FUKUOKA — More than 100 years of mining has given the town of Tagawa, Fukuoka Prefecture, a masculine, working-class character, with widespread associations of gangs and violent crime. Abandoned concrete plants and mines line its hilly outskirts, and a coat of dust covers its many boarded-up shops. Tagawa is also a quiet place, with a noticeably aging population.
It was this cultural richness, a contrast to the ghost towns left in the former mining regions of his native Hokkaido, that initially intrigued artist Tadashi Kawamata and led to five years of work in the town.
Since 1996, the world-class artist, whose own father was a coal miner, has made numerous contributions to Tagawa, including abstract observation decks and sculptures and various events and workshops on art, industry and the environment.
Kawamata’s first project was “Coal Mine Tagawa,” a giant tower made to resemble a shaft mine for which the artist solicited the participation of local citizens from its developmental stages. He made a skeleton proposal and asked the people to help him flesh it out.
Created around a pithead winding-gear gantry, the steel construction that is used to lower miners into the shaft, the resulting installation thrust starkly skyward in a stirring symbol of Tagawa’s once significant role in early Japanese industrialization.
In his latest project, in March, Kawamata put together a coal barge re-enactment with a weeklong series of traditional dances and symposiums at each point on the old coal-shipping route along the Hikosan and Onga rivers from Tagawa to Kitakyushu.
For many inhabitants of Tagawa, memories of hardship down in the coal mines — and the social and economic gloom that descended when the last one closed in 1983 — are still fresh. So too are memories of the struggle to win compensation for victims of coal dust-induced pulmonary tuberculosis — a struggle that only finally succeeded last month.
Kawamata mines these memories and builds upon them, reviving them in creative form. And in keeping with his reputation for “parasitic” works, he built his projects with, into and around the town’s existing resources. The gantry used in “Coal Mine Tagawa,” for example, had in fact been in use at the nearby Omuta City mine and dated to 1964, and the work’s construction was completed with the support of local artists and city officials.
As well as his work in Kyushu, Kawamata, 48, has done numerous similar projects both in Japan and overseas. In earlier works, he set up scaffolding around big-city buildings, then would cover them with nest-like structures made of hundreds of wooden planks.
In newer projects in Switzerland, Holland and at home in Japan, he expanded on this theme to fill entire city areas with creations that the public could walk on, sit on or simply admire for their unexpected beauty. Eclectic bridges zigzagged whimsically across ponds, meandering wooden walkways acted as guides to nowhere in particular, and sculptured benches in quiet corners offered novel vantage points of the city.
However, Kawamata is at pains to stress that his work is not to be confused with urban development. “To say that my goal is to improve places,” he explained in a recent telephone conversation, “would be very rude to the cities I work in.”
In fact, all of Kawamata’s projects are temporary, dismantled before they become just a part of the scenery. The Tagawa works are, of course, no exception; his objective lies in the development of a project with the people, and not in its completion.
To quote photographer Shigeo Anzai from the booklet that accompanied the barge project, Kawamata’s work has affected locals’ imagination and lives “in the way art should.”