Echigo Tsumari

In a recent forum on globalism Documenta Director Okwui Enwezor himself admitted to a sense of exhaustion and internal rupture in the whole mechanism of the global exhibition, while Hans-Ulrich Obrist, one of the guest curators of the Venice Biennale, cited Caribbean writer Edouard Glissant’s call to resist the ‘fly-in, fly-out’ mentality where curators and artists arrive, install and dismantle the exhibition, repaint the walls white and migrate to the next international venue and instead think about the exhibition as an ongoing experience and occasion to work together with the possibility of developing a collective form of intelligence.

This view may, as the forum’s moderator, James Meyer, suggested, be dismissed as just an attempt to inject life into the old avant-garde, however there is one large-scale global exhibition where this is actually taking place – the Echigo-Tsumari Triennial in Japan.

Here the museums, pavilions, halles, and converted warehouses fitted out with white gyprock walls are replaced by forests, paddy-fields, rivers, town squares, streets and traditional houses. Of course site-specific exhibitions such as Site Santa Fe, Arte all’ Arte, and the Munster Sculpture Project have been around for some time. Indeed the 1997 Munster Project was an important inspiration for Fram Kitagawa, the brain behind the Echigo-Tsumari Triennial, but he has developed the Triennial into an extraordinary, visionary venture that has elevated the biennale format and the site-specific to new territory.

Located about 3 hours by fast train northwest of Tokyo the Echigo Tsumari region constitutes a 762 square kilometre area of rural countryside and six municipalities within the Niigata Prefecture. Amidst scenery of great beauty – beech and cryptomeria forested mountainsides, terraced rice fields, rivers, picturesque small farming hamlets and hot springs – this remote area, like many other rural areas in Japan, has nevertheless steadily lost its life force as the younger generations have departed in a mass exodus for the bright lights, education and employment opportunities of big cities such as Tokyo.

Fram Kitagawa is one of the region’s young and bright who left in search of education and a career. Retaining strong links with Niigata he felt that art and culture could be a transformative force in revitalizing the region and convinced the local politicians to initiate a 10-year development program, the Art Necklace, a multi-spronged cultural project with the Echigo-Tsumari Triennials as the backbone of the initiative.

While the two Triennials held to date have seen participation by curators such as Okwui Enwezor, Apinan Poshyananda, Hou Hanru and Rosa Martinez on the advisory committee and artists such as Marina Abramovic, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Surasi Kusolwong, Cai Guo Qiang, Joseph Kosuth, Jimmie Durham, Kendall Geers and Maaria Wirkkala, all of whom figure on the global biennale circuits, the Echigo-Tsumari Triennial nevertheless is notably different from the usual global biennale norm.

This difference, driven largely by Kitagawa’s philosophy that the Triennial should generate a dialogue – between the rural and the urban, between Japan and the world and between generations, is demonstrated in his hybrid, inclusive curatorial approach.

In the 2003 edition over 150 artists were invited to create site-specific works with international artists from 23 countries working alongside senior and emerging Japanese artists as well as an impressive contingent of student groups from thirty Japanese universities.

The resulting diverse range of artworks including sculptures, installations, performances, sound works, theatre and music was however also accompanied by architectural, landscape and urban design projects by eminent international and Japanese architects such as MVRDV and Hiroshi Hara and younger cutting edge practices such as Takaharu &Yui Tezuka, Peripherique and Casagrande & Rintala, an international Short Video Festival with winners’ works screened in site-specific locations as well as a parallel program of artist symposiums and conferences focusing on issues such as the environment, globalisation and rural/urban divides.

