Rural Japan features the largest outdoor art festival in the world, with collaborations by artists and residents at the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial.
One look at the range of luscious bright green rice paddies and it is easy to believe this is where Japan's best rice is grown. As far as the eye can see, the wind plays with the sea of shoots neatly tucked in the mountainous terraces. The rush of a nearby waterfall almost makes you forget you're a mere two-hour train journey from Tokyo and? Wait a minute, are those red people labouring the fields? Indeed. A dozen of them. Complete with traditional "sugegasa" (straw hat) and tools in hand. A little farther down the winding road, a white wooden window frame stands tall in a meadow and allows a view of the astonishing mountain peaks that are famous for heavy snowfall during winter. The statues are part of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial 2009, the world's largest outdoor art exhibition. From an abandoned house along a quiet country road plastered with tiny round mirrors inside and out by the Japanese artist Harumi Yukutake to a massive polka-dotted flower with blue spores right next to a train station by Yayoi Kusama. Artists from 38 countries treat visitors of the festival to 350 contemporary works displayed among the hills and valleys at the southern end of the Niigata Prefecture. The works of art are deployed in an area of 760 sq km, which is greater than all of central Tokyo's 23 wards combined. The population, however, is less than 75,000 and over 30 per cent of the residents are over the age of 65. "This region is suffering from severe depopulation because the Japanese government has abandoned agriculture and focuses on exporting industrial products," says Fram Kitagawa, a renowned Tokyo gallery owner and the energetic founder of the festival. "With the exodus of its young people to jobs in the cities, the communities are collapsing. I would like to give hope and revitalise the people that remain." He takes a sip of coffee and reaches out to a tiny red box with the words "Utopian cookies" splashed on its sides in English and Japanese. "This is a good example of what I'm trying to do," he says seriously, while sticking a U-shaped cookie in his mouth. "These cookies are made by handicapped people in the region and they weren't selling at all. Then artist Jean Michel Alberola redesigned the packaging and now they sell. Well."
Rural Japan might seem an unusual place for such an ambitious art project, but its location is part of Kitagawa's vision. "By means of art we try to show the attraction and value of this region, but at the same time the art can create new life," he says. "Art is not useful per se but that is exactly why it can connect people. Artists work very hard without making a profit and this moved the local people and they started to get involved and help the artists. This process can change the community." The process of realising this unique art scheme wasn't all that easy. It took Kitagawa four years and more than 2000 meetings to persuade the conservative community leaders that art could indeed serve a purpose. In 2000, the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial finally saw the light of day and has since brought more than 250,000 visitors from all around the world and with them fully booked restaurants, hotels, spas and a thriving economy of local merchandise.
One of the visitors, standing in front of a small farm building draped with steel circles welded together by children and the artist Noe Aoki for "Like swimming", is ecstatic. "This is exactly what an art festival should be about," says Pascal Beausse, a French art critic who is visiting the triennial for the second time. "Local, working closely with the community and with a purpose." Next to the farmhouse, the only two remaining families of the tiny village have opened a cafe where visitors can break for lunch during their creative treasure hunt. Noodle soup, grilled river fish and a colourful array of pickled vegetables make for a tasty and nourishing meal. The local elderly women who man the restaurant pass around cups of green tea and among the urbanites the conversation returns to the higher artistic goal of Kitagawa. "Biennales do the same thing all around the world," Beausse continues, while he repositions himself on the traditional tatami mat and wipes a fat fly off his white linen shirt. "This is the only festival I know of to take this approach. The artists are so involved with everyday life. Some artists even bring their students from the city to make them help with the rice cultivation." The best way to visit the rustic satoyama landscape and enjoy its abundant art is to buy a passport and board one of the 10 bus tours that depart from the festival's bustling Kinare centre in Tokamachi City. Each bus leaves at 10am and will return in time for the bullet train back to Tokyo. Passport holders get a chance to visit several of the 200 communities in the area and witness collaborations between local residents, urban supporters and artists. This year, one of the main initiatives is the Closed School Projects. Ten schools that were forced to close down because there were not enough children have opened their doors to the triennial. The Fukutake House, a former school in Myokayama village, houses nine of Asia's leading art galleries. The eerie photography installation of young girls by the famed Dutch artist Hellen van Meene called Pool of Tears draws a sharp contrast with the hundreds of cut-out butterflies hanging from the ceiling and walls by Eiji Watanabe in another classroom.
In the Matsunoyama area, the French duo Christian Boltanski and Jean Kalman created a permanent installation The Absence of Human Beings in 2006 and this year they started recording visitors' heartbeats while they move through classrooms filled with tiny coloured light bulbs, benches and the thumping gloomy sounds of a slow heartbeat combined with the soft roar of fans. The sculptor Ryoichi Yamazaki has made small, childlike sculptures with big eyes and sad expressions. He has hidden the figures hooded in white parkas in corridors and the corners of classrooms for his Culture-bound Syndrome project.
One of the biggest installations is by Tomoko Mukaiyama, an avant-garde concert pianist of Japanese descent based in the Netherlands. Her metaphorical project Wasted is set in the gym of an elementary school. Together with a team of graduate architect students and alumni from Chiba University, Mukaiyama has designed a gigantic labyrinth of 12,000 white silk dresses. "It is like walking into a cathedral," says Cataline Feres, a Chilean photographer, after disappearing in the twists and turns of the structure for half an hour. "A cathedral for women. The silk of the dresses touches your skin while you walk and in the middle there's a place to rest and wonder." Feres will definitely take one of the "free" dresses that are part of the project. "The only commitment I have to make is to create something when I wear the dress and send whatever it is back to Tomoko," she says. "I can't wait to get started." Mukaiyama's project will continue to travel to Indonesia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Czech Republic and Russia over the next year and opens each time with a piano concert. She will incorporate the feedback women have sent her in each of these concerts. "I would like them to put down their experience on something - paper, video or photos, or an object, or music or dance, anything," says Mukaiyama while sitting on the steps of the school. "I realised in my generation women have to make enormous decisions. It has something to do with my age. I'm getting into the phase where I won't be able to have a child anymore and I wanted to express that." It took time for the local villagers to accept Mukaiyama's unusual project. "At first they were very much against it, so I met with them a year ago and explained that it was about life, fertility and death and they slowly agreed to it. They said: 'We don't understand you, but let's say this is art. If it has nothing to do with our life, then it's ok," Mukaiyama says. "And now we are here and we see them every day, we eat together, they bring us cookies, talk to them a lot and the young girls from the village are helping us folding the dresses." There's even a schedule of volunteers who will keep the installation open when the artist has left Japan and a group of farmers have set up a vegetable stand at the school entrance. "I still don't like your work," an old lady in a flowered apron and muddy wellies says. "But we respect the enthusiasm and the hard work," Mukaiyama laughs. "I am not a politician and I have no ambition to change the world. It is not my work. My goal is that men or women who come to the installation will feel something else. And in the moment before they go to sleep maybe they'll think about their life, their birth and their death. That would be beautiful." One of the farmers in the village smiles contentedly while he takes off his sturdy glasses and starts to polish them with his sweater. "Yesterday morning early, when I went into the rice fields I saw a dragonfly," Mizu Ochi says. "And I wanted to make a picture of it. It was art, so beautiful."
Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial 2009 runs until September 13. A passport for access to all exhibits is Dh136 (Dh115 in advance). For more information call 025-585-6180 or visit www.echigo-tsumari.jp/eng/index.html.