the 2009 Kobe Biennale


The 2011 Kobe Biennale runs through November 23rd, so now seems as good a time as any to drop a post about the 2009 Kobe Biennale, which I attended with my friend Ikko.  I love the Biennale (I also attended the 2007 model), which is full of playful and intelligent artwork, beautiful and interesting displays of contemporary ikebana (seen above), and all sorts of other stuff.  Almost everything is mounted in shipping containers, which seems appropriate since Kobe is, after all, famous for being a port city.

This piece, called LIFE TIMER, is by Takashima Ryozo (高島亮三) and involves thousands of identical plastic clocks that have been attached to all the walls of the container in which they’re housed.  Here’s what Takashima has to say about his piece:

Normally, a “second” is the shortest unit of time that one can experience visually. We are living our lives in an accumulation of these “seconds.” In this work, I have attempted to call up this perception, which due to its obviousness we have forgotten, in the peculiar space of this container.

What was most incredible about this piece was the sound.  Walking into this container, with its thousands of temporally misaligned chronometers, was like walking into a quiet jungle full of insects clacking their mandibles.  I could have stood in there for hours.

talk to earth, by kimucha, is a globe made entirely from empty paper coffee cups.  The globe itself is white, but a constantly changing image of the planet is projected onto that white surface.  As you sit in the dark you can watch the Earth rotate and night wash over into daylight.  Obviously this is a commentary on consumer culture and asks questions about our relationship to the planet.  It’s particularly skillful when it comes to the problem of representing what I might call the “consumer sublime,” the vast amount of resources we use and the vast amount of waste we generate via our consumer habits.  Here that takes on the scope of the globe itself, which is perhaps — sadly — more accurate than not.

Other works, such as this one, are more purely formal and conceptual, spaces perfect for a slower-paced contemplation.  This piece involves the play of light within a beautiful and quiet sculptural space.  If the weather is just right, once a day there’s a ray of light that is refracted to form a rainbow.  The piece, by Tetsuo Iwaoka (岩岡哲夫) and Shin Tsuchiya (土屋真) is called Kaikoh (回光), which I’d like to translate as “recurrence of light.”

This piece, called The Tank is an Elephant in English and 象戦車 in Japanese, is by Higashikata Yuhei (東方悠平) and was one of my favorites of the Biennale.  The Tank is an Elephant is a steel sculpture of an elephant mounted on tank treads that uses the natural corrosion of rust to imitate the organic browns of skin.  Housed in darkness, the tank is occasionally lit up by sudden flashes of light as the enormous roaring sound of an elephant fills the container.  Trapped in the tiny space of the container and herded toward the walls by the size of the sculpture, the explosion of light and sound had quite an effect.  This piece called to mind the incredible destruction that war can wreak on natural habitats at the same time that it was impressive on its own, a kind of Imperial Walker straight from the veldt.  The online description that accompanies this piece is both mysterious, and strangely poetic:

Fancy weapons depriving people of their will to fight are imported all over the world. But the robust and mournful roar of an elephant tank envelops the pitch black container.

There seemed to be quite a few animal-themed pieces at the 2009 Kobe Biennale, including this wonderful piece by Kazuhiro Ishigami (石上和弘) called a world cow house (ワールドカウハウス).  The piece is a recreation of the artist’s father’s cow shed and the attitude of the cows is perfectly rendered.  My first paying job was feeding our landlord’s hobby cows as I was growing up, and every morning before school I would walk up the hill and feed them hay or grain, depending on the age of the cows.  The look of excited anticipation on their faces as they crowded into the feeding area is exactly the same look that Ishigami has rendered here.  The pure whiteness of the cows, however, gives them a ghostly feeling and calls attention to their artificiality at the same time that their look calls us to recognize them as living creatures.  I’m sure that Levinas would have had something to say about this piece.

