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'The Okayama Art Summit: A New Triennale for Japan'

Broadsheet Journal 46.1, 2017

Sophie Knezic

The Okayama Art Summit: A New Triennale for Japan

Okayama Prefecture

October 9 - November 27, 2016



In 2016 British artist Liam Gillick, well recognised for his Conceptual sculptural practice blending rectilinear polychrome Perspex structures with an interrogation of the conditions of post-Fordist labour in neoliberal economies, was elected Artistic Director of Japan’s inaugural Okayama Art Summit. Also known as the Okayama Triennale, the event featured 31 international artists and turned on the theme of ‘development’. Nestled in the south-east of Japan’s main island of Honshu, Okayama has now become the latest host for the proliferating triennales the country has mounted since 2000 (the first being the Echigo-Tsumari Triennale).


The press materials for the Okayama Triennale explicitly acknowledged the event’s rationale as the resuscitation of the city’s tourism with a specific aim of renewing interest in the city’s historic Okayama Castle.[i] The Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale was launched by founding director Fram Kitagawa with a similar intent to revitalise the declining Nigata Prefecture. Extending over an area of almost 500 kilometres, Echigo-Tsumari is now technically the world’s largest international art exhibition: its 2015 instalment, themed ‘Exchange between the region and the City’, included 180 new works in addition to 200 extant works from previous years. Inaugurated in 2010, the Setouchi Triennale takes place across the twelve islands in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea and the ports of Takamatsu and Uno. Akin to many rural parts of Japan, the islands have seen a dramatic decline in population along with aging demographics in recent decades; with a declared aim of regional revitalisation through the convergence of art and tourism, the Setouchi Triennale echoes the objectives stated above, exemplifying assessments by critics such as Oliver Marchart that biennial-type mega-events situated in far-flung places are motivated by the need to strengthen local tourist industries and increase the profile of regional centres.[ii]


Culture-led regeneration of Japan’s islands and rural regions was kick-started by the billionaire philanthropist Soichiro Fukutake, former CEO and current executive advisor to Benesse Holdings, who initiated the Benesse Art Site Naoshima – the now famous cluster of contemporary art museums on the islands of Naoshima, Teshima and Inujima, whose first museum opened in 1992. Both the Echigo-Tsumari and Setouchi Triennales depart from the convention of biennales and triennales with their focus on international art stars, setting their sights closer to home and emphasising the ‘laid back, slow paced rural atmosphere’[iii] of their locales. The 2016 Setouchi Triennale conspicuously focused on artists from the Southeast Asia region with the vast bulk of the participating artists hailing from Japan (161 out of a total of 233) and followed Echigo-Tsumari’s precedent of allowing many of the outdoor sculptures to remain onsite after the Triennale’s closure to continue the tourist flow.


Gillick’s Okayama Art Summit cleverly positioned itself both obliquely and critically within this trend and exuded a suave, cosmopolitan air. In an introductory essay framing the Summit’s raison d'être Gillick, articulated his curatorial take on ‘development’, underscoring the term’s relation to pre- and post-production evident in the fields of cinema, advanced capitalism and strategic planning. While development corresponds with the revitalisation objectives stated above, Gillick drew out other meanings hovering around the term, including its process-based nature, futurist orientation, speculative optimism and tangential association with the pursuit of self-actualisation across a spectrum of endeavours.


Intersecting Gillick’s curatorial theme of development was the reference to science fiction, in particular the notion of non-synchronous temporalities and time travel. ‘I would like to think of this exhibition’ Gillick declared, ‘as a time travel story in which each artist alters our relationship to history, the future, and our illusory sense of the present.’[iv] Buttressing Gillick’s position were catalogue essays by heavyweight theorists Bernard Stiegler and Fredric Jameson expounding, respectively, on the cinematic structure of consciousness and science fiction as redemptive fantasies in a world that has been irrevocably ‘narrativized’.


The idea of time travel has been a staple in science fiction from the incipience of the genre in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) to the recent release of Arrival (2016) by the director Denis Villeneuve, based on the short fiction ‘Story of Your Life’ (1998) by Ted Chiang. In these literary concoctions, protagonists are able to transport themselves light years into the future to witness radically transformed human (and non-human) social worlds or, more modestly aided by communicative alien heptapods, apprehend the future from the perspective of the present in a paradigmatic example of non-linear temporalities. However serendipitous the convergence of the two thematics of development and science fiction abstractly appeared to the curator, the works included in the Art Summit betrayed their somewhat awkward conjunction.


