August 7, 2009
Visiting Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial 2009 is a strange and wonderful journey. A satoyama (mountain homeland) adventure replete with rice paddies brimming with bright green shoots, refurbished abandoned houses and closed-down elementary schools, it features 370 contemporary artworks by little-known and international art-world stars.
The world’s biggest outdoor art exhibition, the festival is aimed at revitalizing communities and set in the basin and hills of the Echigo-Tsumari region of Niigata Prefecture, scattered across 760 sq. km. Like much of rural Japan the region is struggling with an aging and diminishing population in which 25 percent of residents are 65 years and older.
“I think the Triennial has added considerably to the local economy,” says Fram Kitagawa, the event’s energetic and tenacious founder and director. “And yes it’s a success, but I’m always thinking about what to do from now.”
Kitagawa is well known for his successful public art projects throughout Japan. A Niigata Prefecture native, he first hit on the idea of using art to revitalize rural areas in the 1990s. Rice farming, the area’s mainstay for generations, was facing a serious slump as young people streamed away from the communities for city jobs. This, compounded with the low birthrate and aging population, was strangling the area’s economy.
From 1996 to 2000 Kitagawa doggedly pursued his unusual art scheme with more than 2,000 presentations, pitching to conservative community leaders in Echigo-Tsumari’s six local municipalities. It was not until 2000 that the Echigo Art Triennial was finally born, but like a vociferous baby it took time for the locals to get used to it. Now, nine years later, the villages and towns enthusiastically embrace this rather unique two-month event. It has brought over 250,000 visitors from around the world, and with them fully-booked hotels and business to all the related industries. Plus it’s put them on the world map with wide international media coverage.
“In the beginning I had no interest in modern art, but I met one of the artists at the 2006 Triennial, Mika Yajima, and we became friends,” says Hatsuko Maruyama from the town of Gejou. “We don’t understand the art but we enjoy volunteering,” adds her husband Ryoichi, a tansu-chest maker.
“Of course this region is still suffering from depopulation, and severe conditions so the ‘Closed School Projects’ is our next initiative. It will help bring vitality back to the communities,” says Kitagawa. Ten schools located throughout the region are now the focus. “The schools are a sort of lighthouse in the community and symbolic of regional memory. So they are very happy to maintain their school buildings, even for another purpose,” explains Rei Maeda, coordinator for the festival.
Ongoing school projects include the charming “Hachi & Seizo Tashima Museum of Picture Book Art” by artist Seizo Tashima and the macabre “Last Class,” a 2006 Triennial installation now with recorded visitors’ heartbeats, by French multimedia artist Christian Boltanski.
At the Fukutake House converted school building (with artists represented by various galleries) an eerie sentiment continues with “Pool of Tears,” a photography installation of ghostlike children, created by famed Dutch artist Hellen van Meene.
Interestingly, many of the foreign artists — about 25 percent of the 200-plus artists this year — have created works related to loss and death. Japanese ghost stories abound with an empty, midnight schoolhouse inhabited by the ghosts of dead children.
Sculptor Ryoichi Yamazaki uses children affected by “culture-bound syndrome” as a theme. This is something that is, sadly, spreading among Japan’s youth. Symptoms include a fear of people and eating disorders; the hikikomori (shut-ins) could also fall into this group. “At first I was just creating sculpture from models, but I craved something deeper, more spiritual,” he explained. His shy, childlike sculptures hide in a school classroom corner or sit timidly at their own miniature school desks. With big, adorable glass eyes and woeful expressions they pull at the heart strings.
Tomoko Mukaiyama’s metaphorical installation titled “Wasted,” set inside the closed-down school of a small village, conveys intimacy, beauty and diplomacy. Based in the Netherlands, this well-known avant-garde pianist displays a daring experimental vision. At the center of a great conical spiral shaped by 12,000 diaphanous white silk dresses is a collection of her stage dresses that she has dyed with her menstrual “moon blood.”
“I am now 45 and quite sure I will never have another child, so this project for me is celebrating women’s bodies,” she explains. Anyone — women and men of all ages — can apply via her Web site to receive a dress for free as long as they promise to send her feedback about their performance or ritual using the dress. She plans to use the feedback during her upcoming live piano concerts.
Mukaiyama’s unusual project took time to be accepted by the local villagers. “At first they were very much against it, but after I met with them and explained that it was about life, fertility and death they slowly agreed to it.” Now volunteers help out every day and several have set up a vegetable stand at the school entrance.
Other artists have also been delighted by the reception from locals like Tasmanian multimedia artist Lucy Bleach. Her work titled “Oral Fiber” is located in the Australia House, a permanent venue supported by Australian-based cultural organizations. Bleach’s installation, set in one room of the old house, features a shrinelike display of delicate pairs of wax ears cast from the ears of local volunteers.
“I really wanted to work with some simple symbols about communication,” she explained. “Like the connections within the community that are spoken and unspoken.” Surprised at the positive response she received, she says, “People here are so open-minded, with such good will, caring and a great sense of humor. As soon as I arrived, I felt at home.”