A COSMONAUT SAT most of the winter on a platform at Kazusa-Murakami Station in Chiba, a rural Japanese prefecture near Tokyo. While waiting for the trains, local grandmothers chatted with the inanimate installation, the work of Russian artist Leonid Tishkov. Visitors to an abandoned garment factory in the nearby village of Ushiku found a multimedia maze assembled by Japanese artist Nakazaki Toru, using artifacts and memorabilia salvaged from the site: old sewing machines , mannequins draped in fabric swatches and taped interviews with the family who once ran the place. These were two of more than 90 pieces created for a triennial festival known as Ichihara Art x Mix, held in the Ichihara area of Chiba in late 2021.
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Abroad, the best-known Japanese contemporary art is the manga-tinged work of painters such as Murakami Takashi, whose colorful flowers feature on Louis Vuitton bags and in Billie Eilish music videos. In the interior of the country, however, social and community art, often in the form of festivals in rural areas, is the dominant trend. Kitagawa Fram, the artistic director of the Ichihara event, organizes four other big ones in as many prefectures. The Echigo-Tsumari Triennial attracts over half a million people, about as many as the Venice Biennale; they wander through 760 square kilometers of remote villages in Niigata Prefecture, looking for sculptures and installations hidden in fields, forests and old buildings. One million people flock to the secluded “art islands” in Japan’s inland sea for the Setouchi Triennial.
Hundreds of other small artistic events are organized each year under the sign of “regional revitalization”. This strain of art grapples with the major challenges facing Japan (and, increasingly, much of the developed world): an aging and shrinking population; recessed regions; climate catastrophe. The works make use of the new spaces and resources that these forces have spawned, such as abandoned buildings and idle elderly people. As Adrian Favell, sociologist and art critic, writes: “The avant-garde of the contemporary is found in collective and communal works.
In Japanese, these efforts are known as ato purojekuto (from the English “art project”). “We call it a ‘project’ because it’s not a ‘work of art’,” says art historian Tomii Reiko. the ato purojekuto are by nature collaborations without a single author. Many include public art or sculpture, but the “project” is what happens around them: workshops and other initiatives that prioritize communication and engagement with communities. “The process is more important than the result,” says Mori Yoshitaka of Tokyo University of the Arts. In short, artists create links not between the elements of a composition, but between people.
the ato purojekuto have their roots in the Japanese avant-garde collectives of the 1960s. They have parallels abroad in what Grant Kester, an American art historian, calls “socially engaged art”. But the ato purojekuto are a distinct form that responds to particular socio-economic conditions. Some operate in major cities, like 3331 Arts Chiyoda, an art space in a former high school in northeast Tokyo that hosts everything from experimental sound art exhibits to disaster prevention roundtables to workshops. of wheat cultivation. Many more take place away from bright lights.
Echigo-Tsumari’s case was “pivotal”, says Kumakura Sumiko, also from Tokyo University of the Arts. The area is a conservative enclave in the mountains of central Japan, filled with abandoned houses, rice paddies and old people – objectively, a terrible place to host a contemporary art festival. When it started in 2000, a lot of arty watchers wondered who would bother going; many members of the local community questioned the expense, Ms. Kumakura recalled. But over time, attitudes have changed. The young volunteers have established lasting links with the inhabitants of the district; many came to help when a large earthquake hit the area in 2004. Although some residents remain hostile to the use of funds for incomprehensible facilities instead of roads or clinics, many came. This year will be the eighth edition of the festival.
For rural sites, the projects are an alternative to the infrastructure-focused regeneration initiatives that the national government is promoting. They have come to relish their new status as tourist destinations: ordinary villages are now home to attractions from world-famous names such as James Turrell, an American light artist, and Marina Abramovic, a Serbian performance artist. But for Mr. Kitagawa, changing attitudes is the real dividend.
Young in the art
With art as a catalyst, he says, older people have become “more energetic”, young people have started to visit and local governments have become “more global in terms of mindset”. A study by Echigo-Tsumari found that about 60% of the population worked or attended the festival. Those who did trusted strangers more and had higher levels of social capital and life satisfaction than those who did not.
For urban Japanese, the events seem to be shaping a “formless desire” to escape office life, says Justin Jesty of the University of Washington: “They’re onto something when it comes to the direction of the people’s imaginations. Government surveys suggest that nearly 40% of city dwellers aged 18-29 would like to live in a village; for many, the pandemic seems to have heightened the appeal.
the ato purojekuto can feel sanitized. Organizers must maintain close relationships with local governments, which tend to be dominated by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, so there is rarely overt political criticism. Critics say this robs the art of its ability to shock and challenge viewers. The installations lean towards the abstract and visually pleasing – unlike many major European and American art jamborees, where, nowadays, politics must be “visible and explicit, you have to raise your fist, slap it, metaphorically speaking”. , as Ms. Tomii says.
Yet the projects are radical in their own way. By bringing art to rural areas, they pose political questions of a more subtle but no less essential kind: who art is for and its role in an aging society. At their best, says Mr. Favell, ato purojekuto to shed light on ways to cope with economic and demographic stagnation, and to live in “the ruins of the Anthropocene”. ■
This article appeared in the Books & Arts section of the print edition under the headline “By the people, for the people”