Illustration by Kate Copeland.

Yasumasa Morimura

Japan Korea, South UK
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

I am an artist. Usually I make artwork, but from August 1 to November 3 of this year I served as the artistic director of the 2014 Yokohama Triennale. The title of the exhibition was “Art Fahrenheit 451: Sailing Into the Sea of Oblivion,” with boukyaku (“oblivion”) as its theme. Things that are invisible, hidden, rejected and unnoticed by society. Nonessential things that get thrown away for being useless. Defeat, nothingness, death, silence. The ability of art to direct attention to such things that have been cast aside and into oblivion was the theme of the Triennale.

Held concurrently with the Yokohama Triennale was the 2014 Gwangju Biennale, entitled “Burning Down the House.” It was an interesting coincidence that Gwangju’s title was borrowed from a song from the New Wave, art-rock band Talking Heads, much like the Yokohama Triennale took its title from the novel Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s 1953 cautionary tale against book burning. It is as if the two exhibitions were suggesting that today we are living in a precarious world where the occurrence of fire—particularly in disquieting instances of spontaneous combustion—could be perceived as an ominous forewarning for future uncertainty.

However, there was something fundamentally different about the Jessica Morgan-led Gwangju Biennale and the Yokohama Triennale, which was curated by myself, a Japanese artist. It is difficult to express this difference in a few words; but if Gwangju was a representation of the strength of art’s inherent power, then Yokohama focused on the mindset of the powerless who persevere despite their disadvantages, who find conscience and dignity in the arts. In a way, the two festivals took completely opposing stances. 

Even though they shared “burning” as a thematic keyword, in Gwangju I felt that “fire” was presented as a symbol of the power of anger or resistance. On the other hand, in Yokohama, it focused more on the role of “burning fire” as a ritual or ceremonial gesture dedicated to those in need or who have died. Both in Gwangju and Yokohama, the artists Edward and Nancy Kienholz, Jack Goldstein and Akram Zaatari were on display as well as works that embodied a feminist perspective. There was a similarity in the selection of artists. But, again, whereas Gwangju presented the rebellious spirit of the downtrodden, burning red like hellfire, Yokohama showed mourning for those in need, and who have died, and a sense of deference to their plight of drifting away into the “sea of oblivion.” 

While Yokohama and Gwangju “burned,” another exhibition, Mediacity Seoul 2014, took place in Korea. Entitled “Ghosts, Spies and Grandmothers,” there was also a commonality between this exhibition and Yokohama. In its title, “Ghosts” represented worlds invisible to the eye; “Spies” symbolized those hidden from society; and “Grandmothers” evoked oppressed history and peoples—some of the same elements that Yokohama was trying to draw attention to with its theme of “oblivion.” Furthermore, the intent of Mediacity Seoul also overlapped with that of Yokohama, which saw artistic expression as a form of memorializing “oblivion.” Despite only sharing one participating artist, Eric Baudelaire, Mediacity Seoul and Yokohama seemed to have a common view toward a vision of the world that art seeks to realize.

Gwangju was an exhibition organized by a European curator, Jessica Morgan, that was held in Asia. Mediacity Seoul and Yokohama were both exhibitions headed by Asian artistic directors that were also held in Asia. Moreover, the artistic director of Mediacity Seoul, Park Chan-kyong, is a media artist and filmmaker, and I myself am an artist as well. Does the artistic director’s nationality, race and position within the arts influence the quality of the exhibition? Or, should the affinities or discrepancies of an exhibition be attributed to the personality or character of its organizer? To me, the difference between the vision put forth by an artist from Asia—a region that is not part of the “center” of the world, not only politically and economically, but also culturally—and that of a curator from the West—which, inevitably, cannot help but be the “center” of the world—was distinctly reflected in the personality of each of the three exhibitions. Because I did not see the other Asian art festivals, such as the Taipei Biennial and Busan Biennale, I do not want to draw a rash conclusion, but the similarities and differences between Yokohama, Gwangju and Mediacity Seoul—a key in evaluating the definition of art in Asia—were intriguing. 

Translated by Hanae Ko