon that the latter collected from people living in isolation. As individual narratives become fused with the collective imagination of a shared destiny, we wonder: Are we looking up at the same sky?

But what of imminent, unpleasant, unshakable, cynicism-prone reality? Of course, it persists, most tangibly in the work by Burmese artist Shwe Wutt Hmon, who, working with her sister Kyi Kyi Thar, records political unrest and pandemic plight in her country through a deeply personal lens; in Iranian artist Hoda Afshar’s two-channel video documenting the lives of refugees trapped on the Manus Island in Papua New Guinea; in Liliana Angulo Cortés’ videos and flag pieces honoring the struggles of Colombians of African descent; and, in more subtle portrayals, in Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s four-channel-video tracing the origin of mixed Vietnamese-Senegalese families back to the Vietnam War, and in the disquieting still lifes of Iraqi artist Mohammed Sami, who immigrated to Europe as a refugee. Woven into the curatorial narrative, however, these painful realities were didn’t penetrate the heart so much as gravitate toward a poetic sentimentality.


View of Andrew Nguyen’s The Specter of Ancestors Becoming, 2019. Photo: Guo Juan.

“Mami saved Aichi,” an artist acquaintance who was familiar with conditions on ground told me when I ran into them later on a bus. The local government was determined to give up on this inconvenient contemporary art event, but she managed to change their mind. The ninety-minute roundtable discussion on the last day of the press trip could of course only skim the surface of things, but it was not without its sparks. A member from the local curatorial team mentioned that they were not expecting to be hired again after what went down last time. From their words, a lot seemed to remain unspoken. During the final group interview with Kataoka, someone raised a question on curatorial collaborations, a methodology that has been increasingly popularized worldwide (this year’s Triennale had nine curatorial advisors, in addition to a local curatorial team of eight). Decentralization, globalization, the power of art to “change the world”: These are the pre-fabricated solutions on offer in “I Am Still Alive,” with its manufactured optimism and consensual, frictionless internationalism. I thought again about weaving, a femininized, manual form of labor, and how it can be retooled to accommodate the neat, mechanical efficiency demanded by industrialized production.

Translated from Chinese by Sixing Xu. 

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