Institute and the Community

Debating international relevance of rural contemporary arts festivals in Japan 

On December 3rd and 4th 2015, the Sainsbury Institute hosted two days of events dedicated to exploring the impact and international relevance of rural contemporary arts festivals in Japan, which address the many social crises the country currently faces. These crises include the chronic ageing of the population, rural/urban divides, post-industrial decline and depopulation, political disengagement and recurrent natural disasters. Foremost among such events have been the visionary rural countryside and island based festivals organised by the curator Kitagawa Fram, notably Echigo-Tsumari in mountainous Niigata (2000-2015) and the Setouchi islands around Naoshima (2010-2016), for which he acts as General Director.

Rei Maeda reads the keynote lecture by Fram Kitagawa

A packed Thursday evening talk on 3 December by Kitagawa at the Norwich Cathedral Hostry was followed on the Friday 4 December by an intensive full day of presentations and debates from invited curators, scholars and artists.

It was a rare visit by Kitagawa Fram to the UK, and the first time he has publicly presented his philosophy and practice of art organisation. After initial introductions, his associate at the Tokyo Based Art Front Gallery, Maeda Rei, presented his highly visual overview of Echigo-Tsumari and Setouchi Triennale, with images and data stressing the intimate response inspired from artists to natural history and changing population dynamics. Many distinguished international and Japanese artists have been invited to make site-specific works in remote villages and towns, which in the process—along with countless idealistic young volunteers—engage with these ageing and often highly isolated local populations, “re-activating” these residents with hope as well as generating tourism and local revenue.

In the bi-lingual discussion which followed, distinguished UK curator and director of IKON gallery Birmingham, Jonathan Watkins, raised questions about the specific Japanese-ness of these festivals which echo the rise of site specific public art in many other locations. He pointed out how more recent versions of the festival have embraced a much more encompassing vision of socially engaged art, on a sometimes vast scale. In a lively discussion, Watkins teased out some of Kitagawa’s more radical political thoughts on the role of such social art as an antidote to capitalist finance, and a rejection of the commercial art market.

Fram Kitagawa (centre) in discussion with Jonathan Watkins (left)

The second day began with a comprehensive sociological overview of the question of depopulation and environmental change in contemporary Japan by Dr. Peter Matanle of the University of Sheffield. Matanle was concerned with presenting the very real opportunities posed by “de-growth” in Japan and not only see it as a social disaster in the making. The presentation provided a solid foundation for the day’s debate which centred on the various ways Japanese contemporary art is responding to social, political and environmental challenges.

Mizuki Endo, an independent curator from Kyoto, introduced three controversial exibitions that saw curators and artists responding to the nuclear question in Japan. Much of the discussion, which was led by Jenny White of the British Council, centred on how and why artists have been seeking to “archive” the recent disasters of March 2011.

In the afternoon, further political dimensions of recent contemporary art in Japan were highlighted by research scholars, Honda Eiko, a fellow of the Overseas Programme of the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs, and Yamamoto Hiroki, a PhD candidate at the Chelsea University of the Arts. Honda examined resurgent critical notions of political ecology which echo side-lined alternate native understandings of man, nature and habitat from the Meiji period, while Yamamoto reflected on how some artists are tackling Japan’s very awkward post-colonial relations with Asia. The papers were skilfully discussed by art historian, Gen Adachi, and curator Ele Carpenter.

The scene was then set for curator Mizuki Takahashi, chief curator at Art Tower Mito, to reflect upon the expectations and pitfalls of community oriented art that she has been involved in at Mito. Independent curator Keith Whittle responded by reflecting on his own experiences in Beppu and elsewhere, leading Takahashi through a series of questions tackling the difficulties of forging new values through socially engaged art. Takahashi stressed how government investment in rural festivals was good, but that more should be done to support existing infrastructure and resources such as museums that are losing funding.

The two-day event was organised by Adrian Favell,
Sainsbury Institute Professorial Academic Associate

Pro-Vice Chancellor of Norwich University of the Arts, Neil Powell, joined this discussion with further first-hand evidence of the institutional challenges faced by UK and Japanese art schools alike. The day was rounded up by a presentation about Art Action UK from its director artist Kaori Homma, and thoughts on the relevance of the Japanese case to local rural UK examples by Veronica Sekules of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, who has long been involved in similar local initiatives in the Norfolk region.

The presence of various leading figures from Norwich arts institutions, and their enthusiastic support for the events, underlined the successful intent of the talk and conference to further develop reflecting on contemporary Japanese art at the Sainsbury Institute, highlighting a new angle on Japan/UK comparisons—especially in the light of growing Niigata-Norwich links. The lively discussion on Thursday left the capacity audience of 150 buzzing with thoughts and further questions. The fifty or participants who attended the conference next day were rewarded with a rolling, highly reflective debate that explored many of the more challenging aspects of idealistic art interventions.

The two-day event was organised by Adrian Favell, University of Leeds and a current Professorial Academic Associate of SISJAC, in association with Japan Foundation and additional support from the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation.

Adrian Favell
Professorial Academic Associate, Sainsbury Institute