Container Art = The Art of Constraints

Late in 2007 I spent a few months in Japan, on holiday but primarily refilling my creative tank. This involved equal parts of going to all my favorite places, getting lost & discovering new favourite places. After spending the first 3 weeks in Tokyo I headed to Kansai region, staying in Osaka but also exploring the whole region & through total serendipity the weekend I chose to visit the city of Kobe just happened to coincide with the Kobe Bienale!
Kobe is a port city and in fact it reminded me a little of my home town of Wellington, in that inevitably the city is built around the waterfront.

But being a port city also meant a large part of the industry in Kobe is centred around the port and when it came to the Biennale, which is a six week series of exhibitions, concerts & art events, the organisers choose to base the main art competition around a ubiqutous icon of the port: the shipping container.

So the rules for this exhibition & competition is to create an installation inside a standard shipping container. This intrigued me as I know that often it is the constraints placed around a work that generates true creativity & that was definitely the case here!
In my experience Japanese culture historically has a deep & resonant understanding of space – this is apparent the minute you walk into an ancient Zen temple, but it is equally apparent in contemporary Japanese architecture.

Walking around the waterfront was a magical experience since as you approached each container I was filled with a child like sense of wonder as I experienced what each artist had created. And many of the best works had a real sense of altering your perceptions in a cleverly controlled way. Take this for example:

As I approached it I thought, whoa – this is like some amazing matchstick labyrinth, but I wasn’t prepared for the feeling as you stepped inside the container. It felt like the visual equivalent of an anechoic chamber, totally perceptually absorbing.

But the most beautiful ‘reveal’ was when you were as far inside it as you could go – the view & quality of light looking back to the entrance was spellbinding!

Another container made extraordinary use of mirrored mylar on the walls to visually expand the container into a large room:

While this one felt straight out of the movie 2001

A few of the containers were interactive, in that they encouraged the viewer to participate and this was a great example as there were no instructions, but sitting on the desk in front of you were a number of vivid red markers & you were encouraged to write on the walls. Again this was a series of beautiful discoveries as you realise the texture & colour of the walls was the work of everyone who had been in that container. To emphasise that texture those four lights at the end of the container would dramatically shift colours & transform the feel of the entire space.

Another container at first seemed oddly unengaging due to its lack of any visual work but only until you realised what was happening; the container housed a drawing machine that was methodically creating scribbled artworks:

And while the actual drawings might lead you to think they were the work of a psychotic automaton, the erratic sounds the drawing machine made as it went about its process were exquisite! I spent as much time in this container listening as I did looking… & of course, recording…

download drawing machine mp3

download drawing machine half speed backwards mp3

So what got me thinking about all this was two things; firstly the Kobe Biennale is held, by definition, every two years, so 2007 + 2 = 2009, which means its recurring this year! Sure enough a quick search turned up the relevant info here – the Kobe Biennale runs from October 3, 2009 to November 23, 2009. I would love to go – I have a film mix booked that finishes November 13th so I could just catch the tail end of it…. Hmmmmmm….consulting travel agent…

The other thing that got me thinking about the Biennale was an art/design project featured on notcot called The Listening Room which surprise surprise, fits in a shipping container!

“KT: the listening room is an installation specifically designed for the Tokyo Designers Week 2008. KT: the listening room attempts to create a personal audio experience in a secluded and private space in the turmoil of a high-profile design event in the heart of Tokyo. Within the listening room the distinctions between acoustic, structural and ornamental fade into a singular integrated personal space.”

“Interestingly, the fact that KT: the listening room had to be fit into a container for the 100% Design Tokyo Event enables the installation to travel showing that, in these days, not only goods can be shipped but also experiences.”

What strikes me as most odd is that in all the documentation of such a project there was no mention of what they were listening to in that amazing space…. And I really want to know!

As an aside, a handy bit of travel advice for anyone who might be in Japan and/or who is interested in contemporary Japanese art; there is an excellent site called Tokyo Art Beat which lists all the art exhibitions & events currently on in Tokyo. There used to be a Kansai Art Beat site too but it seems it is on hiatus, waiting on a benefactor.
When I was in Tokyo I used the site often as many of the smaller art galleries can be very hard to find (I’ll tell you a story another time about visiting a sound art exhibition that took me half a day to find!) but ever since I check the Tokyo Art Beat site regularly as it is an excellent way to find out about new Japanese artists eg I went to some excellent photography exhibitions in Tokyo & I would write down the artists name that I liked, but that is also easy enough to do via the Tokyo Art Beat site eg there are currently 103 photography exhibitions on in Tokyo… And 5 exhibitions of digital art, and 42 installations…. Endless inspiration!

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