The outcome was an extraordinary spectrum of projects of which only a few can be mentioned here –  the magical, ambulatory, opening night performance by WhiteBase on the main street of Tokomachi where a balloon festooned, long white table on wheels serving ‘white’ refreshments such as tofu, rice and saki animated the idea that a region, covered with dense snow for almost 6 months of the year, could indeed develop a new, fluid energy – Yukihisa Isobe’s archaeological memory of the Shinano River. A 100 metre long by 25 metre high installation of scaffold layered with text revealed the radically changed levels of the river from the earliest era of Jomon culture 1500 years ago – Katshiko Hibino’s project based in one of the region’s many closed schools was a newspaper titled The Day After Tomorrow which in its regular coverage of the Triennial projects as well as local news seemed to epitomise the possibility that the region had a newsworthy future – Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ choreography of the Romeo and Juliet inspired Snow Workers’ Ballet performed by the local snowplough drivers – Cremaster musical director Jonathan Bepler’s CD of sounds collected from the region – Christian Boltanski’s collaborative project with Jean Kalman in another of Echigo Tsumari’s closed schoolhouses was a tremendously poignant memorial to the loss of the region’s children – as was Nobuho Nagaswa’s ghostly installation of photographic ‘lanterns’ of family generations installed over three floors of an abandoned house in Kawanishi – Surasi Kusolwong’s monumental, kinetic ‘tori’ swings in a rural camping ground which playfully conveyed the idea of animating traditional institutions while magnificently framing the scenic landscape – Kiki Smith’s Pause, an enigmatic installation of white ceramic busts of a young girl in Cai Guo Qiang’s Dragon Museum of Contemporary Art, a traditional Chinese climbing kiln made for the 2000 edition – Maaria Wirkkala’s wonderful Every Place is the Heart of the World. Working in a small mountainous village Wirkkala took an everyday item, the farmer’s conical hat, painted the interior a reflective gold and attached a bulb which the villagers then installed on the exterior of their houses. Wandering through the village at dusk one had the incredible sensation of these dark, traditional houses with their tiny, glowing satellites not only speaking to each other but of opening up a dialogue with the world.

While many projects utilised existing buildings such as village and farm houses, abandoned schools and shops a diverse range of new structures were created. Some were quirky – such as Pedro Reyes nipple-topped House for Computer Cavemen developed in conjunction with the local community, Toshiya Motai’s one-person landscape viewing folly, R & Sie sarl d’Architecture’s amazing parking lot cum cultural centre with its vertiginously curved asphalt car-park rearing up over the adjacent rice paddies and Jean-Michel Alberola’s tiny community centre for a small hamlet of just 10 people. Based on the region’s ubiquitous snow-proof shed the entire interior walls and ceiling featured Alberola’s signature ‘pop’ style paintings.

Others, such as Casagrande & Rintala’s austere community park overlooking the Kiyotsu River, drew deeply on traditional Japanese aesthetics. Their Post Industrial Meditation utilised cor-ten steel, crushed glass, white stone and timber to evoke a dialectical relationship between nature and technology, while at the same time extending traditional Zen gardens in a contemporary idiom.

Three major architectural projects were commissioned creating new cultural/community facilities for the region. Renown Dutch architects MVRDV designed the Snow-Land Agrarian Cultural Centre. Looking like a space-craft that had inadvertently touched down in Matsudai its all-white exterior concealed zany interiors painted in saturated colours with around six artworks by international and Japanese artists integrated throughout. Takaharu + Yui Tezuka also included artworks in their stunning Museum of Natural Science in Matsunoyama. The elongated L–shaped, rusted cor-ten building featured a tall tower with a large window affording panoramic views of the surrounding forest and rice-paddies. At the base of the tower Taiko Shono utilised a natural spring to amplify the sounds of water drops while Takuro Osaka ‘s 11,400 luminous blue diode spots activated by cosmic rays provided the sole illumination for the many steps that had to be climbed to reach the top of the tower. Together with Hiroshi Hara’s Koryukan complex in Tokomachi these three new centres constitute, according to Kitagawa, ‘revitalizing footholds’ – spaces for the exhibition of local culture but also spaces for wider Japanese and international cultural activities to be brought to the region.

Five Australian artists were invited to create works for the 2003 Triennial and it was good to see particularly strong works from each artist.

Nigel Helyer was one of the few artists to tackle controversial issues albeit in a very tongue in cheek fashion. Everything’s Nice With American Rice was a humorous yet pointed dig at the free trade/protectionist debates inherent in globalisation. In a region noted for its fine rice but obliged to import American rice under free trade agreements with the United States Helyer converted a small saki warehouse into a distillery. Here one could view the whole process of converting sacks of American rice (provided, one suspects, somewhat gleefully by the local community) into an ethanol-type fuel which was then utilised to power the machinery needed to produce the local rice crop. Outside the warehouse a flag-bedecked tractor injected with the transformed American rice chugged up and down the main street much to the amusement and thumbs-up of the press, locals and visiting artists.

