Whereas several other biennales converging on Asia this fall have hired top-tier international curators as their artistic directors — founder of relational aesthetics Nicolas Bourriaud for Taipei and the Tate’s Jessica Morgan for Gwangju — the Fukuoka Triennale, which runs until the end of November, has chosen to remain staunchly committed to the idea of surveying more local and regional art scenes. In contrast to the prestigious roster of big-name international artists who tend to feature at these events, Fukuoka’s artistic director Kuroda Raiji, who is also chief curator of the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, calls Fukuoka “extremely local because of its mandate to showcase new movements in Asian art that have remained unnoticed or ignored in other international exhibitions.”
It should also be remembered that Fukuoka’s so-called mandate to showcase Asian art began long before the current boom in contemporary art, both in terms of commercial art galleries and art fairs, as well as international art biennales. During the 1980s and 90s, the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum became the first Japanese art institution to actively promote and acquire artworks by Asian artists. It’s also often remarked that Fukuoka’s own geographical position implies that it has a closer potential affinity to neighboring Korea and China — the city is a ninety minute flight from both Tokyo and Shanghai, and only around an hour from both Seoul, Busan, and Osaka.
There’s a wide range of styles and media represented here. Equally unusual for an international exhibition of Asian art, however, is the inclusion of young artists from developing countries and regions whose work testifies to the pressing social, political and environmental issues that are rarely dealt with in the art of the so-called First World. Laotian artist Bounpaul Phothyzan’s video “Scream from the Wild” (2008) documents the ongoing crisis of deforestation in his home country, while Nepalese artist Sunil Sigdel’s “Spine” (2014), a hulking installation made of disused work gloves stitched together in long bundles, is a quiet monument to the millions of Nepali laborers who work in the fields in India.
In order to navigate the sprawling selection of 46 artists from 21 countries and regions, here is a Top Five must-see list!
1. Lu Yang’s “Uterus Man” installation, which clearly owes a debt to futuristic cyberpunk Japanese predecessors like “Ghost in the Shell” or “Akira.” The asexual protagonist, who has the power to inflict harm and disease on its opponents by re-sequencing their DNA, however, makes this work a timely meditation on the risks, benefits, and ethical dangers of contemporary genetic science.
2. Yoshinaga Koutaku, a Fukuoka-based artist who is renowned within Japan for his dynamic, offbeat illustrations that sing with both humor and irony, occupies an entire small gallery with his quirky paintings, small figurines, and illustrated children’s books — all in all, an immersive installation that gives audiences a sense of how expansive his imaginative universe can be, as well as how his creative output stretches over multiple media.
3. Myanmar-born Min Thein Sung’s large horse-shaped sculpture made of draped white fabric occupies a small private gallery whose walls have been plastered over by torn pages of children’s comics — a nostalgic look back at the motifs and icons of his childhood.
4. Cambodian artist Anida Yoeu Ali’s series of performance-based photos depicting the artist wearing a saffron-colored coiled “Bug” costume while standing in everyday public spaces, drawing attention to her own marginal status as an Islamic woman in a Buddhist country.
5. And finally, don’t miss the entire new sub-section devoted to artistic genres and movements from regions that are typically neglected or overlooked. This year’s theme is devoted to Mongolian painting, a discipline that until the early 2000s was limited to an extremely narrow range of subject matter — namely, the pastoral life of nomadic herders. Here, however, a startling range of aesthetics and media is in evidence. Ganboldyn Gerelkhuu’s acrylic on canvas paintings are elegant fusions of abstract geometric patterns with intriguing landscape work, portraying Mongolian warriors in full battle regalia sparring off against mechanical or cyborg-like beasts and creatures in “Who will be the Win” (2013). Elsewhere, Onongjin Urjinkhand’s gouache-on-cotton “Absence of Father” (2011) presents a portrait of a Mongolian single-mother family against a resplendent backdrop of colorful traditional motifs and banner-like ribbons of vibrant hues that make this piece resemble a colorful tapestry.
All in all, this year’s Triennale strikes a compelling balance between whimsical works created using digital and modern technologies that invoke pop cultural references that are now shared by an increasing proportion of Asian countries, while also reminding audiences of the political and social conditions specific to each participating country. It’s an urbane vision that hovers somewhere between a technologically enabled utopia, and a more anxious world filled with the problems of increasing modernization in parts of Asia that have been relatively untouched and unexplored until now — a commitment to a regionalism that is refreshingly different from the self-imposed globalism espoused by other “international” biennales.