Okayama Art Summit 2019: If the Snake
September 27 – November 24, 2019
There is a street in Okayama, Japan, where the city’s humble train line runs through small storefronts, modest-sized buildings, and, unexpectedly, two murals: Fischli and Weiss’s How to Work Better (1991/2019), spanning one side of a four-story building with go-getter optimism, and a blue and yellow Lawrence Weiner abstract verse, BLOCKS OF COMPRESSED GRAPHITE / SET IN SUCH A MANNER / AS TO INTERFERE / WITH THE FLOW OF NEUTRONS / FROM PLACE TO PLACE (2019), in English and Japanese adhered onto a movie theater’s façade. Like Sharjah, UAE, or Kassel, Germany, Okayama is not a metropolis or a cultural capital but instead a neighbor to socio-economically influential cities with mega airports, providing convenience for curators and artists to connect and mammoth crates of art to ship in. Every three years, Okayama bursts with the crème de la crème of contemporary art during the Okayama Art Summit, initiated in 2016 with an inaugural show organized by Liam Gillick. Named the art director rather than a curator, French conceptualist Pierre Huyghe helms the current iteration, infusing his signature hauntingly clinical visual lexicon into the southwestern city, best known for its 400 year old Okayama Castle by the Asahi River. Absent here are Tokyo or Osaka’s cloud-piercing skyscrapers, flashing neon, and psychedelic fashions or nearby art islands Naoshima and Teshima’s museum-cum-theme-park vibes; rather, Okayama offers paced-down strolls through low-rise architecture and inviting back alleys for the curious, joined for the duration of the Summit by organic placements of art radiating intimacy and stimulus, as any well-orchestrated biennial, triennial or decennial strives to achieve. Blending with its surroundings, the engaging art spills outside, runs through the streets, and bleeds into uncharted, overlooked interiors, bringing fresh breath to sites frequently occupied yet rarely used outside of their original intents.
Titled If the Snake, 2019’s Okayama Art Summit thrives in concert with its city’s demure aura, which counterintuitively allows for theatricality and mystery, making good use of historic sites or abandoned buildings that serve as blank canvases for Huyghe and his friends to splash their brushes onto, either subtly with Pamela Rosenkranz and Fernando Ortega, or with bad boy pretension à la Matthew Barney or Huyghe himself. Rosenkranz had debuted her animatronic snake at the Sharjah Biennial 14 (2019), where the metal reptile zigzagged on a sand garden in the Gulf city. Here, she lets the serpent, called Healer (Waters) (2019), crawl on a defunct sumo wrestling ring at the front of the former Uchisange Elementary School. The robotic sculpture’s sporadic movements, which start and end in the blink of an eye, require patience from its audience, a break from smartphones in order to catch its abrupt movements. Anticipation is also key for Tino Sehgal’s ephemeral piece, Untitled (2019), in which dancers occasionally appear in their vocal and physical flamboyance for brief performances; they either sit by another Rosenkraz, Skin Pool (Oromom) (2019), a thick pink paint-filled pool—in a hue that is meant to evoke the average European skin tone—or stretch between two piles of sand that Huyghe placed at the school’s entrance as a fourth wall, reminding the audience the artificiality of the affair, and that the outside is only a sneak for the phantasmagorical cosmos assembled across the school’s ghostly vacant rooms. Plastic tubes from Fabien Giraud & Raphaël Siboni’s dystopian multimedia sculptures spill from the building’s windows looking like so many organs gutted out; they take a serpentine run through the school, intertwining with similarly eerie, scene-stealing works by Matthew Barney, Sean Raspet and Tarek Atoui, who experiment with sounds and lights amplified by the aged building’s architectural texture.
The haunted undercurrent also invades Okayama Orient Museum, where Paul Chan placed a trio of his erratic moving lamenter sculptures in nylon, controlled by horizontal fans gushing air into their hollow bodies and shocking them with rushes of sudden blasts. The museum’s holdings of artifacts from the Near and Middle East serve as a backdrop for Chan’s faceless phantoms mourning the unknown—their haunting resemblance to images of wailers in war-torn geographies is uncanny. Another ghost meandering Okayama during the opening week was late Italian cinema maestro Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose notorious murder outside Rome by a group of hustlers in 1975 was reenacted by Japanese actors in Lili Reynaud-Dewar’s ongoing film project, Rome, November 1st and 2nd 1975 (2019). Shot in three stages across the city over a day, the project culminated with a performance of the brutal assignation in pitch black by the Asahi River close to midnight, before an audience whose voyeuristic peep accompanied the actors’ exaggerated display of faux raunch, lust, and violence.
If the Snake is as open-ended as its title, meant to be completed by an audience prompted to excavate the texture of its modest city while unpacking a mysteriously enigmatic show, invading as it does a former soy sauce factory, an elementary school’s gym, or a public park. Between its low-key business center and pockets of surrounding neighborhoods, Okayama absorbs what the Summit propels: unabashedly blue-chip and flamboyant art that somehow unassumingly holds its thrills for the keen, allowing the city to run its course and continue to breathe despite the rush of crowds attending a global art extravaganza for a few months. A tame number of 18 artists in total accentuates the city yet does not beautify or commercialize its inherent ordinariness, which lent itself so that Huyghe’s deftly mysterious “snake” might meander around.