It was standing room only at the opening reception for Japanese Pavilion commissioner Chihiro Minato and artist Masao Okabe's grand project. This should come as no surprise: though visitors to Venice have more than enough in the way of international pavilions, the famed Arsenale, and countless off-site projects vying for their attention, Japan has arguably been the country home to the most exciting, crowd-garnering art within the contemporary art world. Artists such as Takashi Murakami and his famed Kai Kai Kiki school, Yoshitomo Nara, Nobuyoshi Araki, and Hiroshi Sugimoto are virtually household names amongst those with an ounce of interest in current global culture. So, in a crowd of familiar Japanese art world figures and scores of the usual press, an international group had gathered to discover what Japan had to offer following the surprising choice by commissioner Michiko Kasahara of photographer Miyako Ishiuchi as Japan's representative at the 51st Biennale two years prior.
At a Biennale short on surprises and new discoveries it was in some sense refreshing to note the lack of familiarity -- even amongst some colleagues from Japan -- with chosen artist Masao Okabe. In inspired speeches presented by both Minato and Okabe (technical problems with the pavilion microphone aside) a case was made for the past -- more specifically, for the need to ensure that the past not be forgotten in the midst of a contemporary world full of information and speed, yet consequently short on historical memory. In keeping with the overall theme of the Biennale, produced under the direction of curator Robert Storr, presently Dean of the Yale University of Art, this Japanese Pavilion was unabashedly political. Commissioner and artist clearly saw this as an opportunity to utilize art world globalization to reawaken a collective memory of an event which they apparently believe to have been on some level forgotten: the tragic bombing on August 6, 1945 of Hiroshima, Japan by the United States.
Upon initial consideration, it seems absurd to suggest that anyone has forgotten Hiroshima. Surely this event is still remembered around the globe as one of the most horrendous events in recent human history. And certainly the wide availability and repeated presentation of images of the victims of Hiroshima within an art and mass media context has been an effective means of arguing against the mindset that led to the use of an atomic bomb by human beings against other human beings. Yet commissioner Minato argued that today the world is "under unprecedented threat of annihilation from pollution, regional conflicts, and the increasingly high-paced and urbanized society that rapid globalization and population growth are engendering." And a casual glance at any newspaper or international news network back at the hotel during the Biennale trip served as a reminder -- if one were needed -- that Okabe and Minato make a valid point. The (art) world does seem at ease in the midst of everyday present-day tragedy.
The artist's response amounts to a relatively quiet protest. Okabe's Japanese pavilion consists of countless framed reproductions of frottages (pencil-rub drawings) executed over the course of nine years on the now destroyed platform of Hiroshima's Ujina Station. Installed in a floor-to ceiling iron grid and covering nearly the entire wall space of the pavilion, the black and white frottages, presented alongside frottage film negatives and plant samples, serve as a subdued yet insistent reminder of this past. In addition to the existing pencil rubbings, Okabe has had transported to Venice and placed within the pavilion a 16-meter long row of actual stones taken from the Ujina Station platform. From these stones, which pavilion visitors are invited to touch, and from the tactile sensation, memory is further enhanced. New frottages will be made during pencil-rubbing workshops to be conducted by Okabe with local Venice residents and visitors to the pavilion throughout the course of the Biennale. In this way, through active participation in a repetitive artistic process whose focus is as much on process as finished product, Okabe hopes to activate the memory of visitors to this pavilion amongst countless international pavilions that offer a relatively passive art experience.
Questions of artistic contemporaneity aside, the sentiment behind Minato and Okabe's project is sincere and relevant; though in keeping with the overall theme of the Biennale as presented in the Arsenale, the Japanese Pavilion is difficult to ignore amongst the presentations of other international pavilions. In this sense, the project may be considered a success.