Another piece featuring animals was Liquid Dreams, a collaborative installation between Craig Quintero and Joyce Ho.  The setup for this piece was quite simple, but quite beautiful as well.  There is a long desk in the entry room where you write down your dream or wish on a piece of handmade paper.  After revealing your secret desire, you pass through the rabbit-shaped door in the back.  I’m not sure if this was intended as a direct reference to the dreamlike nature of Alice in Wonderland, but I couldn’t escape the idea, no matter how hard I tried.  Some people later told me that it reminded them of Donnie Darko.  In any case, there’s no doubt that traveling into the back room was a trip through the rabbit hole.

The back room contains a pleasant scene of clouds and blue skies painted on the rear wall, and a large cauldron filled with a milky liquid and a giant wooden stir-spoon.  The liquid turns out to be sea water that’s mixed with the paper pulp from all of the dreams and wishes that have been stirred into the pot.  At this point you add your own written wishes to the pot and then take the spoon and stir them to the point of disintegration.  Later, the water and the biodegradable paper will be returned to the ocean; all of the dreams, already mixed together, will slowly mix into the seas and fan out across the globe.

Speaking of dreams, orz, a piece by Sakurano (さくらの) — an artist or collective based in Osaka — is an installation that plays with the suffocating question of dream and desire in very interesting ways.  The name in Roman characters, orz, is a reference to the Japanese emoticon that indicates a person bowing down on their knees with their head against the ground.  This can be seen as bowing in deference, but also bowing in admiration.  The letters are meant to portray a supplicant body as seen from the side; the ‘o’ is the head, the ‘r’ represents the hands against the ground, and the ‘z’ is the legs, tucked under (as in the photograph above).  The Japanese name of the piece is 変態願望, or “hentai ganpou,” which can be translated as ‘perverted desire.’  The desire being referenced here is clearly otaku desire, particularly the otaku desire for animated characters that are both sexually provocative and submissive at the same time.  In order to experience this piece you first need to enter the container through a standard household door.  The door has a peephole installed in it, so you can see the view of the giant anime character inside (the view above) through the peephole.  You can also watch people crawling through the legs of the figure above, so there’s already a sense of voyeurism involved.  When you enter the container you are confronted by this enormous sculpture, which becomes grotesquely unsexy because of its oversized proportions.  Disproportion can seem cute when small, but that quality rapidly changes when it’s supersized.  In order to view the entire installation, you need to get down and crawl directly underneath the sculpture, right between the legs.  This is both humorous, and slightly embarrassing.  You’re immediately confronted with the giant face of an anime-eyed character that seems to be demanding to know exactly what your intentions are.  Finally, at the far end of the container, you come face to face with a glowing television set with nothing on the screen, a sudden literalization of the actual material space in which virtual desire occurs.  It feels very empty and alone.

Another really fantastic piece was Butsu by Honbori Yuji (本 堀雄二), a recreation of iconographic Buddhist statuary using recycled cardboard containers.  I like how the use of cardboard both repurposes the everyday in order to reveal the sacred that’s always lurking in the quotidian, and at the same time recalls Buddhist concepts such as the wheel of karma.  The photograph above doesn’t at all do justice to the beautiful sculpturality of the piece, or the sense of floating quietude evoked in the container that held the work.  Here’s what the artist has to say about the piece:

I used some cardboard, which had outlived its original use and was waiting to function in a new way, to create a statue of Yakushi-sanzon, a Buddha who mends people’s hearts. Take a moment to enjoy the variations in the statue’s features from different angles. If you’ve got some discarded paper, you’ve got some paper that’s ready to be picked up.

There were several video works at the Biennale, a type of installation that’s particularly difficult to capture the flavor of by using a still camera.  This was a piece called Harmony (ハーモニー) by Kazuki Hitoosa (人長果月).  Like most of these video works, the point of the piece is the unfolding of light and sound across time, the slow contemplation and experience of a new aesthetic environment, lovingly held within its temporary container home.  Another fine video work was snow bar N43, an installation by YEN DESIGN (福島慶介 and 川瀬浩介) that consisted of a very dark room and a bar to sit at. The wall behind the bar featured a very faint projection of  falling snow, a surprisingly mesmerizing effect.

There’s always an incredible amount to see and do at the Kobe Biennale, so if you have a chance to make it to the 2011 edition, I strongly recommend that you do.


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