Art Essays

Echigo Tsumari Art Triennial 2012

Published August 4, 2012
Gombe-san croons to the Karaoke robot, in front of Brook Andrew's Australia House installation (photo: Brett Boardman)

When Japan was devastated by the Tohoku earthquake on 11 March last year, one of the casualties was a century-old farm house in the tiny community of Urada, in the mountains near Tokamachi City. Less than two years previously this building had been designated ‘Australia House’ at the 2009 Echigo Tsumari Art Triennial (ETT), serving as residence and studio for three participating artists from Down Under.
Australia House was intended as a guarantee of Australia’s ongoing commitment to the Triennial – a mammoth exhibition spread out over 765 square kilometres of Niigata prefecture. This commitment was important because the ETT may occupy a larger territory than any other international exhibition, but it has none of the glamour associated with extravaganzas such as the Venice Biennale or the Kassel Documenta.
What makes this event special, aside from its outlandish scale, is that it was conceived as a utopian exercise in revitalising a region through art. The stated theme of the show is “humans embraced by nature”.
Echigo Tsumari is known for producing the finest rice in Japan, and every piece of flat ground seems to contain a bright green paddy. But toiling in the fields all day for a tiny income is not a desirable occupation for the younger generations. Life is hard in other ways as well. Although Echigo Tsumari is a place of pristine beauty, almost four metres of snow falls in winter, while summer is unbearably hot and sticky.
The population has steadily ebbed, leaving a preponderance of older people. As the young relocate to the cities, houses fall vacant and schools are deserted.
These empty buildings made an impression on art entrepreneur, Fram Kitagawa, of Art Front Gallery, Tokyo, who was invited to do a project to facilitate the merger of towns in 1996.
Instead of a one-off show to ease the pains of rural reform, Kitagawa hit upon the ambitious idea of holding a regular exhibition that would leave significant works of international art installed in perpetuity in the region’s abandoned buildings. This required four years’ worth of negotiations and the support of the local population who agreed to look after the art on a voluntary basis.
The other necessary ingredient was a willing sponsor, in Soichiro Fukutake of the Benesse Corporation, who has poured incalculable millions into the ETT, the Setouchi Inland Sea festival and the island of Naoshima, to promote both art and community renewal.
Kitagawa’s plan was to transform Echigo Tsumari into a kind of living art museum, attracting visitors and much needed revenue. Now in its fifth incarnation, this year’s ETT includes 360 artworks by 200 artists from around the world. It would take about two weeks to see everything and tick them off on the yellow passport that serves as a ticket. Most visitors settle for two to four days of tours by bus or car.
It is difficult to say exactly how many works are on display, as new installations are regularly added to the permanent core. Some of the biggest drawcards such as Marina Abramovic’s Dream House (2000), or The Last Class (2006), by Christian Boltanski and Jean Kalman, are included in almost every organized tour.
In quieter times the Abramovic piece invites visitors to spend the night, sleeping in coloured jump suits in coffin-like beds. In the morning they are asked to write about their dreams in a book.
Boltanski and Kalman have used a large, abandoned school house, turning it into a lament for lost childhood and the slow death of a community. There are multiple installations in the building, each adding something to the dark, elegiac atmosphere.
Australia got involved when the first ETT was held in 2000. In the years that followed, Australian artists have continued to take part, supported by government and business interests. It needs emphasising that this is a rare occurrence, as Australia tends to put less emphasis on cultural initiatives than many other nations.
The Triennial captured the imaginations of the Australian diplomats in Tokyo, who have become staunch supporters. Consequently, Australia House was launched with great fanfare, and received with enthusiasm by the local community. It was heartbreaking to see the house flattened so quickly and buried in the snow.
The decision was taken to rebuild the house, or rather to commission a new building as the original structure was irretrievably damaged. Within 16 months, funding was secured, an international competition held and decided, and construction work completed. From 154 entries, the winner was the young Sydney architect, Andrew Burns (b.1979), whose design is reputedly a canny blend of traditional elements from Australian and Japanese farmhouses.
