Island Mentalities—Geopolitics, Migration, Evolution and the Yokohama Triennale

Yokohama Triennale 2017: “Islands, Constellations & Galapagos.”

August 4 – November 5, 2017

Yokohama Museum of Art, Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse No.1, Yokohama Port Opening Memorial Hall (Basement)

Maybe this is the result of being a curator myself, but when I look at an exhibition I tend to view the curatorial statement as a kind of mandate, something which the curators set out to fulfill. I am something of a stickler . . . the words “cantankerous” and “obstinate” would not be out of place. Like an exam invigilator I peruse the artworks with furrowed brows; in my mind, I doll out check-marks and x’s, a smile of understanding or a disapproving frown. Perhaps it’s a bit dogmatic, but I find it a useful tool for sorting and analysis.

Of course, if you set yourself with something simple like “Viva Arte Viva” or some such giant catch-all theme then you will most likely fulfill your remit, but you would also be graded accordingly. At the risk of sounding completely reductionist, I see it as the “job” of the curator to make sense of the vague amorphous mass of information and organize it into a coherent structure.

Some might say that that kills the magic, to create a kind of matrix in which all artworks must be slotted — but like an unabashed schoolmarm I will crisply demand that “no square pegs shall be placed in round holes.” I have applied this rather dogmatic metric to the Yokohama Triennale, and unlike many biennales and triennales, it received remarkably high marks. So before we get into the work let’s break it down to brass tacks: the basic summary presented in their press materials reads as follows:

“Islands,” “constellations,” and “Galapagos,” are words that open possibilities for us to discuss various issues such as isolation and connectivity, imagination and guidance, distinctness and diversity, among others. In contemplating what we shall consider wisdom for our future during this time of uncertainty, we hope to engage people in these discussions using our imagination and creativity.

Isolation and connectivity—two themes which have great relevance to the world at large, and Japan in particular, meanwhile Galapagos refers to a distinctive phenomenon native to Japan, “Galapagos Syndrome”, whereby Japanese companies evolve certain products, which though very successful in Japan do not fare well in foreign markets. Key examples used are the mobile phone (Japanese phone technology is quite advanced, yet the phones often flop on the international market) and the Kei car (not to be confused with the K Car) — a lightweight car which received encouragement and incentives from the Japanese government but never found a footing abroad.

The key point is that the government created a special environment for the Kei car to thrive and this idea of protecting and nurturing to create special kind of “hothouse” very much reflects the changing mentality of the Japanese labor force which is increasingly shy, unwilling to leave Japan’s borders for work experience abroad.

Scholars Matori Yamamoto and Cindy Yoshiko Shirata, in their article “Evolving Transnationalism in the Asia-Pacific Region: The Perspective of Social Science in Japan” write:

“the [Galapagos] islands are a paradise of plant-eating animals. The absence of meat-eating animals leads to the absence of hard competition, since the animals do not fight to eat each other. In a similar vein, it is said that more Japanese, especially young Japanese, tend to evade competition and confrontation these days, in contrast to the period right after World War II, when Japanese society was very competitive in order to achieve rapid economic development.” [1]

From this very specific local theme we can extrapolate more general themes related to the concept of islands, island culture, the evolution of culture within different isolated societies and this would be enough to develop a sophisticated and provocative triennale, but then you have the “constellations” element, which seems in a purely visual sense similar to an archipelago, (little dots of matter in a great expanse), but in fact a constellation is a very different concept as a collection of lights, distant and far away, celestial bodies which generally cannot support life. I guess one could say that from our own “social” and “geopolitical” islands, all other places and things seem like far away lights but the curators have linked it to “imagination and guidance.” Sure it’s true that since humanity is not mixed into one homogenous glob, that various countries and islands (metaphorical and real) produce culture and knowledge independently, evolving different products and ideas, but somehow this part seems to dangle lamely off the end of the concept as if someone in the triennale committee sought to take the edge off the more probing and self-critical elements and add in some happy sappy ideas more palatable to the general public.

Artistic Director, Akiko Miki in her statement about the project mentions a few key concepts which help frame the whole enterprise:

While the world today is expanding beyond traditional frameworks, and various kinds of networks are growing, it is being shaken to its foundations by challenges such as conflict, refugees and immigration, and the emergence of protectionism, xenophobia, and populism. At the same time, the world is awash in data far exceeding the processing capacity of human beings, and in an increasingly complex and sophisticated environment where communication tools such as social media are developing rapidly, people appear to be banding together into small, disparate groups of “island universe” and communities. Also, there is increasingly assertive activity by a wide range of small-scale organizations that challenge the dictates of superpowers and centralized political systems.

