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Every spring, a resurrection occurs in the Echigo-Tsumari area of Japan’s Niigata prefecture. For six months in winter, the yukiguni — snow country — sleeps under one of the heaviest drifts in the region. In April, the snow begins to wash away, uncovering sea-green terraced rice fields, traditional vernacular houses, and an incongruous but poetic assembly of art installations and museums.
Included in this higgledy-piggledy map of 160 artworks are: “Dream House” by Marina Abramović, a refurbished century-old cottage in which visitors sleep and record their dreams; Tatsushi Takizawa’s outdoor classroom filled with literature and rice-husk beanbags; an old workshop retrofitted with strange flying bells by Ann Hamilton; and a typographical sculpture floating above rice paddies, by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. All were created on-site at different times for the Echigo Tsumari Art Triennale (ETAT), a multidisciplinary festival spanning 760 square kilometers. Since its inception in 2000, ETAT has presented contemporary art as a catalyst for social engagement, with a mission to not simply situate the artworks among the 200 villages in the area, but also to integrate them into the ecological and social landscape.
Echigo-Tsumari currently suffers from depopulation. Members of the younger generation have been steadily moving to Japan’s cities over the past decade, so that only the elderly farmers remain, despite deadly earthquakes in 2004 and 2011 and increasingly harsh winters. Fram Kitagawa, the director of Tokyo’s Art Front Gallery, founded ETAT to support their satoyama way of life, meaning the symbiotic relationship between humans and the land, which in this region takes the form of agriculture. “The aim of our project is not to realize the project but to revitalize the region. The artists don’t create their works for art’s sake, but to respect and celebrate the lives [of the farmers],” says Kitagawa. “The people in Echigo-Tsumari live a substantial life in each of the 200 communities, and we have attempted to develop art based on each community, instead of concentrating artworks in one place in the most efficient way.” This ‘inefficient’ method of curating an art festival is a rejection of urban homogenization and the prosaic mentality of an impatient society; the mission of ETAT is to emphasize that “humans are part of nature,” and not the other way round. Clocks are put aside and invited artists must wait until the snow melts to begin work.
This year’s festival started in late July, when international artists including China’s Cai Guo-Qiang, India’s Shilpa Gupta, and Taiwan’s Huang Shih Chieh, as well as young volunteers (affectionately called kohebi-tai, meaning “little snake gang”) from Japan and Hong Kong, headed to the region. As in previous years, the young populated Echigo-Tsumari once more, filling disused classrooms, instigating collaborative projects, and helping the farmers with their land.
“The artwork helps lessen the feeling [of depopulation] because the empty spaces are now occupied,” says James Lam, a member of Sense Art Studio, which organizes the volunteer efforts from Hong Kong. “For example, the Museum of Picture Book Art by Hachi & Seizo Tashima is situated in a primary school. Now, it’s become one of the most popular sites in ETAT. Villagers sell their own produce in what was once the canteen. The area has become more vibrant.”
Artists interpret the donated spaces — whether a minka house, a forest, or a school — in conversation with the storied histories and hardships of Echigo-Tsumari. This year, Cai Guo-Qiang created a bi-named installation, “Penglai/Hōrai,” in a school, employing volunteers and villagers to help him tie hundreds of boats and sculptures out of grass from the surrounding fields. (The Chinese and Japanese titles mean, respectively, a utopia where fruit is in excess and a land where the hearts of the locals never harden although there are no crops.) Meanwhile, artist Ricky Yeung and a group of Hong Kong farmers saw the area as a vehicle for political engagement against urbanization. In response to the impending destruction of farmland in his native Hong Kong, Yeung erected vertical wood beams in a watery rice field. “This is a worldwide problem — the economy of neoliberalism,” he says. “I made this artwork to criticize this kind of urban development. The wheat turns yellow in October, and you will see these 20 man-made beams in a yellow rice field. It’s a ridiculous picture. This is my statement.”
In another village, ceramicist Fiona Wong was given a tiny house in a field to work with, one that a father had hand-built for his family. After his daughter died and he suffered a stroke, he was forced to leave the house and move back to the city. “He used to take his son out to the forests and to enjoy nature — I have never known a father so devoted to his children,” says Wong. “So this house is really about a father’s love.” Wong created translucent porcelain works that introduced new light and shadows into the space, a tribute to Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s essay “In Praise of Shadows.” (In this text, Tanizaki looks at the aesthetics of traditional Japanese spaces, from lavatories to monasteries, relating each to the shadows that inhabit them.) The porcelain panels resemble miniature shōji (doors or space dividers), and some are poked through with stippled drawings of father and son.
Kitagawa mentions that, initially, the villagers were wary of the project and a lot of doors had to be knocked on. Fifteen years on, the sentiment is one of acceptance, if not hope. The population is still declining, after all, but at least a channel of communication has been opened, even on a practical level. Several farmers are now collaborating with volunteers to send their produce to neighboring cities.
And similar festivals are popping up around Japan — perhaps because, in addition to supporting community life, they offer artists and young urbanites a chance to relearn mindfulness, especially in regards to time, art practice, and social interaction. Chinese volunteer Andrew Kan recalls his encounters with the villagers this year. “This one farmer visited me a lot when I was sitting at a counter outside a wooden house in Matsudai,” he says. “He brought me fresh cucumber he grew when I was bored, even though we didn’t ever speak much because of the language difference.” Through this relationship, Kan grew, like many others before him, to understand these meditative abstractions — the slow and humble ways of the villagers’ lives.
“I learned how to just let things go,” adds Wong. “It’s really not the Japanese way of things, but I learned a lot. For example, one day when I was still working, the owner of the house came to visit. He was so old already and had not been back since he had his stroke. He struggled to walk up to the entrance and had to sit down and couldn’t make it. So his son — now a grown adult — carried him on his back the rest of the way. When they finally saw what was inside the house, they were so happy.”
The 2015 Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale runs through September 13. For more information about artworks and visiting times, see the website.
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