On All Saints’ Day, November 1st, 1755, a massive earthquake/tsunami hit the city of Lisbon. During the years that followed, echoes of the disaster reverberated across the whole of European culture. Voltaire wrote about it in Candide. Kant dedicated three poems to it. And Goethe, even if he was just six-years-old at the time, evokes it in his memoirs – indeed, the German poet’s biographers consider that Lisbon catastrophe an essential trait of his intellectual upbringing. The earthquake became a dark reminder of Nature’s sway in an epoch in which humanity was enjoying its first Enlightenment.
Two-and-a-half centuries later, in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima earthquake/tsunami, Japan seems to be undergoing a similar reaction, at least when it comes to its artistic and architectural intelligentsia. With matters complicated by a nuclear accident, the debate turned to man’s liability in a time of new technological illumination. On their side, architects have looked at efforts of reconstruction as an opportunity to reassume social responsibility. Leading figures such as the latest Pritzker prize winner, Toyo Ito, devised rebuilding programmes for stricken, remote populations. Ito also chose this initiative as the theme for Japan’s pavilion at the 2012 Venice Biennale, which won him the event’s coveted Golden Lion and recognition in the international architectural debate.
Crossing the divide
That being said, it should come as no surprise that this year’s Aichi Triennale is now contributing to a wider reflection on the catastrophe. More-so as the young, interdisciplinary Triennale, based in Nagoya and Japan’s largest international arts festival – comprising of both visual and performance arts – chose an architectural critic as artistic director for its second edition. This curatorial choice is a first in major art events in Japan, which is timely, suggesting that when it comes to being seismographers of problems of our time, artists and architects have a lot in common – and a lot to say to each other.
The curator of this 2013 edition, 46-year-old Taro Igarashi, considered the Great East Japan Earthquake theme to be “unavoidable”, and also possibly had in mind its potential for offering a meaningful terrain on which architects and artists could meet. The Triennale has thus become a revealing and poignant showcase for a recent trend: the increase in a mutual, incestuous interest, and the many corresponding exchanges now existing between the fields of art and architecture.
Particularly after the explosion of post-modernity in the late 1970s, artists have often dwelled on matters of architecture and the city. Installation art has provided fertile ground upon which to explore spatial issues and architectural site-specificity. The critique of architectural modernism was first embodied in the work of artists such as Dan Graham, and it continues to this day. Many artists, from Donald Judd to Olafur Eliasson, have jumped onto architecture’s bandwagon, assuming leadership and forming collaborations on significant architectural endeavours.
Architects, on the other hand, have continued to learn from artists, welcoming their critical visions or absorbing their formal and conceptual influences. Contributions from artists to architects’ buildings have evolved beyond the decorative afterthought. More to the point, many relevant artists today, from Marjectica Potrc to Tomas Saraceno, actually have an architectural background, disclosing perhaps that the art field remains more hospitable to unorthodox takes on what the practice of architecture may mean.
The twain shall meet
Under the lengthy and encompassing heading of Awakening – Where are We Standing? Earth, Memory and Resurrection, Aichi Triennale 2013 has achieved a curious feat: that of using a strong ethical call to reveal the importance – and fruitfulness – of the multifaceted dialogue that is currently going on between art and architecture. As such, among the Triennale’s 122 international participants, we can once more encounter artists such as Richard Wilson and Thomas Hirshhorn, who have been central to installation art’s habit of deeply interacting with its architectural surroundings. We come across artists that often refer to their architectural background as a departure point in their work – such as Chile’s Alfredo Jaar and Hong Kong’s Kacey Wong. We discern artists that renew the practice of critical observation of urban phenomena, as with Israel’s Nira Pereg and her hypnotic 2008 video piece on the ultra-orthodox communities of Tel-Aviv. And we hit upon artists that in very diverse ways have made architecture one of their essential themes of reflection – from French photographer Stéphane Couturier to Japanese light artist Kyota Takahashi to Korean installation artist Min-Jeong Seo.
Conversely, as an innovation introduced by Taro Igarashi, architecture became a focus of the Triennale as well. Besides the Nagoya architectural guide published on this occasion, we discover architects who have been pushing the expected limits of architectural practice and are hence coming under the art world’s radar – such as Japanese architects Terunobu Fugimoto, Junya Ishigami, and Studio Velocity, and Lead Pencil Studio in America.
Destruction as a trigger
Last, but not least, we can appreciate the work of architects and artists that were ready to bring radical approaches to the very spaces of presentation in several venues of the Triennale. This happened in the case of Katsuhiro Miyamoto, with his conflation of the Fukushima nuclear plant and Aichi Arts Centre, and the temporary conversion of Kisho Kurokawa’s Nagoya City Art Museum by architect Jun Aoki. The physical, disturbing superimposition of the plans and sections of the nuclear plant within the art space, in the first case, and the redesign of a post-modern museum, making it into an ironic minimalist space, in the second, both speak of a “creative destruction” that, true to the intent of the curator, seems to be the touchstone of the Triennale.
Certainly, this is an exhibition unusually filled with scenes of destruction, as in Walid Raad’s Beirut series, heavy with evocations of past catastrophes, in Tomoko Yoneda’s photographic projects, and in Aernout Mik and Jaar’s installations, or overflowing with suggestions of eminent disaster, as in Mitch Epstein’s images of American Power and in the disconcerting world of Kohei Nawa’s Foam. In a more trashy, relational mode, the “creative destruction” also takes hold of the Choja-Maji neighbourhood, a formal textile area in which parasitic interventions by graffiti artists and young collectives, such as The We-Lows and Nadegata Instant Party, sometimes seem to escape curatorial direction, yet finally present the possibility of a fresh start.
In their own way, many of the possibilities brought together by the Triennale reveal that when it comes to destruction being a trigger for the aesthetical experience of the so-called Kantian sublime, some architects and artists are not that dissimilar in their responses. Ruins, crises, and disasters are to be exposed and debated, but are also to be seen as an opportunity for creating their hopeful reversal: reconstructions, resurrections, and other renaissances. ‹