Installation view 8th Yokohama Triennale, featuring (front) Joar Nango, Ávnnastit / Harvesting Material Soul, 2024; (back) Emmanuel van der AuweraVideoSculpture XXVIII (January 6th), 2023, Yokohama Museum of Art, 2024. Photo: Tomita Ryohei

An insight into the 8th Yokohama Triennale can be found in the old capital, Kyoto, over 400 kilometres west of Yokohama. Attached to the walls of Takashi Murakami’s major survey exhibition at Kyoto City KYOCERA Museum of Art (celebrating the Museum's 90th anniversary) are his colourful handwritten screeds about his training in nihonga, the style of Japanese painting that encourages shimmering opalescent space. In one of these little inscriptions, he says nihonga was created in the late 19th century as an antidote to Western painting, that manga was a Japanese form influenced by ukiyo-e and that, around 2000, he 'came to think that the historical uniqueness of Japan should now be in the limelight.'

As a nation, Japan is overtly seeking 'which way' next. The news media frets about population stagnation, the flattened economy and the value of the yen. Most young people are not seeking overseas experiences beyond a holiday. It is still a difficult thing for a Japanese person to marry a foreigner (proven by the debate about ‘abducted’ mixed-parent children). The English language is being taught in schools, but is not necessarily seen as something to ‘use’. Foreign visitors are bemused by the conservative technology especially in communications (lack of official emails, widespread use of cash, sparse WiFi, poor general access to international media). How does this equate with Japan’s position as a major player in the world, with its capital, Tokyo, a huge metropolis of over 37 million people?

Are Murakami’s thoughts about looking to tradition the way forward? Certainly the main trends of the last few decades seem to have slowed down: Japanese fashion giants continue, but are hardly the world-influencing cri de coeur they once were; we have seen a lot of manga and anime, exhibitions of which are still the knee-jerk go-to for increasingly low-key museums; the cult of the cute (kawaii) is surely lagging; and ‘names’ like Yayoi Kusama and Murakami just keep going, their work not changing significantly over years of practice. All these aspects of Japanese creativity have changed global culture in their time, but now seems the time for looking and thinking anew.

The 8th Yokohama Triennale, Wild Grass: Our Lives does think anew. It makes no major claims; it does not display the latest in global spectacle; it is nuanced; it is thoughtful. It does not forecast the future, but outlines important issues for our lives now as mirrored in the past. It isn’t the nihonga or ukiyo-e of Murakami, but rather a tougher look at a tougher time of social change and war through the 20th century. Seeing not just threads, but ropes of connection, between years and across societies.

Wild Grass: Our Lives is centrally sited at the Yokohama Museum of Art, but with two main offshoots at renovated early 20th century commercial buildings nearby: the Former Daiichi Bank Yokohama Branch and BankART KAIKO (very similar to the commercial buildings in Collins St, Melbourne, but that's another story).

The main museum is a clunky pinkish stony 1980s construction, at odds with light and airy oft-seen Japanese museum architecture, and it is a hard task to show anything except clunky stony art, especially in the main central hall where two opposing sets of terraces cascade down towards the ground floor. The curators, Beijing-based Liu Ding and Carol Yinghua Lu (the latter living in Melbourne in recent years), have overcome this difficulty by throwing the space into chaos. Quiet, human chaos, but chaos all the same. Sámi artist Joar Nango's Ávnnastit / Harvesting Material Soul (2024) is literally strewn across the hall, up and down staircases, underfoot, beneath Sandra Mujinga's And My Body Carried All of You (2024) tented canvas sculptures, hanging overhead with long thready tails. It is a brilliant curatorial feat to make this heavy, seemingly dead space come alive, and it sets the tone for what is to follow.

The main halls are a dichotomy of the alive and the afflicted. The title Wild Grass is taken from early 20th century Chinese writer Lu Xun, referring to how wild grass hangs onto life despite the greatest vicissitude. The curators say Lu Xun wrote it in despair at the social circumstances around him, but, to me, both he and the exhibition rise above despair to celebrate, as does the wild grass, the capacity for regeneration, regrowth, hope and brighter days in the future.

