Actuality of Community Art in Japan : Case study of Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial and Setouchi International Art Festival

, ,
Actuality of Community Art in Japan :
Case study of Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial and Setouchi International Art Festival
Fram Kitagawa, Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial Setouchi International Art Festival
In Japan, projects aimed at using contemporary art as a medium to revitalize local community and economic development have become a trend. One of the forerunners of this trend is "Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial" which was launched in 2000 in the Echigo-Tsumari region of Niigata Prefecture, and has been held four times so far, and this movement has spread throughout Japan over the last ten years. A wide variety of art projects take place all over Japan, and this year, one of the largest scale art event, Setouchi International Art Festival is being held for 100 days.
I would like to illustrate why and how art has stimulated and regenerated communities, taking two cases, Echigo-Tsumari and Setouchi.
Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial
Echigo-Tsumari is a mountainous rural area in the southern corner of Niigata Prefecture, about two hours train ride from Tokyo. It consists of the City of Tokamachi (created by a merger of five towns in 2005) and the Town of Tsunan, and covers an area larger than the 23 wards of Tokyo at 760 square kilometers. It is a highly depopulated area with a total population of 63,000.
In line with Niigata Prefecture’s New Niigata Riso Plan, an Echigo-Tsumari Art Necklace Renewal Plan was launched as a ten-year project in 1998 with the aim of using art as a medium for bringing out the appeal of the region and increasing the numbers of visitors and exchanges with people from outside the region.
As one of the central activities of this plan, the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial was initiated, with its first holding in 2000.
Why art?
Echigo-Tsumari is a region that is buried in deep snows in the winter and hot in the summer. Its eople have long had to use their ingenuity and make tremendous efforts to build terraced rice paddies on the slopes. But from about 30 years ago, Japan became possessed with an extreme mentality of "efficiency first". The government essentially told them that they would pay these people to give up growing rice in the hills and that they would give them money to move to the cities.
The villages there today inherit a unique way of life that their ancestors carried on for generations and the way they have spent their time is also unique. It is natural and necessary that they live there and it is unthinkable that anyone should assume to tell them that they shouldn’t live there. That’s why I wanted to find a way to tell them that lives they had lived there were a part of an important heritage. Art has the ability to show history and lives in ways that are very clear and understandable, so I believed that art could be useful in helping people rediscover their region. I thought that if the elderly men and women there want to die in the place where they have lived their lives, I would like to support that desire and help make their days as enjoyable as possible until that day comes if I can. "Enlivening the community"means that the elderly people are invigorated, but what does "enlivenment"mean for the elderly people? If the real notion of joy and happiness is a feeling of gratification that comes upon you slowly and wells up from within, it must be related to the lifestyle that these people have led since the time of their distant ancestors, the rice fields that they have worked so hard to create and the close-knit communities that they have painstakingly built up, that are celebrated by others and in which they themselves have pride.
Art is close to the body, the sense and our sensitivities and it has been effective in giving us an intuitive sense of the distance between the human being and nature and between human being and another. And it is also a true manifestation of the fact that all human beings are unique individuals. If we can’t make that power of art effective there in Echigo-Tsumari, we could have to ask ourselves once again what art really is and should be. Returning to those basics of the human body and human nature and see what we could discover there in Echigo-Tsumari could also bring new hope to art and its role in society. That was the point of departure of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial.
Art brings about collaboration
The most distinctive feature of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial is that it brings artists from around Japan and overseas to Echigo-Tsumari to collaborate with the local residents and others in the creation of site-specific artworks. Besides the characteristics of topography and the natural scenery of the deciduous broad-leaved forest, the river terraces, and heavy snowfall, the artists celebrate the area resources that have arisen through the long years of human toil, the terraced rice fields, the fields created by filling in bends in the river, the satoyam, the villages, the houses, the food, and imbue their works of art with reverence for these local features. The Echgio-Tsumari Art Triennial came about through the series of events from discovery, learning, negotiations, creation, exhibition and the arrival of visitors in the area. However, it was quite natural that the local revitalization policy which suddenly caused art to spring up in the midst of the people of the communities brought opposition, doubts and criticisms. On top of this was the mystery of "contemporary art." However, surprise and respect and the efforts of the artists to break down the wall of misapprehension, gave rise to collaboration when it came to the fabrication of the artworks at the sites. Having once participated in the creation of a work, it becomes your work and later the travelers would stand in front of the artworks and listen to the lively explanations from the elderly people of the rural communities. The talk would then turn to the villages, the local history and the family, and seeing slightly surprising smiles of pleasure of the elderly people, the travelers would realize that they themselves had been rejuvenated. The vitality of the elderly people of Echigo-Tsumari helps us to feel that there is the possibility of a future that is different from the present.
