Art and the abyss: Manipulations of time at the 2008 Yokohama Triennale

Saburo Teshigawara Fragments of Time 2008. Photo: Mineo Sakata.

'Art shakes up our everyday perceptions. It gives us glimpses of the 'abyss' we normally fail to notice, or perhaps pretend not to notice. It can horrify us, give us courage, console us, or provide us with what we need to face life. Art's bounty is not secured by novelty. When ancient Greek texts speak to us in a clear, familiar tone, like works penned only yesterday by our cultural peers; when music from the distant past of an unfamiliar land seems as fresh to our ears as if it had only just been composed; when we marvel at the aesthetic feats achieved at old religious sites with little or no connection to our own cultural tradition – in such moments, again and again we are reminded that being 'new' is not what gives art its depth and impact.

One could say that the new/old paradigm is sustained by a rigid worldview in which time is regarded as strictly linear. In the contemporary world, advanced information technology seems to be standardising time and space to a single measure. One gets the sense, however, that this very standardisation is paradoxically creating a host of schisms, and that we, perhaps more than any other people throughout human history, are thereby being forced to live a divided, fragmented existence. Time flows along multiple axes. But that fact is not by itself the source of cultural and artistic enrichment. What happens, rather, is that now and then different aspects of time twist, swirl, and collide with one another, creating unexpected fissures and faults through which the underlying abyss can be glimpsed.

It seems to me that art arises when we confront that abyss squarely and, by waiting attentively at the edges of what I call 'time crevasses', we scrupulously register various forms of mutual differentiation – individual or social differences, differences of nationality, gender, generation, ethnicity, religion, and so on – including the particular circumstances in which we ourselves are currently situated. A crevasse that opens up in a field of snow is a very 'beautiful' sight. But at the same time, art has the power to dispel the temptation to let ourselves fall into such crevasses. It is also an act of bridging those gaps so that people can communicate and interact through them. Yokohama is an ideal site for the building of such bridges through art because it is a comparatively young city, having opened up to the world only some 150 years ago. I sincerely hope that the third Yokohama Triennale will constitute for Yokohama an important step forward in its cultural maturation, and it is with this hope that I have chosen 'Time Crevasse' as the overall theme for the exhibition.'

Tsutomo Mizusawa, November 2006.

Tokyo is a booming marketplace of temporality: time is money, and space is time. For many, time outside the workplace or home is 'spent' inside public spaces that are hired by the minute. Karaoke booths, love hotels, manga kissa cyber cafés, massage parlours and bathhouses are scattered liberally throughout the city, playing host to a range of individual dramas. Consumers' experiences of these rented spaces are as temporal as they are physical; real and internalised stopwatches mediate and organise each pre-paid encounter. The present is not so much accepted or inhabited in these spaces, but consumed.

It was fitting then that the 2008 Yokohama Triennale showcased artists who express a critical awareness of time, and whose work upsets conventional, economically driven temporal flows. Organised under the enigmatic theme of 'Time Crevasse', the exhibition was effectively differentiated from the nine other biennales and triennales presented across Asia in 2008 by foregrounding performance and time-based practice and experiential art that explicitly relies on an audience presence for meaning. Curated by Artistic Director Mizuswa Tsutomu along with a star-studded curatorium including Daniel Birnbaum, Hu Fang, Miyake Akiko, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Beatrix Ruf, the exhibition was an attempt to create a new time-based architecture that disrupted, however momentarily, the linear and unidirectional regime of clock-time.

Tsutomu's rationale for the triennale is expressed in his preliminary statement.

Three main exhibition spaces and several satellite sites in Yokohama's portside district housed the Triennale. In a massive converted warehouse at Shinko Pier, works by 25 artists and artist groups including Mike Kelley, Jonathan Meese, Peter Fischli & David Weiss, Mario Garcia Torres and Shilpa Gupta were presented in individually contained, cubicle-like spaces. Looking more like a spacious art-fair display than a curated exhibition, the controlled, segregated layout severely inhibited dialogue between the works and restricted possibilities for site-specific, spatial investigations. If this rigid arrangement was a deliberate curatorial attempt to encourage measured contemplation and being-in-the-moment, it had the concomitant effect of imparting a stilted, authoritarian air that was sharply at odds with the arcane undertones of the 'Time Crevasse' theme.

