Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale 2015

August 22, 2015
Image courtesy Australian Embassy Tokyo.
Image courtesy Australian Embassy Tokyo.

In the courtyard of the Satoyama Museum, in Tokamachi City, a mountain has been born. Covered in dense forest, with clouds of mist and even a waterfall, the towering monolith sits in a shallow pool of water. The courtyard is surrounded by a ring of helicopters, battleships, submarines and patrol boats – 100 small models made out of the same straw as the characteristic snow boots worn in the Echigo region.

The mountain is the work of Cai Guo-Quiang, who left China as a student to live and work in Japan, although he now resides in New York. Cai calls the work Penglai/Hörai, after a mythological land said to be found in the East China Sea. One thinks, inevitably, of the disputed Senkaku islands that are an ongoing source of tension between China and Japan, not to mention the islands the Chinese have built in the South China sea as naval bases.

Installation view of Penglai / Hōrai, Satoyama Museum of Contemporary Art, Niigata, 2015. Photo by Kenryou Gu, courtesy Cai Studio

Installation view of Penglai / Hōrai, Satoyama Museum of Contemporary Art, Niigata, 2015. Photo by Kenryou Gu, courtesy Cai Studio

It’s an appropriate work for an artist who has unusually strong ties to both China and Japan. Cai’s own point of view becomes clear when one goes around the back of the mountain, to find only a mass of metal scaffolding. The romantic, mythical island is nothing more than a façade. It is as much of an illusion as the nationalistic posturing that keeps old animosities alive.

Penglai/Hörai may seem a conceptually ambitious piece for a small town in Niigata Prefecture, but it is the latest in a long line of major works made as part of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale – the biggest show in the world in terms of sheer area.

This is the sixth installment of this exhibition, and it continues to expand. To see everything one would have to traverse more than 750 square kilometres of spectacular mountain landscape between Tokyo and Niigata. There are a range of bus tours available, but it would take a fortnight to view the entire show.

To add an extra degree of difficulty the summer temperatures have been in the high 30s, with humidity in the 90s. In winter the same landscape is buried under three metres of snow. Over the years there have been mudslides, earthquakes and avalanches.

If you’re wondering why anyone would willingly live in Echigo-Tsumari, you’ve hit upon the raison d’etre of the Triennale. For decades the region has been suffering a population decline, as young people move to the cities. The preferred career option for those that remain in one of the district’s 200 small communities, is growing rice. Every flat piece of ground is covered in a bright green paddy.

Among the diehards, the love of home and tradition is strong – and this is what motivated art entrepreneuer, Fram Kitagawa, in 1999, to launch an exhibition that aimed to revitalise the area through art. It reputedly required more than 2,000 community meeting before Kitagawa got everyone on-side, but with each successive Triennale his scheme has gathered disciples. Unlike other big exhibitions that gradually run out of steam, Echigo-Tsumari keeps building momentum.

The key element is continuity. Abandoned houses, barns and schools have been transformed by artists from all over the world. A good percentage of these works will remain as permanent installations maintained by local volunteers. Visitors may even stay overnight in artist-designed environments such as Marina Abramovic’s Dream House, James Turrell’s House of Light, or the Shedding House – a 150 year-old farm house in which patterns have been carved into every surface.

The Shedding House. Image courtesy of the Australian Embassy Tokyo.

The Shedding House. Image courtesy Australian Embassy Tokyo.

Several communities have opened restaurants serving only local produce. These places are also classified as part of the Triennale, with ‘Art and Food’ now commanding a special chapter in the official guidebook. The well-patronised Ubusuna House has been fitted out by leading ceramic artists, while the Kamigo Clove Theatre Lunch combines cooking and story-telling.

The restaurants are another example of the collaboration between artists and villagers that Kitagawa has encouraged. The experience of working together has given residents a sense of ownership and proved so satisfying to the artists that many come back time and again. Not only Cai Guo-Qiang, but Christian Boltanski and Ilya Kabakov are among the high profile figures who have a special relationship with Echigo-Tsumari.