The thematic of sci-fi was apparent in a handful of works, such as Katja Novitskova’s 2016 Pattern of Activation (model organism); an installation of scaled-up digital prints of C. elegans worms (a class of nematodes used in scientific experiments), which tangentially suggested the giant subterranean sandworms on the desert planet Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s sci-fi fantasy Dune (1965), or the human-terrorising worms known as ‘Graboids’ in Ron Underwood’s schlocky monster movie Tremors (1990). Similarly, Philippe Parreno’s Flickering Light (2013), a series of wall-mounted tubular LED lamps, conjured the choreography of pulsating white light announcing the arrival of the UFO mothership in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) – although it remained a relatively feeble work. Ahmet Ögüt’s While Others Attack (2016), a two-part installation of bronze sculptures of humans assailed by attack dogs, implied more sinister visions of social orders of victimised citizens. The charging animals and fleeing humans suggested the über attack dog in Stephen King’s horror novel Cujo (1981), but in fact were based on actual documentary footage of historic acts of civil disobedience, such as the protests against South Africa’s apartheid regime.


One of the most notorious works of 2014 was Pierre Huyghe’s Untitled (Human Mask); a widely internationally circulated nineteen-minute film of a monkey named Fuku-chan wearing a Noh mask and dressed in a girl’s tunic wandering around the empty premises of a traditional sake tavern – just north of Tokyo – where the monkey is actually employed as waiting staff. (However, given the impossibility of consent, Fuku-chan’s ‘employment’ is an egregrious act of animal exploitation.) Untitled (Human Mask) screened alongside Huyghe’s Zoodram 4 – a hermit crab encased in a resin cast of Brancusi’s The Sleeping Muse (1910) – and Untilled (2012), a reclining concrete figure with a hive of bees colonising the figure’s head. Although not specifically evoking sci-fi, Huyghe’s works captured one of its key effects, as elaborated by literary theorist Darko Suvin, that of ‘cognitive estrangement’; a critical-creative reflection on reality that allows unfamiliar dimensions of normative systems or objects to emerge.[v]


The most spectacular example of cognitive estrangement was supplied by Ryan Gander’s Because Editorial is Costly (2016); a huge, polished stainless steel sculpture sited in an empty parking lot. With the asphalt at its base torn asunder, the piece suggested a crashed meteorite’s violent landing, but also theorist Mark Fisher’s observations on capitalism as the remnants of collapsed symbolic belief systems, when ‘all that is left is the consumer-spectator trudging through the ruins and the relics.’[vi] In typically humorous form, Gander elaborated a rambling anecdote explaining the work’s conception beyond its revamp of a sculpture by Belgian artist and De Stijl founding member Georges Vantongerloo (and yes, it did involve sci-fi).


Other works more directly tackled the Summit’s ostensible thematic and critiqued the ubiquity of neoliberalist values. Angela Bulloch’s Rio Declaration – 27 Rules of Sustainable Development (2016) presented text of the 27 articles enshrined in the Declaration on Sustainable Development of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), which convened at Rio in 1992. Placing the articles in English and Japanese as large schematic wall-sized texts and posters in several of the Summit’s venues, Bulloch produced an elegant, non-interventionist gesture; the neutral presentation highlighting the discrepancy between the idealism of the Conference’s socially progressive principles and their currently unrealised status. On the eve of Trump’s presidential inauguration, the president-elect’s cavalier tweets conveying his intention to increase the United States’ nuclear arsenal, while encouraging nations such as Japan and South Korea to similarly upscale; his dismissal of climate change science as a hoax invented by the Chinese to reap trade advantages; and the global trend towards isolationism and xenophobia portend an era in direct contradistinction to the cooperative principles enshrined in the Declaration.[vii]


A notable critique of the Summit’s nested topic of self-development emerged in Simon Fujiwara’s light box and video installation Joanne (2016) on the subject Joanne Salley; the Irish model and former art teacher who was the victim of a media smear campaign in 2011 when explicit images of her were leaked to the British tabloid press. Fujiwara’s video is an exercise in re-branding, taking the format of an empowerment video that melds fact and contrivance in its savvy slippage between constructed personas versus ‘real life’ in a mash up of advertorial/documentary modes. In part a critique of the narcissism of social media, but simultaneously reliant on such platforms for its own distribution (excerpts were released in advance of the film’s completion), Joanne perfectly captured the aspirational dimension of corporate lifestyle training and self-enhancement.


The instructional dimension of self-development was wittily evoked by Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s text-based piece How to Work Better (1991); a succinct treatise on how to achieve workplace success. A list of ten axioms (‘learn to listen’, ‘know the problem’, ‘smile’) was emblazoned on the side of a commercial building on an Okayama street, the infantilising and prescriptive slogans redolent of outdated corporate management manuals – the list in fact discovered by the artists at a ceramics factory in Thailand. Equally witty was Noah Barker’s Soundtrack for Development (2016), a seven-track score for a hypothetical film based on a delegation of cultural attachés visiting Okayama to discuss the city’s cultural and economic development. Extrapolated from a pop song commissioned from the Okayama-based musician Ju Muraoka, Barker’s audio track added a subtly comic acoustic backdrop to several venues of the Summit; the airy harmonies channelling New Age relaxation music in their soporific languor. Soundtrack for Development was the work most proximate to Gillick’s earlier propositional projects based on hypothetical workplace scenarios, Discussion Island Projected Think Tank (1997) and Applied Discussion Platform (2003). Sculptures by Gillick included in the Okayama Summit ensured fidelity to the theme with their conspicuous titles, Faceted Development (2016) and Development (2016): the former a tongue-in-cheek likeness of a generic public art monument and the latter a slick, white, outdoor mini golf course resembling a cross between a corporate branding folly and a children’s playground designed by IKEA.


