Japan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2017

I recently came back from my summer holiday in Venice, which is a beautiful and romantic city everyone should visit at least once in their lives. My boyfriend and I happened to be in the city during the Biennale 57th International Art Exhibition, a bi-annual art exhibition that hosts artists from 51 countries across Venice.

The Biennale is a major event in the arts calendar, with artists being exhibited at country pavilions at either the Arsenale, the Giardini or elsewhere in Venice. There are also stand-alone exhibitions dotted around the city and a number of fringe events, so it’s impossible to see everything if you’re only visiting for a few days.

This therefore required some planning on our part, so we set aside an afternoon for our artsy fix. We chose to visit the Giardini, which just so happened that this was where the Japan Pavilion was located (how convenient).

The Japan Pavilion is curated by The Japan Foundation, who this year are exhibiting Takahiro Iwasaki’s “Turned Upside Down, It’s a Forest”. Hiroshima-born Iwasaki presents a number of three-dimensional works created using everyday familiar objects, and expertly transforms them into finely-crafted art pieces.

There is a special meaning behind Iwasaki’s exhibition. A mix of old and new buildings in the costal regions of Japan are displayed, from shrines to oil rigs, with a focus on contemporary issues such as nuclear energy and finite resources. The industrial growth of Japan’s postwar economy created new challenges for its rural regions – most recently the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which caused huge damage to the region’s nuclear power plants.

There are in fact 7 installations in the Japan Pavilion but we spectacularly managed to miss one or two! That said, I took some photos to share with you on the blog and enjoyed having a good look around (crowds permitting). I may be biased but this was one of my favourite country pavilions at the Giardini. Art is subjective, after all…

Reflection Model (Ship of Theseus)

This installation is based on Itsukushima Shrine in its state of destruction after a typhoon. The shrine, located on the island of Miyajima near Hiroshima, was built over 800 years ago and was restored following a typhoon in 2004. There are two parts to the installation – the main shrine and the floating torii gate – which both hang suspended in the room and appear as they would be if reflected over the water. The title, the Ship of Theseus, raises the question of whether something that has had all its components replaced is able to maintain its identity as the same object.

Reflection Model (Lapis Lazuli)

This intricate work represents the five-story pagoda from the grounds of Ruriko-ji, a shrine located in Yamaguchi. The reflected image of the pagoda indicates the presence of water, as it does with the previous reflection model. Of course, the reflected image does not move. This creates a sense of uncanny time and place. Personally, this was my favourite installation because it’s enchanting and you can spend a long time admiring it from every angle.

Out of Disorder (Mountains and Sea)

Before entering the Japan Pavilion, you can climb a staircase and stick your head through a hole, which allows you to see the exhibition from a completely different perspective. Imagine seeing the Reflection Models, suspended in the air, from below! To anyone inside, they’ll see your head poking out through a mountain of sheets, towels and clothing. On closer examination, the threads have been pulled to construct intricate steel towers, ferris wheels, rollercoasters and railway tracks. Out of this disorder and grime and soot come the hallmarks of a modern society, such as the steel transmission towers carrying electricity across Japan’s rural areas.

Out of Disorder (Offshore Model)

This piece tackles the oil rigs lining Japan’s rural coastlines. The overall black hue is supposed to bring to mind Chinese ink – this in the context of the ongoing dispute regarding East Asian maritime borders and the rights to undersea resources. While this was personally the least interesting installation for me, the black plastic that represents the water’s rippling surface without using water itself is an example of ‘Karesansui”, a reference from the rock garden in Kyoto’s Ryoan-ji temple. You learn something new every day.

Tectonic Model (Flow)

Here, books have been stacked in an unstable manner on an antique table found in Venice. The bookmark strings have been unravelled and shaped into cranes, so that the installation looks like a building under construction. The books that have been selected concern subjects such as energy, science and technology, and earthquakes (including an Akira manga and a book on ‘The Great Wave’ artist Hokusai). The unstable stacking of the books refers not only to the construction method but also the earth’s crust.

Sophie’s (unartistic) verdict…

I was very pleased to be able to see the Japan Pavilion at the Biennale, as I didn’t expect to come across anything Japanese in Venice. Takahiro Iwasaki’s exhibition was genuinely one of the best I saw that afternoon. I love the architecture of Japan’s shrines and temples, and the Reflection Models were intricate and ingenious works of art that I would never have seen anywhere else. While the meaning of the exhibition was not apparent until after I had taken away the reading materials, I thoroughly enjoyed wandering around and getting a close look.

As you can tell, I’m definitely not an art critic! But as someone who went to the Biennale having no idea what to expect and being very underwhelmed by some exhibitions, “Turned Upside Down, It’s a Forest” was one that could be appreciated and enjoyed with or without context (or artistic knowledge).

The Biennale is in Venice until 26th November 2017. You can read more about it here… Maybe you should book a city break there?





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