Sunday, 8 December 2013

Thinking Out of the Box at the Kobe Biennale

Coming hot on the heals after our visit to the Venice Biennale several months ago, Jules and I thought that we would tackle the local version with the Kobe Biennale. Kobe is probably our favorite major city in Japan, being sandwiched between water on one side and mountains on the other and this event is just one of the many festivals that regularly occur in this scenic location. Having suffered the devastation of the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, the city has over the years done remarkably well to rebuild itself not only structurally, but also more importantly as a community. Today it is once again a major tourist destination competing admirably with both Osaka and Kyoto and being essentially a seaport, it remains the starting point for many cruise ships visiting the Kansai region. In fact it would be the dockland area that would be the starting point for the Kobe Biennale, but the event would become a magical mystery tour that would take us through much of the city.

The Biennale was one of the more positive things that emerged following the 1995 earthquake, when art was recognized by the community as a means of healing both the heart and the mind. Art was seen as a way of bringing vitality back to the city by promoting its cultural connections with the past and to provide a creative vision of its contemporary future. So from humble beginnings, the event continued to grow to become quite a significant event on the Biennale calendar, of which there are now around 150 across the globe. However, what makes the Kobe Biennale particularly unique is that a large part of it is displayed in and around shipping containers, of which there are many in this huge port area. So this is where Jules and I began, by moving systematically from one container to another to experience a myriad of works including installation pieces, paintings by featured artists, examples of traditional Japanese calligraphy as well as displays and workshops from various local art schools.

While the exhibition was now in its last week (it runs from October 1 – December 1), it was good to see that it was still attracting a sizable local crowd who were certainly entering into the spirit of the event and finding it to be a positive uplifting experience. While our experience at the Venice Biennale represented the serious side of the modern art world, here it was far more relaxed. Maybe it was the novelty of using shipping containers as miniature galleries that often forced us to be at close quarters with other patrons or simply the open-air venue that promoted a level of conversation and laughter that is rarely seen in more austere traditional galleries. No matter what the reason, everyone appeared to be enjoying the creative endeavors of the mostly Japanese artists whose works were on display and clearly the original mission of the event was being fulfilled.

Having spent a couple of hours moving in and out of shipping containers, Jules and I eventually hit the streets with map in hand to head out to find some of the other venues. There remained much to see with locations spread throughout Kobe. You could even board a boat that would take you along the coastline to view sculptural works from the water, however with time pressing, we opted to tackle much of the remaining exhibits by foot and initially headed over to one of the main shopping areas that follows the railway line through the heart of the city from Motomachi to Sannomiya. Here nestled between antique shops, trendy boutiques, cafes and old vinyl records shops were small temporary galleries housing several or sometimes just one significant work of art. While the works at each venue were interesting, I must confess it was just as much fun finding them. From there we made our way to more traditional venues such as the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art and the Yokoo Tadanori Museum of Contemporary Art.

It was getting dark by the time we emerged from the last gallery and a blister was forming on my toe from all the walking we had done throughout the day. The event had been much bigger than we had imagined when we began and we had by no means seen it all. However, we had seen enough to be impressed. As an art event, it certainly couldn’t be compared to the Venice Biennale, but what it had lacked in international representation or status, it had made up through its energy and enthusiasm. There was a justifiable pride in what the event had to offer and it was clear that it is going to be around for a good many years to come. The city of Kobe had certainly embraced its artistic heritage and through their Biennale, it had ensured its commitment to all forms of visionary and creative expression.

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