In spite of these highlights, many works in the Summit fell flat. Anna Blessmann and Peter Saville’s Touching Work (2016); a horizontal mattress-like sculpture in open-cell foam – extending across the floor and up the wall as an alleged invitation to physical interaction – remained stubbornly dull, while José León Cerrillo’s modular POEM works as candy-coloured, Sol leWitt-inflected architectural interventions looked much more handsome in documentary photographs than in the actual classrooms of the former Korakukan Tenjin Public School. Cameron Rowland’s Korakukan Tenjin Water Test (2016) – a water quality report delivered by the US water analysis firm National Testing Laboratories revealing EPA-actionable levels of lead in the water supply of the former School site – was pious. 


The true highlights of the Summit, however, were the works that reflected on histories, folklore and myth specific to the locale of Okayama. Captivating and historically rich, Yu Araki’s Wrong Revision (2016) was a multimedia installation including octopus ink and a statue of the Virgin, whose central component was a video tracing the advent of Christianity in Japan via the sixteenth-century, Spanish Jesuit priest Francis Xavier. According to legend, Xavier’s arrival was inadvertently accompanied by Satan, who later disguised himself as an octopus prompting a view of the tentacled creature as a synonym for the Devil and Xavier’s missionary journey as an ambiguous importation of both good and evil.


Tatsuo Majima’s dual 2016 works 281 (clay) and 281 (video) used the media of ceramic and moving image to explore the local legend of Momotarō or ‘Peach Boy’; a heroic figure in Japanese folklore hailing from the region of Okayama, who allegedly came to earth encased in a peach (found floating in a river by a childless woman) and who subsequently became her son. Years later, Momotarō embarked on a successful quest to kill a band of ogres, bringing their treasure home as bounty and ensuring a comfortable life for his foster parents’ remaining years. The folk history of Momotarō was written by Kinnosuke Nanba, an Okayama-born metalworker, and published in 1930. However, according to Majima, Namba’s interpretation of the folktale sought to secure Peach Boy as a local legend for Okayama against similar claims by other prefectures such as Aichi and Kagawa, arguing that the historical context of Namba’s publication – in the recession that followed the Great Depression of 1929 – meant that several regions of Japan vied to claim the folktale as an auspicious symbol of prospective regional development.


Transitioning from a resource-poor island nation at the turn of the twentieth century into an industrial superpower in the postwar period, Japan embraced development with the adopted mantra (in reference to Western capitalist economies) ‘catch up… and overtake.’[viii] By the 1960s it had achieved the highest annual growth rates in the world. Contemporary understandings of development are now tempered by an awareness of its many drawbacks: environmental degradation, resource scarcity, increased labour precarisation, inequality and general unsustainability. Although growth-oriented policies remain the dominant paradigm in post-industrial economies, the most progressive theorists argue for a policy reversal, replaced by the aim for steady-state economic systems.[ix] Eschewing straightforward endorsements, Gillick’s Okayama Summit shrewdly reframed the narrative of development, approaching it with critical reflexivity, while sportingly encouraging the participating artists’ own varied assays onto the theme.



[i] Built in the sixteenth century, the castle pre-dates the city proper, but having been razed to the ground by Allied Forces’ bombing raids in WWII, it was entirely reconstructed in concrete 20 years later.

[ii] See Oliver Marchart, ‘The Globalization of Art and the “Biennials of Resistance”: A History of Biennials from the Periphery, CuMMA Papers #7, 2014

[iii] ‘Setouchi Triennale’, Japan Guide,

[iv] Liam Gillick, Development’, Development, Okayama Art Summit Executive Committee, Okayama, 2016:15

[v] See Darko Suvin, ‘On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre’, College English, Vol 34 No. 3, December 1972

[vi] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Winchester and Washington: Zero Books, 2009: 4

[vii] See Edward Wong, ‘Trump Has Called Climate Change a Chinese Hoax. Beijing Says It Is Anything But’, The New York Times, 18 November, 2016

[viii] Bert Edstrom, The Japanese and Europe: Images and Perceptions, London: Routledge, 2016: 86

[ix] See Herman Daly, Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development, Boston: Beacon Press, 1997


Image caption:

Peter Fischli and David Weiss, How To Work Better, 1991, acrylic paint on wall. Collection of Ishikawa Foundation, Courtesy the artists and Galerie Eva Presenhuber © Okayama Art Summit 2016.

Photo: Yasushi Ichikawa

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