Welsh artist Cerith Wyn Evans' collaboration with famed UK experimental music group Throbbing Gristle occupied a central space at Shinko Pier. Titled 'A=P=P=A=R=I=T=I=O=N' (2008), it consisted of three giant mobiles from which 16 highly polished circular mirrors were suspended. Delivering faint, directional, glacial sounds that could only be heard when standing in the individual disk's direct path, the gently spinning mirrors punched portal-like holes in the exhibition space at the same time they reflected back to the viewer their own image, positioning them as active performers within the installation. With every bodily twitch or assertive stride made by the viewer, a new and different high-frequency sound emanated from the disks, only to disappear at the very point of their making. Playfully manipulating the audience's experience of the immediate past and the elusive present, the work activated an internal and intensely personal aural space, at the same time it prompted an awareness of the body's external presence and impact on the art object.

'A=P=P=A=R=I=T=I=O=N' found a surprising counterpoint in Arte Povera pioneer Michelangelo Pistoletto's spectacular installation of 17 large-scale, gilt-framed mirrors ringing the Shinko Pier's final gallery. Like many of the works in the Triennale, Pistoletto's 'Seventeen less one' (2008) was experienced as the trace, or imagined memory of an action, which in this case had actually occurred on the exhibition's opening night. Sixteen of the mirrors had been violently smashed with a mallet; shards of glass lay on the floor, whilst black voids gaped from the partially intact reflective surfaces. Cordoned off like a crime-scene, the space resonated with the ghostly presence of the performer and his unexpected and brutal act; the splintered mirror existed as an inexorable memory of a precise historical moment, ceaselessly reflected back in a new and ever-shifting present.

Jostling temporal plates also emerged in New-York based performance artist Sharon Hayes' sound installation 'Everything Else Has Failed! Don't You Think It's Time for Love?' (2007) Originally created as a series of live street performances, the work was re-presented in Yokohama as a looped sound recording transmitted through a bank of elevated speakers. In the recording Hayes read aloud what appeared to be five different love letters, though the 'I' and 'you' in the monologues were slippery subjects, their exact identities and placement in time and space unclear. Both literal and metaphoric, the narrative oscillated between different time zones and historical eras, seamlessly interweaving revolutionary communiqués, anachronistic presidential transcripts, Iraq War protest slogans and angst-ridden personal narratives to explore precise intersections of desire, politics and war: 'I know that the ears are the only orifice that can't be closed' she implored, 'I am so much yours I am no longer myself;' and the sign-off, 'I choose my words carefully, and I say to you goodbye.'

The power of ritual and the rituals of power were also the focus of Mike Kelley's 'Candle Lighting Ceremony' (2004-05), an occult ode to religious services, high-school bitch-fights, amateur theatre productions and Nazism. Offering audiences a momentary reprieve from the heavy seriousness that cloaked much of the Triennale, the walk-through, multimedia extravaganza included a three channel video face-off between a chubby Christian girl, a candle-lighting Jewess and two pasty rappers in Nazi regalia singing about their fat fetishes. Inspired by three separate images found by the artist in an old high-school yearbook, Kelley's iconographic mash-up offered a complex and humorous meditation on social archetypes and their perpetuation in contemporary American mainstream culture. Despite his no-holds-barred approach to cultural reconfiguration however, the work's connection to the exhibition theme was tenuous and allegorical at best, and Kelley ultimately failed to arouse empathy in his mostly bewildered audience.

Far more generous and affecting was Japanese choreographer and installation artist Saburo Teshigawara's haunting 'Fragments of Time' (2008), a slow-paced, high-drama, live dance performance presented at Red Brick Warehouse No.1. Occupying a narrow, dimly lit alcove carpeted with shards of shimmering glass, the artist used variable cycles of light and sound to create the sensation of time being stretched and contracted. As the visitor entered the space, the lights dimmed and their eyes began to adjust to the darkness. As they slowly registered the undulating glass surfaces, the soft graduating colours and the slowly stirring dancer before them, the light again changed, revealing different material details that burned their image on the retina. As one of only a handful of Japanese works included in the entire Triennale, Teshigawara's 'Fragments of Time' was a standout piece.

