David Chart's Japan Diary

October 25th 2005

Things continue to move on in the flat. Yesterday, the curtains for the bedroom and living room arrived, and they look great. The first of the living room ceiling lights arrived, with a cable that almost reaches the floor. It's supposed to be fixed to a second point on the ceiling, so the installation of that will have to wait a little while, until I have time to find the joists and fix it. Work is also coming along, with more enquiries from students. Editing and planning played havoc with my word count last week, unfortunately, so I'm going to have to try to get more done this week and catch up a bit. It's nowhere near a crisis, though; it's just normal variation in how much gets done in a given working day.

Yokohama Skyline The skyline of Yokohama's port district.

Most of last week was, therefore, fairly normal. On Sunday, however, we went to Yokohama. Yokohama is the capital of Kanagawa Prefecture, where I now live, and one of Japan's major ports. In the nineteenth century it was one of the first ports to be opened to foreign trade, and as the closest to the capital it was possibly the most important. We were, of course, going to see some art exhibitions.

The weather was glorious, so we walked quite a bit. We first went to an exhibition by a Brazilian artist called Rachel Rosalen, in the Yokohama Museum of Art. She works in various media, generally including video and other technological things. Two of the works on display were interactive, in that they had sensors installed so that the projected images changed in response to the motion of the people involved. It was an interesting exhibition, which might have repaid a bit more time for appreciation.

Our next stop was Yokohama Chinatown, for lunch. The area was very crowded, which is hardly unexpected on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, but we found a nice place to eat, and Yuriko bought some souvenir food for afterwards. From there, we walked to the seafront, where there is a large park, Yamashita Park, right up against the water. According to Yuriko, it's a very popular place for dates, and there did seem to be quite a lot of couples around. You can see why; it's quite central and easily accessible, and it's a park by the sea. We walked through the park to the main aim of our visit: the Yokohama Triennale.

Yokohama Triennale The arch of shipping containers that serves as a symbol for the Yokohama Triennale.

The Triennale is a major exhibition of international contemporary art, and most of it is happening in two enormous warehouses on the end of a large pier in Yokohama port. There are some works scattered over the surrounding bits of Yokohama, and one of them, Hotel Villa Kaihoutei, was one of the reasons we went to Chinatown. This was by an artist who specialises in building hotel rooms around public monuments, in this case a Chinese-style pavilion in a small park. It is possible to stay in the hotel, but it is already fully booked for the duration of the exhibition.

The pier holding the main exhibition is long, but in the nice weather the walk down it was very pleasant, with good views of Yokohama, particularly the Minato Mirai area (that's the area in the skyline picture). The exhibition itself took us about five hours to get round. Even then, I don't think we saw everything in detail.

It was contemporary art, which means that there was the usual range on display, from someone who seems to think that hanging up lots of little red-and-white bunting flags is art if you say it is (no), through the simply weird, to the possibly very deep and affecting. One problem with the Triennale setting is that the sheer number of works on display meant that anything not immediately accessible tends to get passed over. I suspect that this is a particular problem for contemporary art, which often seems to delight in being as inaccessible and abstruse as possible. This isn't unique to contemporary art, of course; Renaissance art had definite tendencies in the same direction, with vast numbers of classical allusions piled into a painting until, in some cases, the whole sorry mess collapses under its own weight. Still, it is more of a problem when the quick glance reveals 'a pile of random assorted junk' rather than 'a massively complex painting with lots of weird-looking people'. I suspect that the Renaissance version looks more as if it will repay time spent on it.

There's also a lot of contemporary art where I wonder whether the effort is worth the pay-off. One display was based on the conceit that the artists had sawed the top off Mount Everest and brought it to the exhibition, where the whole expedition was documented. I have now, as far as I am aware, conveyed the content of the art work, and all the resonances you get from the actual work can be got from that single sentence. I am reminded of a set of stories by Jorge Luis Borges (which must be in the Ficciones, because that's all I've read by him) in which he reviews books that do not exist. These included an encyclopedia of a non-existent place (hmm, I write those for a living), and a book arguing that Judas, not Jesus, was the Messiah, as it was Judas who sacrificed most, both his life and his future reputation, while Jesus sacrificed very little. The most famous, however, is 'Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote', concerning a contemporary author who sets out to re-write Don Quixote word-for-word, but as a product of his own creativity and immersion in the literature of the period. (That is, he does not copy Don Quixote.) Borges argues that the result is even more interesting than the original, because the meaning of the episodes is very different when produced by a twentieth-century author; far more cultural reference is implied. Modern art often reminds me of this story.

Oh, that sounds pretentious. Well, pressing on.

The interest of Menard's reconstruction comes from the context in which it was made, not from the actual content of the work. Much modern art is the same. The interest of Tracy Emin's bed comes from it being put in a gallery, called art, and being her bed. Otherwise, it's just a messy, unmade bed. Similarly for Warhol's photo-realistic paintings of soup cans. In itself, there's very little to recommend them over photographs of a soup can, so the meaning must come from the context of the creator. I suspect that I don't fully approve of this approach to art. I tend to the old-fashioned belief that a work of art should have at least some, preferably most, of its meaning in the work itself. Knowing the context, and the web of references, might well make the work deeper and shed light on some points. That's certainly true for, say, Shakespeare's plays. But you don't need the context to enjoy a play by Shakespeare. You don't need to be told that they are art. Indeed, by almost every standard of the contemporary art world, they aren't. They were written by a hack, to deadlines, for money, in order to entertain the masses.

I think this may be why much modern art strikes me as not worth the effort. A fake review of someone who made their bed into a work of art would touch all the same strings, without taking up space or encouraging 'performance artists' to jump up and down on it. There is, of course, no firm dividing line here; all art needs a context. There is still, however, a balance between intrinsic and extrinsic meaning, and I'm on the side of art with intrinsic meaning.

Speaking of which, I really ought to finish this entry and go and create some art.