Okay great. Akiko Miki wins Massive points for clarity. We know what to expect. In many ways this is a very sophisticated triennale with deep interconnected webs of ideas which bind it together; for instance, the island metaphor extends to the curatorial approach which focuses on 40 artists each with their own cluster or archipelagos of works. It seems like a thoughtful method which benefits both viewer and artist. Despite a few seemingly disparate works (for instance Joko Avianto’s bamboo installation, “The border between good and evil is terribly frizzy”), on the whole we can say that this tightly curated triennale featured works which not only reinforced the theme but expanded it in different directions without stretching it to the breaking point making probing forays into topics such as “ideological reach”, migration, perceptual islands, the island in the literary imagination, the cultural evolution of isolated areas.

AI Weiwei, “Safe Passage,” life jackets and inflatable raft, Dimensions variable, 2016
“Reframe”, PVC, polycarbonate, rubber (set of 14), 650 x 325×75 cm (each), 2016
Installation view at Yokohama Museum of Art, Yokohama Triennale 2017, photo: Kato Ken © Ai Weiwei Studio, photo courtesy of Organizing Committee of Yokohama Triennale

The first work encountered by the viewers is Ai Weiwei’s “Safe Passage” — a collection of inflatable rafts and life vests collected from refugees which adorn the outside of the museum setting the tone in a pretty obvious way. Some might say too obvious, but for the general public sometimes very clear hints like this can help provide traction on a difficult concept. The idea of countries as islands, places where we are either “stranded” or need to escape from, is all too familiar for Ai Weiwei — a refugee himself who has a complicated relationship with his homeland, his expressions existing largely on the internet outside the great firewall of China, his exhibitions occurring primarily abroad. “He Xie”, a collection of porcelain hairy crabs (which actually look more plastic) underlines this idea of the “territoriality” within the internet, hexie being Chinese internet slang for “censorship”. Sure the work is an unabashed one-liner, but it does contribute an interesting dimension in its discussion of the layers of virtual worlds which are the “islands” of cyberspace.

AI Weiwei, “He Xie”, porcelain, dimensions variable, 2011, Courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio

Leaving the main atrium, we see the work of Map Office, displayed on a purpose-built platform, which acts as a vehicle through which the artists introduce some of the geopolitical, social, historical and philosophical concepts associated with the island through the meticulous research-based platform.

Their work “Moving Lemuria” recalls the story of a mythical island, a supposed sunken continent between the Indian and the Pacific Ocean. Their installation is composed of shells and garbage taken from the beach on Sanibel Island, off the coast of Florida. Combining myth and reality, the work examines how islands are created, and for whom—more and more we see them function as territories for military bases and other forms of flag planting as is the case with “Liquid Land | Solid Sea”  which examines the build up in the South China Sea, positioning islands as pawns in geopolitical machinations.

MAP Office, “Moving Lemuria from the Indian to the Pacific Ocean”, various shells from Sanibel Island (Florida, USA), various plastic trash found on the beach, fine black sand, 25×226 cm, 2015

Picking up on this geopolitical theme, Map Office has collected the literary imaginings of islands taken from Japanese literature. A small booklet features snippets from Japanese authors, for instance, Haruki Murakami’s novel IQ84 which talks about the history of Sakhalin island just off the tip of Hokkaido near Russia—the source of many a territorial squabble. In their installation “Island for the Color Blind”, the physical island morphs into a perceptual one with an island made out red and green sea urchin shells spelling out the number 69 in the classical pattern of the Ishihara test. The sea itself presents its own kind of color blindness, with the blue-green cast of underwater light and particles floating in the water impacting our perception of color. Fish and other water-based mammals see differently from us, as do those facing various kinds of sensory impairments, which places them on a different plane of perception — at once isolated from those with normal sensory faculties but connected to others who share the same impairment.

Map Office, “Island for the Colorblind, Green and pink sea urchin shells from Greece, fine white sand, 25 x 226 cm, 2014

After wending our way through Map Office’s trail of literary and political references, the viewer is greeted by the work of Mr., which at first seems strikingly out of place against the denser research-based practice of Map Office; the work employs the aesthetics of manga and anime, featuring pretty strong hints of lolicon (aka Lolita complex), with a painting of a naked man leering over a young girl with a miniature boy balancing on his penis. At first, the inclusion of his work seemed like a strategy to appeal to the pop tastes of certain audiences, but with its focus on otaku, this culture which emerged out of the specific Galapagos-like conditions of Japan, the choice to include it was logical, though some didactics on the background of the work might have been helpful justifying its inclusion.