The works of art could only be created there in the locality, and also the collaboration of large numbers of supporters, including art university students and socially motivated citizens, in the creation of works and running of the festival. For the last four editions, over 700 applicant and invited artists and groups have participated in the Triennials and over 200 works remain in the area.
Another important aspect of the festival’s program is the efforts to make use of old vacant houses and closed school buildings. There is a Marina Abramovic renovated "Dream House" that serves as an inn for guests(plate 1), as well as the Christian Boltanski and Jean Kalman creation "The last Class" that turned an old elementary school into one large work(plate 2), the "Shedding House" in which students of the Nihon University Sculpture Department shaved away the surfaces of walls, pillars and ceilings in an entire old house and numerous other works using old houses as art spaces and lodging facilities(plate 3).
After the end of the prefecture’s original ten-year project, an NPO name the "Echigo-Tsumari Satoyama Collaborative Organization" was established to continue running the Echigo-Tsumari programs.
Art related to all human activities
After the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese government removed from the framework of art all the things we had enjoyed as part of our lives that could not be controlled, displayed or catalogued, such as festivals, culinary culture, gardens and the tokonoma alcove of the home where we displayed things seasonally. That is what has led to an impoverishment of art. Now art leaves the gallery and wanders over an unprecedented wildness. The body, visuals, food, ritual, festival, street performance; all kinds of areas appear to be attempting to fill in the breaches between nature, regions and physiology. Art is related to all human activities. Art exists within the public. That is why art can connect divided regions, generations, and genres.
Setouchi International Art Festival
Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial’s setting is the satoyama rural area, while that of Setouchi International Art Festival is the sea.
From time immemorial, the Seto Inland Sea has been an important nexus of transportation. Boats from the mainland came and went, bringing new cultures and lifestyles to the islands dotting the Sea. Since then, each island has formed and developed its own unique culture. This rich heritage, along with its beautiful scenery, is still around today, set against the backdrop of tradition.
However, in today’s globalizing world, with increasing homogenization and streamlining, the islands are losing their unique characteristics because of the aging and decreasing of the population on the islands and the decline of the local area’s vitality.
We are holding the Setouchi International Art Festival on seven islands, including Naoshima, and around the Takamatsu port for 100 days (July 19 through October 31, 2010)in hopes of bringing this vitality back to the Seto Inland Sea, where the beautiful nature and the people have mingled and become synchronized together. We aim to make the Seto Inland Sea ‘the Sea of Hope‘ for all places in the world.
Like in Echigo-Tsumari,the realization of art created through the collaboration of modern artists, architects, and local residents have brought about new discoveries in the workings of our daily life, attract people from all over the globe, and become an opportunity for local citizens to interact with the world. As of mid-September(half of the festival period), over 300,000 people have visited the festival and this figure exceeds already the expected number of the total visitors to the festival. Naoshima, where Benesse Art Site Naoshima is located, is known as the sacred place of contemporary art, and attracts a great number of visitors throughout the year. The success of Naoshima has spread to other islands through this festival.
The Setouchi International Art Festival blends the folk customs, entertainment, festivals, and regional characteristics that have transcended the ages with the art, architecture, and drama that evoke the feeling of our contemporary times. It is a project that conveys the charms of the Seto Inland Sea to the world.
The Setouchi International Art Festival is organized by the independent initiative from the Echigo-Tsumari Art Festival, but it is being held in conjunction with the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial in moral and physical terms. Echigo-Tsumari’s experiences have been taken over to Setouchi, and Setouchi’s innovation has stimulated Echigo-Tsumari. Many supporters involved in Echigo-Tsumari, including a group of students of Hong Kong University, have worked for the Setouchi International Art Festival.
The third wave of globalization is now taking hold of the Earth. After the great human migration of 50,000 years ago, when the dexcendants of Eve scattered over the Earth, geographical discovery brought about ill-fated meetings between Eve’s children. It was led by missionaries, traders and armies, later turning into the colonialism, imperialism and nationalism that continue to this day. The globalization that is occurring nowis being accelerated by the Internet, the international market, multinational corporations, and social integration, in which spaces become homogenized and labor and daily life are conducted according to manual. In this age, travelers and migrant workers are joined by those who want to live at a pace more suited to their natural physiology, artists, performers, entrepreneurs and spectators as they travel around the globe and from region to region. These are people who take the human physiology extremely seriously even to the extent that we can say that they have a very direct sense of concern that our civilization is detaching us from our physiological links with nature. We see this kinds of people in Echigo-Tsumari and Setouchi.
The art works that are created in Echigo-Tsumari and Setouchi are truly the result of collaboration between all the many people involved - the artists, the owners of the land and the buildings where the art works are made, the whole village/island, the supporters and so on. The people involved with the art festivals, through their participation, are actually in the process of creating a new concept of "commons" in a very real experience. And in this new commons, old people and young, village and village, the countryside and the cities, Japan and other countries, all these meetings and collaborations are generated. Relationships that did not previously exist are being woven.