The Dragon Museum of Contemporary Art that Cai contributed to the first Triennale in 2000 consists of a long kiln transported from Fujian province and reconstructed on a steep hillside. For every exhibition since then he has invited an artist to make a new work that fits inside or around this ‘museum’. For 2015, British-American artist, Peter Hutchinson has thrown a rope along the top of the kiln, and planted flowers where it landed.

There are more than 150 new things to be seen in this Triennale, while many of the permanent works, such as Seizo Tashima’s Picture Book Museum, have been revised and extended. One of the most popular new pieces is by Thai artist, Navin Rawanchaikul, who has immortalised the people of a small community in a painting called The School of Akakura – with no apologies to Raphael’s School of Athens in the Vatican. The painting is hung between trees behind a schoolhouse which doubles as a community hall.

Hachi & Seizo Tashima Museum of Picture Book Art. Photographed by Takenori Miyamoto + Hiromi Seno

Hachi & Seizo Tashima Museum of Picture Book Art. Photographed by Takenori Miyamoto + Hiromi Seno

Another popular contribution comes from renowned Taiwanese illustrator, Jimmy Liao, who has combined fantasy with practicality by constructing two large shelters for railway stations, in the form of a train carriage and a basset hound.

Despite this explosion of activity, and the growing influx of tourists, it seems the population drain continues. At least three schools have closed since the previous Triennale, and been reborn as art centres. These are not cottages, but multi-storey buildings with facilities that would be the envy of many Australian schools. The saddest features are the empty swimming pools one glimpses from a classroom window.

Nevertheless, the transformations are astonishing. At the Nunagawa campus, Junichi Kurakake has led a Nihon University project that is covering the walls in intricate, shallow carvings. Another school has been turned into the Kiyotsu Warehouse Museum, containing permanent installations by leading japanee sculptors such as Shigeo Toya and Toshikatsu Endo.

Echigo-Tsumari is one of the few international art events to which Australia has shown a long-term commitment. This is symbolised by Australia House, designed by Sydney architect Andrew Burns. The house was launched at the 2012 Triennale and now exists as a base for visiting Australian artists – the only drawback being the perennial lack of funds to support a residency program.

Australian House. Image courtesy of the Australian Embassy Tokyo.

Australian House. Image courtesy Echigo-Tsumari Art Field.

This year Australia was represented by the Snuff Puppets, a Melbourne-based performing arts group. The visit was managed by Asialink, with financial support from the Australia Japan Foundation. Nobody who witnessed the group’s major performance could see it as anything but a raging success.

Six massive puppets, some more than three metres high, were constructed in 10 days, with enthusiastic assistance from the village of Urada. The Australians trained local people to operate the puppets, which could only be done from inside. A trial run at the local Obon festival (the Japanese version of All Souls), and the following night’s performance, struck a chord with the crowds that swarmed around the oversized figures, dancing and chanting.

I’ve seen this kind of frenzied Japanese partying at the Setouchi Inland Sea Art Festival, also put together by Fram Kitagawa and funded by philanthropist, Soichiro Fukatake, but the addition of the puppets sent audiences into a new level of excitement. When a massive papier-maché cucumber dropped from the sky it was picked up by the crowd and paraded around like a triumphal insignia.

Snuff Puppets. Image courtesy of the Australian Embassy Tokyo.

Snuff Puppets. Image courtesy Australian Embassy Tokyo.

These are the sort of outcomes that have to be experienced first-hand. To a bureaucrat deciding where funds should be allocated it may not seem especially vital that Australia gets an ecstatic reception in a remote part of Japan. Yet such grass roots involvements are probably more rewarding than glamorous events such as the Venice Biennale.

Echigo-Tsumari asks artists to step outside institutional parameters, turning farmhouses and schools into micro-museums. In particular, the engagement with rural communities that have no knowledge of exalted reputations or conceptual strategies is a true measure of character. The show represents a fundamental reconnection of art and life – a reminder that when the social fabric starts to disintegrate the natural resources that count for most are those of imagination and creativity.

Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale 2015
Echigo region, Japan
Until 13 September

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 22nd August, 2015

John McDonald visited Echigo with assistance from the Australia Japan Foundation