Activists in the name of art

by Stephanie Gartelman

FUKUOKA — “Art doesn’t have to last forever — otherwise it’s like a topic that’s discussed to death,” says Takahiro Ogata, an architect involved in Fukuoka’s annual Tomyo Watching event. The organizers, nonprofit organization Museum City Project, have kept Fukuoka’s citizens on their toes since 1978 with an innovative blend of education and action-oriented art.

“Most people enjoy our events without knowing they’re art,” contributor Akio Tokunaga said, laughing. The projects are popular nonetheless. Tomyo Watching has doubled in size since starting in 1998, with 10,000 candlelit tomyo (lanterns) placed throughout Fukuoka’s historic Hakata district last year. Rows of lanterns formed swirling motifs in temples, bobbed across rivers and poured out of back lanes.

The organizers credit pioneers such as Japan’s Tadashi Kawamata and the Vienna-based “intervention artists” WochenKlausur with spearheading the growth of such action-oriented art.

It was a 1998 meeting in Berlin with WochenKlausur that turned MCP directors Shingo Yamano and Hatsune Miyamoto from exhibitions to action. The two groups bonded instantly, sharing the conviction that art must move beyond mere visual, statement-based representation. MCP invited the artists to Fukuoka that year.

As intervention artists, WochenKlausur don’t simply make works about social issues — they create projects in cooperation with art installations to solve those problems. Both require creativity, say the artists.

An ambulance was converted into a mobile medical clinic for the group’s first project in Vienna in 1993, and it has continued to treat 600 homeless people per month since. WochenKlausur have worked across Europe, establishing rehabilitation centers, legal-aid programs and more.

In Fukuoka, WochenKlausur wanted to create school projects to shake up an educational environment they felt stifled individualism, but the short notice and school budgetary constraints made this impossible.

Authorities also requested that the group take a less confrontational stance. WochenKlausur had hoped to establish a hotline for ijime (bullying) victims, but ended up devising a framework for creative class workshops instead. MCP has since built on the concept, implementing programs at three elementary schools where more than 20 professionals — architects, journalists and others — now conduct regular workshops.

Another goal is the redressing of the inadequacy of art education in Japan, an issue of concern for Japanese artists and one raised recently in the March 2001 issue of the art magazine Bijutsu Techo.

“I grew up not learning about art at school,” says Shingo Yamano. “Many people visit galleries for the first time after graduating.” With national education reforms threatening to cut art classes at junior high and high schools by up to 30 percent from next year, MCP hopes its activities will go some way to meeting the shortfall.

Next year should see plans finalized for an MCP art center, where public-friendly art activities will be held. Community involvement continues to be at the top of the agenda. “Organizing these projects is very different from creating exhibition pieces. You have to be sure people want to see the works; that the pieces are communicative without requiring explanation,” says artist Tsuyoshi Toshinaga.

The character of an area should be respected rather than ignored. Tomyo Watching, for example, had to complement Hakata’s temples and historic buildings.

These community-aware methods have struck a chord at Fukuoka City Hall, one of MCP’s major sponsors, and may lead to a change in acquisition policy. “Previously, we selected sculptures by reputable artists and placed them as appropriate,” says Keisuke Mizuochi at the City Design Section, which has purchased 25 artworks for Fukuoka’s public areas since 1982.

Due in part to media and public criticism, and perhaps partly to MCP’s example, Mizuochi states that the city designers “now strive to involve the public in decision-making.” He’s also optimistic about MCP’s approach: “They have really pioneered a new style of art here. And people are gradually accepting the changes.”

That must be welcome news to MCP, part of whose goal is to change commonly held perceptions of art itself. “People today think art is difficult, or not relevant to them,” says Toshinaga. “Now, art has to win the community back.”