Echigo Triennale Brings Japanese Countryside to Life
By Lucy Birmingham
Published by Artinfo (now Blouin Artinfo): August 27, 2009
TOKYO—It’s called the world’s biggest outdoor contemporary art exhibition, a successful Japanese art experiment with large-scale contemporary works installed in rice paddies, closed-down schools, and refurbished old houses, scattered across 760 kilometers in a rural region about three hours from Tokyo. This year’s 212 artists include Christian Boltanski, Hellen van Meene and Antony Gormley, and art-world stars like James Turrell and Ilya and Emilia Kabakov are among the 150 artists with permanent works.
Now in its fourth incarnation, the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial 2009, is proving again that art can bring life back to dying communities. Over 250,000 visitors from around the world are expected to attend the two-month event this year, bringing with them fully booked hotels and invigorating all types of business in the local community. The triennial has also put the rural region on the world art map thanks to international media coverage.
When founder and director Fram Kitagawa, a native of the region well known for his successful public art projects throughout Japan, first proposed the event to local officials in 1996, he heard more laughter than interest. For the conservative farmers, art was high-brow museum fare, not the answer for an economy strangled by a low birthrate, an aging population, and decreasing manpower as local youth were lured away to better jobs in big cities. Rice farming, a staple for centuries, was shrinking fast as paddies produced more weeds than profits.
Now those paddies boast world-class artworks. One of the most visible is “The Rice Field” by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. Created as a permanent installation for the first triennial in 2000, the work includes two parts: five fiberglass silhouettes of traditional farmers working amidst the paddies, brightly painted blue and yellow, and a frame of large, hanging narrative text that describes the rice farming process. With farmers in their family, the Kabakovs were inspired by Kitagawa’s efforts to revitalize the agricultural communities.
With so few children in the hamlets and towns, disused school buildings have also become viable exhibition spaces. This year, ten defunct schools have been converted into venues, part of the triennial’s “Closed School Projects” aimed at bringing life back to the communities. A sense of revitalization is there, but perhaps not exactly what organizers had envisioned, as many of the works by foreign artists (about a quarter of the 200-plus artists involved this year) echo themes of death and ghosts, which are especially prescient in Japan, where the folklore abounds with ghost stories. The empty midnight schoolhouse haunted by the ghosts of dead children is an iconic nightmare buried in the Japanese psyche, making the foreign artists’ work both uncanny and bewitching.
One macabre example is “The Last Class,” a permanent installation by French multimedia artist Christian Boltanski and lighting designer Jean Kalman encompassing an entire school building. Visitors are guided into a former gymnasium that is almost pitch black, with whirring electric fans and a floor strewn with fresh straw. The setting is a dark premonition of the works located on floors above: former classrooms bathed in white satin and filled with rows of coffin-shaped glass boxes empty except for a cold fluorescent light. On one floor, a large pile of used clothing reaching to the ceiling could reference those killed in Holocaust gas chambers. Originally created for the 2006 triennial, the work was updated for this year with recordings of visitors’ heartbeats, making it even more visceral.
Dutch artist Hellen van Meene’s installation “Pool of Tears” in another school building is equally eerie. Eleven photographs of morose, ghostly children are displayed on music stands surrounding a piano. A written section from Lewis Carroll’s “Phantasmagoria” plies empathy for real live ghosts, these children incarnate:
“That ghosts have just as good a right,
In every way, to fear the light,
As men to fear the dark.”
Further afield, up-and-coming Japanese sculptor Ryoichi Yamazaki also presents an installation of ghostly children in a classroom: a class of cute, child-like figures made out of white-painted wood that stare with wary glass eyes, hide in a corner and cabinet, and hunch over miniature desks installed on top of real elementary school desks left behind in the school. Yamazaki was moved to create the sculptures — which represent introverted and painfully shy children who live like ghosts as a result of a culturally based mental disorder called “culture-bound syndrome” — after seeing growing numbers of these children in Japan.
Childbearing is the backdrop of Tomoko Mukaiyama’s powerful installation “Wasted,” the first for this Netherlands-based avant-garde pianist and performer. In a kind of shrine to women’s menstruation, Mukaiyama has created a rising, three-dimensional spiral that fills an entire school gymnasium. Visitors follow the spiral’s path through maze-like walls hung with 12,000 diaphanous white silk dresses. Midway is a serene, meditative space, while the center of the spiral is hung with Mukaiyama’s performance dresses dyed with her “moon blood.” Visitors to her Web site can receive one of the dresses if they agree to use the dress in a ritual or performance and send her feedback about the experience. The feedback will be used in videos shown during her piano performances in her upcoming world tour.
In addition to schools, many disused homes throughout the region have also been turned into venues. In one, multimedia duo Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller created a virtual rainstorm replete with real water beating against windows, lightning, and sounds of thunder. Throughout another, Japanese-born, Berlin-based installation artist Chiharu Shiota has strung masses of disturbing, web-like lines of black wool yarn — her obsessive, signature material. Titled “House Memory,” the work includes one wrapped room containing a child’s pair of straw snow boots and an adult’s straw coat, commonly worn long ago during the region’s snow-laden winters.
Lengths of cord explode with a 21st-century twist in Antony Gormley’s house installation titled “Another Singularity,” which is both inspired by the astrophysical “big bang” and modeled on the artist’s own body. Gormley digitally mapped the 90-year-old house to fit the 482 cords in a constellation-like pattern that leaves visitors star-struck at its riveting, conceptual beauty.
Artist residencies and local collaborations are two more important components of the triennial. Tasmanian multi-media artist Lucy Bleach has skillfully combined the two in her work “Oral Fiber,” located in the Australia House, a permanent venue supported by Australia-based cultural organizations. As part of her residency there, Bleach invited local villagers to have their ears cast in beeswax for a work exploring communication. The result is an installation that includes photos of docile, willing locals patiently waiting for their wax molds to harden and the completed butterfly-like pairs of casts themselves. Bleach was surprised and delighted at the villagers’ positive response.
It is safe to say that local officials' resistance to Fram Kitagawa's vision for bringing art to Echigo was unfounded. Waxed ears, menstrual blood, and even the “big bang” have not deterred local enthusiasm as the Echigo-Tsumari area economy continues to revive and thrive through art.