Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale 2018

August 17, 2018
Ma Yansong/MAD Architects, 'Light Cave'

It’s often said that the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale could only happen in Japan. In terms of sheer scale it is the largest contemporary exhibition in the world, spread across 760 square kms of the mountainous regions of Niigata prefecture. This year is the seventh incarnation of a project intended to help revitalise an area that has suffered a steady decline due to depopulation – a peculiarly Japanese problem, everywhere apart from Tokyo.

Visitors travel around all day in buses or in cars, covering vast distances between works. It’s a long haul in heatwave conditions, but the scenery is spectacular and the art, inspirational.

The Triennale was the brainchild of Fram Kitagawa, the most dogged of art entrepreneurs, who has spent years convincing villagers to accept works of art, persuading artists to participate, and sponsors to cough up. There are now 200 works of art installed permanently in the Echigo-Tsumari region, with a further 180 new pieces being created specifically for this year’s show.

As schools, public buildings or farm houses are abandoned, artists are put to work transforming these sites into installations. The most remarkable aspect of the process is that the villages maintain the artworks on a voluntary basis. Tourists can visit at any time (although the snow is two metres deep in winter!) and stay in houses transformed by artists such as Marina Abramovic and James Turrell.

Kitagawa’s idea initially met with fierce resistance but the momentum of the project has proven to be unstoppable. This year a previously intractable village welcomed Chilean/French artist, Emma Malig, even inviting her to make a work in the local shrine.

Australia House – not to be confused with the London version

Once the ice was broken, the locals have been unstinting in their hospitality. Australia has participated in this show every year since its inception in 2000, building a headquarters called Australia House in the village of Urata. This year’s residents were Angela and Hossein Valamanesh, who have left Guardian, a bronze chair with antlers, as a fixture in front of the building.

There’s also a new work called Tracing Water, by Sydney artist, Sue Pedley in collaboration with architect, Kazuya Iwaki, consisting of giant blue weavings of water molecules placed at six locations in the landscape.

The most accessible Australian contribution is to be found at the Nohbutai Cultural Centre, with Yadaki, a show of didjeridoos organised by John Carty of the South Australian Museum. On 8 September, master musician, Djalu Gurruwiwi, will hold a concert with a Japanese group called GOMA, who have travelled to Australia to study the didjeridoo.

Ambassador Court didges for Australia

Australia’s commitment to the Triennale has inspired Hong Kong to launch its own Hong Kong House this year, which will provide a permanent venue for future exhibitions. The French and the Chinese are also playing an increasingly prominent role.

One of the most impressive parts of this event is the way big name artists back up, year after year, revising existing installations and creating new pieces. Cai Guo-Qiang has been involved in every Triennale, while artists such as Christian Boltanski and Seizo Tashima have kept adding to large-scale works. Tashima’s Museum of Picture Book Art, in an old school, is now one of the region’s major attractions.

From Seizo Tashima’a ‘Museum of Picture Book Art’

As well as art installations the Triennale has generated new restaurants and dining places, and even a wildly ambitious Symphonic Suite by composer, Takeshi Kobayashi, called Beyond the Circle which was performed as part of the opening ceremonies. A more apposite title might have been Everything but the Kitchen Sink – or Japanese equivalent.

Aside from the revitalisation of the area, Kitagawa’s other aim with this project has been “to reconnect art and nature”. Artists from all over the world have responded enthusiastically to this theme, creating works that deal with the ecology of the region, its patterns of agriculture and human habitation.

One of the foremost contributors has been Yukihisa Isobe, avant-garde artist and landscape architect, whose interventions in the landscape may be seen all over the region, from a piece called Where has the river gone? (2000), which uses yellow flags to trace the course of a lost river, to a new work, A Monument of Siphon (2018), a gigantic pipe covered in red and white stripes that snakes its way across the greenest of fields.

Yukihisa Isobe’s ‘Where has the river gone?’

Another school closure has meant that Isobe is now the subject of a permanent museum on a scale that does justice to the expansive nature of his ideas.

I can’t hope to do any more than hint at the scale and achievements of a show that would require two weeks to be seen in its entirety. Most visitors settle for a highlights tour of three to four days.

The idea that the Triennale is uniquely Japanese phenomenon is soon to be put to the test by a foundation, backed by Bill Gates which hopes to export the model to China, where there are numerous rural communities struggling to remain alive. Kitagawa is already enlisted as director of this scheme, which represents a cultural cross-fertilisation between two countries often viewed as adversaries.

China’s political regime, and the very different character of its peasant life will impose a new set of obstacles on the show. If the project can thrive in this environment perhaps we might think about doing something in one of those woefully depopulated Australian country towns.

Aside from the Triennale, another good reason to visit Japan at the moment is a spectacular survey of Japanese architecture at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. Japan in Architecture: Genealogies of its Transformation (until 17 September), is not just a greatest hits package of significant buildings by Tange, Isozaki, Maki, Ando, Kuma and other major figures, it delves deeply into the philosophies behind the designs.

The show explores traditional building methods, including the special affinity Japanese architects have felt for wood. It looks at a specifically Japanese sense of space, in which emptiness plays a crucial role. Above all it emphasises the relationship between the manmade and natural worlds in a way that echoes and complements the aims of Echigo-Tsumari. Not for the first time I left Japan feeling that this most formal and insular of nations has lessons for the entire planet.

Echigo Tsumari Art Triennale 2018
Niigata prefecture, Japan, 29 July – 17 September, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 18 August, 2018