Anne Graham had the challenging task of creating a major community artwork for the Nanatsugama Fishing Park, a nature reserve in an area famous for its wild, scenic beauty – and for its ancient serpent legend. Graham designed a snake-shaped walkway that sinuously wound around a hillside terminating in a cluster of granite rocks with polished flat tops – a place for meditation, viewing and picnics. Seventy tiled panels were designed by groups drawn from local communities and further afield and then, in a mammoth community workshop attracting well over 1,000 people, assembled and inserted into the walkway. The importance of the project to the community was evident in the formal blessing by village elders followed by an enactment of the serpent legend and the provision of local food and delicacies such as saki in bamboo flasks for all the participants.

High above the hot spring village of Matsunoyama, in the tiny hamlet of Uwaya, one of the region’s many abandoned houses was transformed into a permanent artwork by Lauren Berkowitz and Robyn Backen.

On the ground floor Berkowitz installed, with a very formal aesthetic reminiscent of ikebana, arrangements of various local plants and produce to create what she describes as a ‘sensory experience’ of the area. In workshops with the community leaves and flower petals were collected, dried and arranged in grid formation under a glass sheet and local foods such as chillies, beans and herbs were placed in white bowls embedded in a field of white rice. Suspended from the rafters was a vertical shaft constructed from the pampas grass that has been used in Japan since time immemorial for coats, mats and thatching. Enveloped in this monumental ‘cloak’ lined with highly scented cryptomeria branches one was immediately transported into the depths of the nearby forests.

On the upper floor Robyn Backen transformed one of the former tatami-mat sleeping rooms into a sound and light installation that hauntingly conveyed the phenomenon of living in the overwhelming darkness of a region that is snowbound for more than half the year. One was drawn up the stairs into the musty, dark space by the sound of a woman’s voice elegiacally intoning in Japanese a haiku by Kobayashi Issa:

swapping kimonos
she watches from her house
him fade into the mist

The haiku was echoed visually in the room’s only window, which had been blocked up by a panel perforated with the text in Morse-code dot-dash , and in the tatami-mat floor where the ‘tatami’ had become a slowly pulsating light-work generated by the Morse-code translation.  Extending Backen’s long-term interest in the use of Morse code as a symbol of the world’s dying languages the installation at the same time evoked for me the mortal abandonment of both house and region. Yet…if light can be seen as the visual dimension of time one also sensed in Backen’s Rice Talk the glimmer of new life.

Separated from Berkowitz and Backen’s house of memories by a winding road and terraced rice paddies Janet Laurence gave new life to a small farm warehouse by transforming it into an apothecary cum shot bar. Here her longstanding passion for the environment blossomed in a collaboration with local botanist Seichi Oguchi. Local herbs and plants with medicinal properties were researched, discussed and collected and then infused with the Japanese alcohol shochu. Glass panels etched with botanical drawings and Japanese texts describing the properties of the different plants and elongated glass flasks containing sections of the plants covered the walls while a central ‘bar’ was laden with various glass flasks and vials containing the results of the different infusions. In a scintillating display ranging from the palest white to the softest orange, seductive pinks through to the ominously black (my favourite, derived from comfrey) white lab-coated assistants poured tiny shot glasses for degustation.

A further defining feature of the Echigo-Tsumari Triennial is that over two thirds of the projects are commissioned on a permanent basis thus incrementally endowing the region with a significant cultural legacy. Four of the Australian projects for the 2003 Triennial are permanent,  and like the two most significant projects of the 2000 edition, Marina Abramovic’s Dream House and James Turrell’s Light House (in collaboration with Tadao Ando), depend on an on-going collaboration with the community. Laurence’s Elixir will be continually renewed by Oguchi while both Abramovic and Turrell’s amazing performative ‘house’ projects incorporate overnight accommodation which is managed by the local communities. The income realised by these projects goes back directly to the community thus generating very real economic benefits, as well as great artworks, for the region.

This collaboration with the local community, the very heart of Kitagawa’s philosophy of dialogue, is probably the most striking aspect of the Triennial. While a few projects disappointed (one had the feeling that the artists in question left any desire or inclination to truly engage with both place and people at Narita’s immigration desk), most artists seem to have clearly relished the opportunity to explore the potential of extending their work in a totally different physical and cultural context and through a meaningful engagement with the very community whose reinvigoration may be determined in part by this engagement.

Sally Couacaud

Sally Couacaud is an independent curator and writer. She was a member of the international jury for the 2003 Echigo-Tsumari Triennial’s Short Video Festival.

1. “Global Tendencies: Globalism and the Large-scale Exhibition”, Artforum, November 2003.
2. See the Triennial’s website for further details on the full range of artworks from both Triennials, catalogues and travel/accommodation information.