Lu Xun was a revolutionary thinker in China, challenging the status quo of the old order, but doing it with humanity and sympathy. He studied in Japan, admired art–particularly woodcuts–from the USSR and Europe, translated texts from Russian, founded a printing press, brought in Japanese teachers for young Chinese artists, and wrote novels, critiques and short pieces on art and life until his relatively early death aged 55 in 1936. Turning the traditional Chinese desire for harmony on its head, he wrote about the poor, not the scholars; he wrote about injustice and ignorance in the village, not the dreamings of learned men walking the mountain paths. Two Japanese translations of his work, in 1927 and 1937, are displayed in Yokohama. Readers in the West do not know Lu Xun adequately. Like much of this exhibition, the curators quietly and steadily put forward his credentials as a thinker–and a human being–of global importance.

Installation view, 8th Yokohama Triennale, Your Bros. Filmmaking Group (So Yo-Hen, Liao Hsiu-Hui, Tien Zong-Yuan), 宿舎 Ký Túc Xá/ Dorm, 2023 / 2024, Yokohama Museum of Art. Photo: Tomita Ryohei

The idea that art and culture can change society is writ large here: the recreation of a Taiwanese clothing manufacture dormitory sits alongside Polish in-your-face anti-gay videos, alongside delicate drawings of Kosovo life under duress and photographs of 1960s rebel American youth culture.

The guest curators worked with groups of local colleagues to include Japanese artists' links with Chinese artists through the mid-century, presenting work that made sense in this context and thereby had weight. They included Japanese protest art in the 1960s, not just Gutai (though Atsuko Tanaka’s Work (Bell) (1955/81) rang out alarmingly throughout the main hall), but also documentary photographs of public protests. Artists who strove for justice throughout their lives got special attention, like Tomiyama Taeko (1921-2021) whose art addressed power structures in East Asia. Her art isn’t remarkable outside this context, but it adds another brick in the wall of this exhibition’s intent.

The interweaving, often unexpected, of the historic and contemporary is ever present. The Former Daiichi Bank Yokohama Branch venue is themed 'Post-revolutionary Worlds'. These ideas are cogent now, with the Indonesian and Malaysian collectives Taring Padi and Pangrok Sulap featuring strongly as part of the Inter-Asia Woodcut Mapping Group, but it also includes rubbings of Malaysian anti-Japanese World War II memorials: a serious undercurrent in this lively, not 'museum-careful' display, with its slightly raffish, ad hoc, let-it-rip attitude of defiance.

Installation view, 8th Yokohama Triennale at Former Daiichi Bank Yokohama Branch, 2024. Photo: OHNO Ryusuke

The circumstances of the Yokohama Triennale are as fluid as the cultural and political situation is in Japan. The Japan Foundation (part of the federal government) has changed from the glory days of the early 1990s when it supported a specific Asia Centre with leading exhibitions, symposia, international collaborations and publications. It overtly supported the early triennales, seeing them as flagship national events. But now, administration has moved to both city government and the museum itself, with income from tickets and philanthropy important to its viability. The big art museums in Tokyo also seem less buoyant. The Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo was closed at the time of the Triennale opening, the Museum of Modern Art Tokyo's display seems very similar to ten years ago, the Mori Art Museum had its environment show on for six months (Our Ecology: Toward a Plantary Living), and towards the end was looking tired, though the National Arts Centre Tokyo is attracting good crowds. The cultural sites with the biggest crowds are the traditional venues–the National Museum in Tokyo and the Kyoto temples.

If Japan is turning back to its traditions, hopefully it does so as thoughtfully as Murakami and the Triennale curators. That is, finding a way to bring those traditions into a world that values the local and appreciates how it informs and celebrates a broader perspective with the energy and creativity so obviously inherent. In recent times, there has been a lull in activity with Australia. However, surely the aspiration is, if circumstances and opportunities are there, that we are ready to respond to and take part in this new way of thinking.