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In 1999, when a former student activist of the 1960s, Fram Kitagawa, proposed an idea for revitalizing the southern areas of Japan’s Nīgata Prefecture with contemporary art, its six municipalities unanimously declined. But Kitagawa insisted that art could help build a community to reinvigorate the desolate agrarian region and reverse the damage done by the government’s ferocious urbanization. After more than two thousand meetings with local communities, the effort crystallized in the first Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale in 2000. The sixth edition was held in 2015.
The world’s largest international exhibition, the latest triennale revealed 180 new works in addition to 200 preexisting projects, dispersed throughout an area larger than 300 square miles, now collectively known as Echigo-Tsumari. The term coined for the exhibition combines the area’s two premodern designations: the Tsumari-shō and the Echigo regions. Yet the visible part of this mammoth undertaking was only the tip of the iceberg. The event’s uniqueness lies in the many year-round activities that connect urban volunteers and rural residents. This January, the volunteer network Kohebi-tai (a band of little snakes) placed a call for urbanites to help the elderly during heavy winter snowfalls (Kohebi Tsūshin email newsletter, 59). Such persistent community involvement distinguishes the Echigo-Tsumari from other biennial-type exhibitions. Initially, the show was plotted “not as an art exhibition” but as a solution to restore people’s “pride in the local farmers,” as Kitagawa, now the general director of the triennale, explains (Art Opens Up Regional Areas: Ten Ideas Behind the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale, Tokyo: Gendaikikakushitsu, 2014, 6–7). That “pride,” according to the Marxist geographer David Harvey, is what capitalists typically try to take from workers to facilitate “trade on the ideas of inferiority” (“Nothing to Lose But Our Fear,” Fiona Jeffries in conversation with Silvia Federici and David Harvey, Graduate Center of the City University of New York, New York, November 2, 2015).
The themes of the 2015 triennale were “Exchange between the region and the city” and “Art is how people engage with nature and civilization.” The show began with a preview (May 16–25) and talks (May 20–22) held at Shibuya Hikarie, the futuristic fashion building in Tokyo. Underscoring the latter theme, documentation of Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s work in progress Penglai/Hōrai showed how the artist is incorporating a traditional technique used by local farmers making shimenawa (sacred rope) in their downtime from work in the field. Cai asked volunteers to make battleships and airplanes based on this method, which revolves around the mythical Mount Penglai (Hōrai in Japanese) and is suggestive of China’s dispute with other East and Southeast Asian countries about who controls the South China Sea. In Japanese artist Yukihisa Isobe’s aerial photograph Mudslide Monument, traces of the 2011 landslide are marked with yellow poles, illuminating the rusty preemptive bulwarks built by local residents as a monument to how they learned to coexist with severe nature in this deep mountain region.
As previewed in the talks, one of the triennale’s official supporters collaborated with the Japan Travel Bureau to promote a corporate training package that combines the restoration of the permanent artworks and rice planting—as Echigo-Tsumari is famous for its rice production—with a hope to ignite creative thinking in participants and shift from an exclusive focus on profit and expansion to include humanitarian thinking. Another supporter, music producer Takeshi Kobayashi increases people’s awareness about environmental issues through musical events, and invests the profits from the concerts in small-scale sustainable projects with hopes of changing the future direction of the country.
This might be the reason why many volunteers—young and old—participate in the triennale, even though their involvement is not free of charge. The volunteers need to cover their basic daily expenses of 850 yen ($7.25) for meals, bed sheets, and hot springs. But the experience is about more than just donating their time and labor. They can attend occasional study sessions, which are based on readings assigned by Kitagawa. One session held in Tokyo focused on Kunio Yanagita’s Tōno Monogatari (1902)—an ethnographic collection of folk legends from Iwate Prefecture. The fifteen or so participants included urban college students and rural senior citizens. The exchanges among them, especially the urban audience’s attentiveness to the rural participants’ enthusiastic introduction of the local folktales, revealed the shifting dynamics of interest in rural over urban life.
The 2015 triennale officially opened on July 26, 2015, with a ceremony at Tōkamachi KINARE, one of the three strategic footholds of the exhibition, the other two being the Matsudai Snow-Land Agrarian Culture Center NOHBUTAI and the Echigo-Matsunoyama Museum of Natural Science, Kyororo. Tōkamachi is less than two hours from Tokyo by bullet train. Almost a quarter of the artworks are installed around the Matsudai and Tōkamachi stations; one way to see the triennale is by train. Still, many works are installed in the deserted houses, unused rice paddies, and defunct school buildings, all located far from the railroad. For these destinations, visitors can take the charter buses from Tōkamachi to eleven termini.