Mr., Installation view

The dance between isolation and inclusion, the center and the possibilities of the periphery are also at play in Yoi Kawakubo’s “Slice of a Torus for Terra Australis” which looks at the continent of Antarctica as a kind of non-territorial heterotopia — a space shared between the western nations for ecological research purposes where mining and development are prohibited. What interests Yoi Kawakubo is the utopian implications of a space which has not been perforated by one flag of one dominant nation. The work is a kind of mental map of the artist’s thoughts (Fukushima, capitalism, the dawn of globalization, authorship etc.) presented in the form of territory. The body of works presented by Yoi in this section are titled “El Sur” which in Spanish connotes not only the idea of “south” but also a place removed from civilization — a kind of frontier, separate from other dominant national cultures.[2] In another work, “Atlas’ Wall,” the artist has sanded off layers of paint, from previous installs in the museum and the resulting shape looks like an economic graph. The name not only conjures up the Greek god, usually depicted with a globe on his shoulders but also a sense of geographical time, (perhaps even “art time” or “museum time”) — his excavations evoking the intimate relationships between economics, commodities, and the lust for territory.

Christian Jankowski, “Heavy Weight History”, video (color, sound, 26 min), 120 x150cm, 2013

This triennale feels, in a sense, like a series of overlaid maps, different territories and political ideologies mapped onto geographical regions — a theme which is reinforced with Christian Jankowski’s work “Heavy Weight History”. This time instead of Atlas with the world on his shoulders we have Polish weightlifters bearing the weight of history, literally hoisting up statues from not only the Communist era but also figures such as Ronald Reagan from the streets and squares of Warsaw.

Christian Jankowski, “Massage Masters”, installation (video 36′54″ and massage equipment), dimensions variable, 2017

Then in his video “Massage Masters”  history is being massaged — public sculptures in Yokohama being caressed by Japanese masseuses recalling the frequent re-crafting and retelling of historical narratives which is all too familiar an activity in Japan. In “Artistic Gymnastics” we are presented with instructions on how to hold a certain pose to become a live human sculpture. The instructions are written in the style of an exercise video and the figures interact with sculptures in a comedic act which problematizes “historical stances and postures”, the public performance of historical narratives and the links between athleticism and nationalism.

The Propeller Group, “Lenin as Jack Dawson in Titanic”, oil and embroidery on canvas, 154 x80 cm, 2013

The Propeller Group continues this trajectory into both the territorial and extraterritorial legacy of Communism in the sense of an “ideological reach” in their “Lenin As” series — a group of works taken from USSR headquarters embroidered to look like Leonardo Di Caprio —“Lenin as Jack Dawson in Titanic”, “Lenin as Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby”, “Lenin as J. Edgar Hoover in J. Edgar” — to explore the transnational appeal of the cult of personality.ThoughLenin’s celebrity status had a certain appeal within the red sphere, his celebrity doppelgängers have managed to achieve worldwide appeal. The group probes deeper into this dialogue about Cold War influence with the video work, “The AK47 vs. M16” — a video of two bullets from the American and Soviet firearms colliding in mid-air and until they fuse together.

Sam Durant, “1853-1900, Map of the World, Japan Centered”, colored pencil on paper, diptych, 51.9×61.8, 57.2×76.2cm, 2015

From guns to gunboat diplomacy, Sam Durant’s series “Borrowed Scenery” looks at the connection between conquest and nation branding in relation to Japan’s opening up, (i.e. the end of its isolation at the hands of American general Mathew C. Perry in 1854). Durant examines how this event was depicted and packaged to the American public placing images produced by Wilheim Heine (an artist hired by Perry to document the process), alongside his own own drawings and maps.

Sam Durant, “The Commodore’s Dream”, model ships, 59.1×134 x27.9cm, 2017

A model of a container ship with a gunboat atop speaks to the enduring presence of trade and economics as motivating factors of geopolitical integration/annexation, meanwhile a series of images titled “American Presents,” explores sinister repercussions of these earlier cultural interactions. A playbill for “Ethiopian Entertainment” — a show held aboard the USS Powhatan, Colonel Perry’s flagship — lists a number of dubious acts: “Darkies Serenade”, “Oh! Mr. Coon” and “Massa’s in de Cold! Cold Ground”. Though perhaps not unexpected in the 1800s, the offensive tradition of blackface endures into present-day Japan.