This might not be immediately obvious to anyone but an architect. On first impressions the new Australia House is an elegant, ultra-modern, wooden building on a triangular plan. It has a familial relationship with the work of the great Japanese architect, Tadao Ando, who chaired the judging panel; with a nod in the direction of the Finnish master, Alvar Aalto.
After winning the competition, Burns made his first trip to the region and began tweaking the design in collaboration with Japanese architects, Souhei Imamura and Sotaro Yamamoto, and master engineer, Taro Yokoyama. The result is a building of exceptional beauty, if slightly limited functionality.
The interior walls are made from thin slats of pine, in which the wood grain remains prominent. The exterior is stained black, in emulation of the deliberately scorched dwellings one finds in Japanese villages. On one side there is a long, three-stepped verandah, which also serves as a platform for public presentations. Another wall opens up completely, turning the room into a theatre stage for those standing outside. Kitchen, bathroom, and sleeping quarters are contained in a loft.
With all the domestic activities tucked away, the ground floor is completely empty, and available for use as exhibition space or studio. It will never be possible to hammer nails into Burns’s beautiful walls, so a display of paintings would require special screens or hanging systems.
The first two artists to make use of the house have overcome these limitations quite ingeniously. Andrew Rewald, from Melbourne, has undertaken a cooking project, working with the local community to learn about traditional recipes and methods of preparation. His work was cheerfully consumed at the opening.
But the pièce de résistance belonged to Brook Andrew, who worked in collaboration with Burns to design an installation concealed in a flat panel that resembles a seamless part of the wall. The panel opens up to reveal a room-sized zig-zag abstract design, against which one views the words of a poem written backwards in thin neon Japanese characters. The adjacent panel is a giant mirror that corrects the text and effectively makes the viewer part of the artwork.
The piece is called mountain homedhirrayn ngurang, and reflects Andrew’s understanding of the age-old roots of the community. The poem, which the artist wrote himself, is a catalogue of impressions, ending with the invitation to drink tea.
Andrew has a history of working with architects such as Jisuk Han, but this piece is easily his most impressive achievement to date. It succeeds on many levels, and strikes precisely the right note for this new venture. The community has already tendered its approval. At the opening we were treated to a concert by one elderly resident, Gombe-san, who crooned songs in a plaintive voice to a karaoke robot.
The new Australia House was one of the highlights of the 2012 program, which featured at least 150 new works, but the show-stopper was another installation by Christian Boltanski called No Man’s Land, which completely filled the vast courtyard of the newly rechristened Satoyama Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokamachi. It consisted of nine tons of old clothing being continuously picked up and dropped on a huge mound by an automated crane, while the sound of a heartbeat thudded from all directions.

Andrew Burns's Australia House, in the village of Urada (photo: Brett Boardman)

One could not help but read the discarded clothing in terms of death and disappearance. It was a strangely morbid centerpiece for a show that sees itself as a catalyst for revitalisation.
Among other new works there was a stylish Boat Shed by Japanese architects, Atelier Bow Wow, incongruously positioned next to a train station. The chic outlines of this building stand in marked contrast to an 11 metre-tall thatched tower by the artist, Mikan, and Sokage Lab. Kanagawa University. This piece is funky and folklorish, like the last vestiges of a vanished tribe.
In The Kamiebiike Museum of Art, Tetsuo Onari and Mikiko Takeuchi have created a work that is destined to become a long-term favourite. It consists of a gallery of photographs of local residents duplicating the poses of famous western paintings, including the Mona Lisa and Dejeuner sur l’herbe. It could have been irredeemably tacky, but the artists have been subtle and humorous in their restagings, making every scene look completely natural. Forget Paris – this installation sends the message that great art can be found anywhere, even in a quiet rural corner of Japan.
Echigo Tsumari Art Triennial 2012,
Niigata prefecture, Japan,  July 29 to  September 17, 2012
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, August 04, 2012