I returned from a three day visit to the fourth Echigo Tsumari Art Triennale a few days ago, spanning multiple sites in Niigata. Its founder and Director, Fram Kitagawa, has spoken of not being so concerned with curating an art exhibition, and more concerned with activating the region and its people through the vehicle of the festival. The experience of moving through the landscape (albeit in a bus) and walking in the heat and rain to see art works is certainly powerful. By day two I felt the slight onset of ‘minka’ (old empty rural farmhouses) fatigue. Many artists showed installations and projects in abandoned farm houses. Certain languages seemed to emerge after the sixth or seventh house. Hanging string, cord, newspaper and wood to fill space seemed a particularly popular one as did a sense of hand crafting objects. Much of the materials used were ‘poor’, perhaps reflective of the limited funds and production time available. One of the exceptions to this was Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller who created a highly tuned installation illusion which made one think that there was a thunderstorm happening outside using intricate sound, light and plumbing systems.
A few works (it is a pity that the number is not higher considering what could be done) really affected me, responding to their placing, being aesthetically and formally accomplished and sustaining a sense of the complexity and multiplicity of the natural and economic contexts (one of the primary rallying cries of the triennale has been the regeneration of this region through art and festival). I reminded myself of Kitagawa’s curatorial approach which is essentially one of saying that he does not curate, welcomes all levels and types of creativity as that is how the world is, and is primarily directed towards the activation of the region via festivity. It is therefore difficult to think about the triennale only as an art exhibition and critique it on this level. A nagging voice in the back of my mind kept telling me to remember the social regeneration agenda. However I kept returning to the question of how the art felt, how I experienced the triennale as an exhibition of art works. There are clearly many interests and concerns at stake. The way that I personally moved through the festival was as someone visiting from outside, thinking about the art works in their respective contexts, how they made me feel and think about the architecture, history and time of the area, or materially manifested specific ideas and concerns. After all, an exhibition, whether housed in a museum or across many kilometers of countryside, is a deeply physical and psychic experience. My body shares the space with art and its contexts. The tiniest of details, materials or the way that an object is placed affects this relationship. How does one measure something like regeneration of a local region? Clearly economics is one way. However I would argue that one of the potentials of art in this regard is precisely its abilities to materially (and thus bodily, psychically) affect spaces. It seems to me that there are works that manage this more successfully than others. Among the many possible reasons for this I would particularly point to the ability of certain works to sustain many possible outcomes simultaneously without becoming read as simply one thing. An exhibition such as the Echigo-Tsumari Triennale, rooted in highly complex and demanding ecological, economic and social contexts, seems to urge for an awareness of this living, multiplying energy situation – perhaps more so than an orthodox gallery setting. The metropolitan art world feels a long way away.
My brother and I ordered the negitoro-don at a restaurant which specializes in katsu-don.
I suppose that I became more acutely aware of what may be called aesthetic responses to art works, their formal and material presences before me and all of the complex relations that they create. This is something perhaps slightly different in degree to a strictly formalist contemplation of art which may be somewhat more self-contained. Like many similar community or city regeneration art projects in Japan today, it often felt that the art remained formally weak. So often I felt that works spent too much energy speaking too directly of the community or the landscape or the local context, becoming somewhat pedantic. The dots could too easily be joined together and an all too simplified ‘answer’ drawn. The more successful works managed to always maintain a sense of multiplicity. They did not allow for easy or obvious conclusions to be drawn, rather letting my imagination stray and ponder. Many of the more successful works which held this sense of complexity did so by introducing something alien, strange or unfamiliar into the context rather than staying close to local materials and contexts. It is perhaps by materially jarring what is present in a particular place by bringing something unfamiliar to it that one can begin to reflect on where one is. One is made more aware of one’s present condition by reflecting on something so alien to it. Sun Ra and the Afro-Futurist enterprise may explore a similar territory. Marcel Duchamp referred to this multiplying aspect of art works as its ‘co-efficient’, a temporal process that is played out during the experiencing of any work. Nicolas Bourriaud put it this way: “ A work of art has a quality that sets it apart from other things produced by human activities. This quality is its (relative) social transparency. If a work of art is successful, it will invariably set its sights beyond its mere presence in space: it will be open to dialogue, discussion…” etc.
Of the works I saw, the successful were:
Yukihisa Isobe – excavating the earth (in the vein of Robert Smithson et al.) to reveal a river bed from the Jomon period in the middle of a rice paddy. The only work I saw which did not make or add to the context but subtracted in order to reveal archaic time.
Kidlak Tahimik – together with his assistants from The Philippines he built a traditional hut on stilts on a mountain side with totem ritual sculptures and spaces.
Christian Boltanski – a huge installation in an old school where one walked through a designated route, incorporating Boltanski’s signature black portraits, image-less video projections, light bulbs etc.
Komaki＋Noctural Studio’s Cocoon House – a
project about silk worms grown in an old farm house where a woman lived, which
had a diorama of the village under the floor boards which one could see through
a small hole in the floor – reminded me of Gaston Bachelard’s ‘Poetics of
Deacon – a large sculpture made of connected different sized sausage/ rice
shapes made of shiny silver overlooking a valley. I liked how it made no
attempt to use local materials or blend into the countryside, but formally
stood out like an oversized rice ball made by a one year old.
Richard Deacon – a large sculpture made of connected different sized sausage/ rice shapes made of shiny silver overlooking a valley. I liked how it made no attempt to use local materials or blend into the countryside, but formally stood out like an oversized rice ball made by a one year old.
A cloud that looked like the islands of Japan.