Wael Shawky, “Cabaret Crusades: The Secrets of Karbalaa (Marionette)”, 2015 © Wael Shawky; courtesy Lisson Gallery

Also in the realm of dubious cultural exchanges, Wael Shawky presented “Cabaret of the Crusades: The Secrets of Karbalaa”—an alternative view of the overseas adventures of the Latin Church, blurring the lines between history and fiction in court dramas enacted through puppetry. Shawky’s project was inspired by the book Crusades through Arab Eyes (1983), a collection of writings about the crusades by Arab writers of the Middle Ages,[3] and the video seeks to explore how the entry of the Crusaders forced previously harmonious groups to splinter off into warring religious and cultural identities.

Adding a lighter touch to the theme of cultural isolation is Sputniko!’s “Why Are We?” Project, a wall of national flags featuring five commonly-searched topics about said country using the auto-suggestion function of a google search engine. While a country like Japan might have queries such as “Why is Japan so cool?”, Taiwan gets, “Why is Taiwan not a country”, meanwhile the UAE has three questions about wealth, the others left blank as if the public has exhausted its store of curiosity. This very simple installation and the rudimentary nature of the questions illustrates that we are still largely confined to our own islands . . . despite the connectivity of the internet, we are still hopelessly ignorant about the fundamentals of life in other countries.

Sputniko! “Why Are We?” Project

Over at the other main venue, the Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse No. 1 (a former customs house), Ozawa Tsuyoshi presented “The Return of K.T.O”, which offers an exploration of the art historian Kakuzo “Tenshin” Okakura and his personal struggles with local identity and internationalism. K.T.O was very influential and exposing the west to Japanese culture, influencing a number of figures from Heidegger to Tagore. The film takes the form of a music video which somewhat problematizes the gaze of the other and the act of travel as a means of self-discovery featuring the lyrics:

Watching from your journey, now in a six-sided hut. Watching the rough waves dance and rage. You continued to meditate on imperfection.

Ozawa Tsuyoshi, “The Return of K.T.O”., oil on canvas,150 x250 cm, 2017

The life of K.T.O. does in many ways illustrate the conundrum of Island communication. As an individual who was deeply enmeshed in many cultures, with excellent language skills, who had a true intellectual dialogue with other scholars and artists around him, he nonetheless was the proponent of essentialist ideas seeing Asian cultures as focused on the transcendental and the spiritual whilst the west was only interested in immediate and earthbound concerns — perhaps islands and archipelagos are intricately entwined in the fate of humankind — no matter how much we try to comprehend others, we find it hard to escape from our hardwired cultural narratives says scholar M.G Sheftall:

At the most immediate interface of humans and culture, the symbolic function of culture provides us with a medium within which — and by which — we are able to create explanatory narratives for our existence (e.g., cultural creation myths, religious cannons, etc.). Such narratives provide us with individual and collective senses of cosmic significance. . . . As psychiatrist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman has framed this cultural function, “our symbolic world is an attempt to overcome and deny our biological fate.”[4]

In speaking of biological fate, Janoff-Bulman is referring to mortality and our fear of it. This symbolic world of culture and meaning acts as a kind of opiate, a balm applied to this inevitable fact. Yet at the same time, these symbolic worlds act as both fortresses and prisons, creating walls between disparate groups, when ironically mortality is one of the few areas of common ground shared by all humanity, that and of course taxes. . .

[1] Matori Yamamoto and Cindy Yoshiko Shirata,“Evolving Transnationalism in the Asia-Pacific Region: The Perspective of Social Science in Japan”, Trends in the Sciences, Jstage, vol. 17, no.2, p. 98, 2012”

[2] Binder, Pat & Haupt Gerard,, “Yoi Kawakubo: El Sur”, Aug 2017, last accessed October 16, 2017

[3] Alipour, Yassman, “Wael Shawky: The Cabaret Crusades”, The Brooklyn Rail,, July 2015, last accessed October 16, 2017 (

[4] Sheftall, M. G. “Kyosei:* Cultural Space, Multiculturalism, and the Prospect of a “Post-homogenous Japan” in Japan’s Demographic Revival: Rethinking Migration, Identity and Sociocultural Norms, Ed. Nagy, Stephen Robert, World Scientific Publishing Co. Singapore, p16.

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