With my cousin, I visited the exhibition by car, and as soon as we left Tōkamachi we encountered a problem: many locations have no address. We typed the name of a nearby town into the GPS as a tentative destination and tried to follow the yellow street signs indicating the artwork numbers that corresponded to those in the guidebook, but the signs were often vague. “Soon” turned out to mean about fifteen kilometers away. The guidebook map was equally ineffective. Two works marked as being next to each other—by Lee Bul and Annette Messager—were, in reality, two mountains apart. This dispersal of artworks, however, was a deliberate curatorial choice, set in opposition to the government’s policy of efficient management. Because the works were difficult to locate, asking for directions opened up conversations with the local farmers. In one instance, they even shared delicious spring water with us. The show is as much about the mountain region and its people as it is about the art.
The process of finding our way also led to a delightful discovery of new talent. While looking for Christian Boltanski and Jean Kalman’s The Last Class (2006), we encountered Mariko Isozaki’s Flowers (2012)—an outdoor installation of five-by-five-inch yellow ceramic flowers sporadically placed around Kagamigaike, the legendary pond where the Nara-period aristocrat Ōtomo no Yakamochi’s daughter is said to have drowned herself. This poetic requiem not only illuminated the local legend but also led us to explore the topography leading to a small shrine hidden on the hilltop.
Seeing artworks in the rural setting unexpectedly altered the way I appreciate art. Coming from New York, I initially looked for the big names, but while exploring the exhibition, I began enjoying, for instance, the children’s book illustrator Seizo Tashima’s Ehon to Kinomi no Bijutukan (Hachi and Seizo Tashima Museum of Picture Book Art) (2009) more than Boltanski and Kalman’s dramatic The Last Class. Both works were based in defunct elementary school buildings: Boltanski and Kalman refurbished a three-story concrete building in Matsunoyama, darkening the space to impose greater control over lighting; and Tashima repurposed a two-story wooden structure in the Tōkamachi Minami area, leaving the windows open to integrate rural scenery into the work. In addition, both artworks dealt with memories: the former focused on the universal memory, and the latter centered on the stories of the three last students who attended the school. By isolating the space from the site and addressing collective ideas, Boltanski and Kalman diminished the local context; the same installation can be rebuilt anywhere. By contrast, Tashima offered a site-bound experience, where visitors were invited to walk around gigantic fabric dolls and props to discover secrets of the three students, while musing on the views from the open windows and listening to the bleating of goats in the schoolyard. Similarly, Lee Bul and Studio’s heavily guarded Doctor’s House (2015), an installation that could only be seen from the hallways of a private house, did not speak as eloquently as Junichi Kurakake and Nihon University College of Art, Sculpture Course’s Dappi suru ie (The Shedding House) (2006). Kurakake, who teaches sculpture at Nihon University, together with his students partially dismantled a traditional house, chiseled the surfaces of each architectural element, and reassembled them. The natural light from the outdoors and the fleeting shadows that appear in the chiseled-out negative spaces created a play of light and shadow, allowing visitors to appreciate the beauty of the unique local architecture.
During my visit to Echigo-Tsumari, I had the pleasure of speaking with one return volunteer, Masashi Tokui, a retiree of a prestigious bank in Tokyo who relocated to his native Tōkamachi. He enjoys the sense of community that is created by the triennale, evident in such gestures as local farmers bringing special pickles to welcome the artists. This kind of hospitality, he said, is worlds away from big business. A younger urban volunteer, Sawako Tanaka, who was responsible for creating and administering Marina Abramović’s Dream House in Matsunoyama, came to realize that the world does not revolve around the megalopolis. This place-based triennale impels us to rethink consumer society, urban lifestyle, and the corporate world as not necessarily happier choices. Last year, this once controversial exhibition was selected as a model case for the government’s Chihō sōsei (rural revitalization) program. This might be the reason why young volunteers are now slowly emigrating from cities to the country.
Postdoctoral Fellow, The Japan Society for the Promotion of Science; Tokyo National Research Institute for Cultural Properties