View of Yokohama Triennale 2011 Yokohama Museum of Art Background: Ryan Gander, A sheet of paper on which I was about to draw, as it slipped from my table and fell to the floor, 2008 Foreground: Rivane Neuenscwander, The Tenant, 2010 Photo: Gao Yuan

Every periodic exhibition is ultimately, institutionally, about something. And just as Gwangju is a memorial to the Korean democratic movement and Singapore is a government creativity scheme, Yokohama is a remedy to a very specific national cultural situation, one that in suitably Japanese terms cannot be easily described but that has something to do with a desire for increased internationalization of the specifically contemporary-art variety. Founded in 2001, the Yokohama Triennale is of approximately the same vintage as that other great beacon of “international” art in Japan, the Mori Art Museum. That its official Japanese name is written entirely in katakana— normally reserved for foreign terms— hints at this awkward ambition, which, a decade on, starts to seem every so slightly dated.

Artistic director Akiko Miki, an alumna of curatorial-consulting powerhouse Fumio Nanjo Associates, stepped up for the fourth installment, following on a 2008 edition beset by a team of curatorial superstars and a bespoke exhibition architecture by Ryue Nishizawa. Absent the Japan Foundation funding that had bolstered previous editions, Miki was left with the arguably more prosaic setting of the Yokohama Museum of Art, a municipal temple seemingly modeled on the Musée d’Orsay, as her main venue— a first for the triennial. Miki’s concept, more a stylistic guideline than a detailed thesis, had to do with examining what a universal surrealism (or a surrealist universalism?) might look like. Subtitled “How Much of the World Can We Know?” it sought to unearth certain unifying tendencies of human wonderment that run across artistic creation regardless of time and place.

Arriving outside the Yokohama Museum of Art, the visitor was greeted by twelve oversized Ugo Rondinone clay heads and a rainbow sign like the one that used to grace the New Museum façade declaring this “Our Magic Hour.” Past the atrium, with flourishes by Yin Xiuzhen and Yoko Ono, one landed upstairs in a romantic, relational charade by Tobias Rehberger: a roomful of oversized lightbulb-chandeliers supposedly wired to a Yokohama child’s bedroom, such that when the child’s lights were off, these were on, and vice versa. Koki Tanaka, perhaps the lone Japanese upholder of the Vitamin Creative Space sensibility, offered an improvised open-air landing furnished with fixtures culled from the museum’s storage room and videos and objects from his performances. As opening salvos, these projects worked.

Yet only inside the first “ordinary” gallery did one start to get a sense of what the show was about. Two fantasia paintings by the late Ishida Tetsuya sat against collection pieces by Delvaux, Brancusi, Magritte, and Ernst. A boxed-off room held a sculpture by Imamura Ryosuke in which a sheet of crumpled paper, controlled by a music box, alternately dangled and danced— elegant despite the echoes of Urs Fischer’s spinning cigarette pack at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2007. Around a corner, a painting-and-mural suite by post-anime wunderkind Sato Ataru bounced off a nimble video by 1970s surrealist-commercial animator Tanaami Keiichi, the latter a triumphal pastiche of pop references (stock images of breakfasts and ginger ale set menus) and psychedelic porn (a fish swimming past naked blondes and flashes of forests while fires rage).

Tobias Rehberger Anderer 2002/2011 Lightbulbs Dimensions variable Installation view Yokohama Museum of Art, 2011

Unfortunately, this upbeat tempo could not quite be sustained. The second half of the museum might have better been known as “the dark side,” its first gallery juxtaposing the crafty pots of Kim Ryoo, unsuccessful cartoon paintings by Tateishi Tiger, and a tired suite of bubbling city sculptures by Mike Kelley which debuted nearly five years ago. From there followed the room of circles, with Yagi Lyota’s sonic spheres and pots spun on turntables hung against a wood and stone circle by Isamu Noguchi and a video of an ink-painted circle by Charwei Tsai. This sort of obvious formal contrast was everywhere— in one particularly facile room, a video of floating bubbles by Rivane Neuenschwander was projected across a floor of glass orbs by Ryan Gander; in another, an Arte Povera-inspired brasstack wallpiece by Motohiro Tomii stood watch over a floor of shiny crystals by Wilfredo Prieto. Even Sun Xun’s 21G was not spared, projected in a sizeable room with the drawing for its opening frame hung in a corner next to a Magritte, united mainly by the visual fact that the central figure in each piece is wearing a hat.

At the museum’s far end one found a cluster that looked more or less inspired by Massimiliano Gioni’s 2010 Gwangju Biennale. There was the folksy grouping of everyday memorabilia— the Koichi Yumoto collection of arcade games and comic books— postulated as high art. There was the reclaimed hero, Sunazawa Bikky (1931-1989), whose quirky, animal-like wooden creations were set in another room against the unmounted zoological drawings of the young realist Ikeda Manabu, with a Meret Oppenheim fur piece thrown in for good measure. (One of the Triennale’s saddest moments is that Sunazawa’s carved-oak masterwork, the 1980 God Tongue, installed in a hallway, was not allowed the aura it might otherwise emit.) And of course there was a show-within-a-show, here curated by photographic titan Hiroshi Sugimoto. The saving grace was the coda of Araki’s late photographs, a stunningly poignant four-walled installation that included suites of harmless night skies (titled “The Photographs of a Seventy-Year-Old Man”) and a memorial sequence for his dead cat Chiro.

Over at the BankART Warehouse, as in 2008, one found an installation mostly devoted to showcasing stars of the biennial world, headlined by the Asia debut of Christian Marclay’s The Clock. The second floor starred a threeroom mini-exhibition devoted to Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen’s recent chopsticks pairing was separated and installed around the venue, as was a series of trees by Henrick Håkansson. Peter Coffin’s digitally x-rayed fruit— like his off-site installation of music for plants— struck an intelligent note, whereas Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s running project to benefit the earthquake-tsunami victims, philanthropic intentions aside, came off as just another example of biennial festivalism.

Perhaps the interesting thing is that we are at a point, collectively, where a set of rhetorical and aesthetic conventions have emerged for periodic exhibitions— particularly those in Asia and other developed but non-Western regions— which simultaneously inflect and enact the base level social and political imperatives which they are called upon to serve. We visit these exhibitions attentive mostly to the tension between the two, always mindful that the true audience of any such exhibition are not the art-world crowd flown in for the opening but the stream of ticket-buying locals who visit during the following two or three months. The outside visitor does best to observe along these lines, exerting a critical sensibility while still acknowledging that Yokohama (or Shanghai, or Gwangju, or Singapore) is probably a better place for having hosted such a constellation of works. Philip Tinari