Tokyo may do a very good impersonation of a city confident of its position at the centre of the universe: from its neon skyscrapers and speedy commuter trains to its impressive haul of Michelin-starred restaurants. But Japan’s art scene is increasingly spinning on a different axis: life, it seems, no longer revolves around the capital when it comes to art.
A growing number of major projects are taking root not in Tokyo but in abandoned rice fields, mountain villages, fishing islands, small cities and empty schools across the country.
With rural Japan facing a litany of social problems, such as aging communities, shrinking populations and a decline in farming, the shift away from the capital could not be timelier.
This year, the most ambitious event on the artistic calendar is taking place not in the white walled confines of a minimalist Tokyo gallery or an industrial inner-city warehouse. Instead, it will unfold in the remote confines of the Seto Inland Sea on seven tiny fishing islands between Honshu and Shikoku – the inaugural Setouchi International Art Festival.
For 100 days from July, the islands – including established art haven Naoshima – will exhibit artworks across rice fields, beaches, wooden houses and shrines.
Japan’s finest architects, designers and artists are on board: among them Kenya Hara – who created the festival’s identity – Rei Naito, Rikuji Makabe, and Shinro Ohtake, alongside international collaborators Olafur Eliasson and Christian Boltanski. Six hours by shinkansen, local train and ferry from Tokyo, the festival is not only distant from the capital in geography: the concept is tied intrinsically with rural Japan.
“The festival aims to revitalise depopulated islands, inspire art and architectural projects and reconnect the forgotten isolated islands to the outside world,” says festival founder Fram Kitagawa, of Tokyo’s Art Front gallery.
“The 20th century was the age of the city. But cities have become homogeonised, urban art is in decline. Artists are looking outside cities to revitalise their art and are increasingly inspired by the pace and culture of rural places.”
The festival is an expansion of Naoshima’s status as a hidden art paradise: the tiny island is already home to world class Tadao Ando-designed museums and numerous installations, from Hiroshi Sugimoto’s transparent shrine staircase to Yayoi Kusama’s pumpkin on the beach. In the summer, Ando will unveil a new museum devoted to the work of the Korean-born artist Lee Ufan.
The projects gathering pace in the Seto Inland Sea signal a peaking trend for artists moving away from the capital. Tapping the potential of regional Japan, artists are increasingly won over by a combination of empty buildings, rich cultural traditions and surrounding nature.
In the Aomori region in northernmost Honshu, a string of projects are establishing the area as a major arts centre – including the on-going Towada Arts Center project which will be completed later this year and currently has 22 artworks scattered across the landscape and community.
Kamikatsu, a tiny village in Tokushima prefecture famous for its zero-rubbish policy, is also home to an annual arts project with artists including Katsuhiko Hibino and Takamasa Kuniyasu.
Another major event is Echigo-Tsumari Art triennial – also organised by Kitagawa – the latest of which opened last summer as the world’s largest outdoor art festival in the remote mountains of Niigata. More than 350 artworks are currently scattered among tiered mountain rice fields, empty schools and unused houses in a bid to use art to revitalise struggling rural communities.
Meanwhile, Nagoya city this year launches its first Aichi Triennale, a major new art event, and two of Tokyo’s most established independent galleries – Taka Ishii and Tomio Koyama – have opened in Kyoto.
But it is the call of the rural that holds most appeal. Once the cultural hurdles of accepting outsiders into the community are overcome (it took Kitagawa four years and 2,000 meetings to persuade the authorities to stage Echigo-Tsumari), it’s a win-win scenario.
The artists tap into an inspiring backdrop, local customs and abandoned architecture as a launchpad for their work while residents benefit from a revitalised community, boosted economy – and a much needed breath of creative fresh air.