Another highlight was an archive of Japanese videos and films from the 1950s to the 1970s. Also presented in the Red Brick Warehouse, it provided much-needed historical context for the other live art and performance documentation in the exhibition. Mostly silent, and transferred from 8mm or 16mm film, the archive included early films from seminal groups such as the Gutai Art Association, Fluxus and Hi-Red Centre, the latter featuring Yoko Ono. Hijikata Tatsumi's Butoh action 'Rebellion of the Body' (1968), with its legendary shining phallus, provided a particularly interesting counterpoint to the abject transgressions of Herman Nitsch, Joan Jonas and Paul McCarthy found elsewhere in the Triennale.

On the second floor of the Red Brick Warehouse, Chinese artist Cao Fei's 'RMB City Project' (2008) nearly went unnoticed, such was its likeness to an information portal commonly found in train stations and tourist destinations in Japan. Emblazoned with the directive 'Play with Your Triennale' and positioned awkwardly beside a gallery exit, the work's techno-utilitarian veneer housed a computer terminal through which audiences could enter a virtual city in Second Life. Visitors to RMB City teleported themselves from unidentified construction sites in China, to Yokohama's Shinko Pier, to the artist's virtual studio within microseconds, building new urban infrastructure and chatting with the artist's avatar as they went. Inviting comparison with the recent explosion of urban and cultural development in China (and to a lesser extent, in Yokohama), audiences navigated RMB City as a parallel, Utopian 'metaverse', where art production, urban development, communication and travel were unbounded by time and space.

Nearby, crowd favourite Miranda July's 'The Hallway' (2008) transformed one of the narrow warehouse corridors into a metaphoric tunnel of the mind. Comprising 49 handwritten text panels placed at regular, head-high intervals, audiences slalomed their way through the 30-metre installation, stitching-together the narrative that was in turns playful, questioning, paranoid, anxious, charming and sentimental. 'Some days you wake up feeling great, full of freedom and possibility. But you haven't had one of those days in a long time. Maybe ever' said one. 'It seems as though you think less than you used to. And why should you think? There's nothing to decide. There's just walking forward' said another. Expressing an uncanny familiarity with the audience's own internal monologues, including the way they think about art, July's cerebral and self-reflexive work left the visitor feeling simultaneously relieved and disappointed when they emerged from the claustrophobic space, unsure of how long their physical, intellectual and emotional journey had taken.

Outside in the idyllic Sankeien Garden, the Triennale's fourth main venue, a captivating, eerie pallor suffused all of the art on view, including Tino Sehgal's 'The Kiss' (2008), a live appropriation of Rodin's famous sculpture, here involving two dancers in a permanent embrace. Misty waves of artificial fog from Nakaya Fujiko's 'Fogfalls' #47670 'Tales of Ugetsu' (2008) seeped through the trees, casting an ethereal white mist through the undergrowth. Wandering through the traditional Japanese garden, among the buildings spanning half a millennium, audiences were transported into a phantasmagoric, illusory space; to an elemental world that time forgot. As an act of 'site-specific destruction' – a term coined by the exhibition curators in their catalogue essay to describe works that are at once site-specific, post-material and time-based – Fujiko's ephemeral intervention vanished as soon as it was realised, never to be experienced the same way again.

It was in the Sankeien Garden exhibition, which also incorporated works by Jorge Macchi and Edardo Rudnitzky, Naito Rei and Tris Vonna-Mitchell, that the curators were able to best draw out the multiple resonances in the individual works, letting them bleed into each other, and allowing images to seep into the audience's view from different spaces. The body of the visitor was kept alive, challenged and in a constant state of renegotiation – through adjusting the eyes, ears, and letting the surrounding conditions inform the experience. More than any other Triennale venue, the works here went closest to mobilising the audience's own subconscious awareness of schisms and movements in time, and thus of approximating Mizuswa Tsutomu's vision for the 'Time Crevasse'.

As a curatorial framework, 'Time Crevasse' was ambitious and bold. The exhibition asked a lot from its audience, but for those willing to contemplate the implications of the 'crevasse', the rewards were plenty. These visitors left the exhibition with valuable new insights into time as fluid, elastic and multidimensional. For this reason the 2008 Yokohama Triennial was unique – even radical – particularly when one considers how consumer society is becoming less and less able to offer people ways to live in the present, and to have the flow of time be accepted and inhabited as it happens. For many, the passing moment is not endurable (or at least, not fully real), unless it is measured, told or shown, immediately and continuously, to others – or even to oneself.