How do you create an advantage out of adversity, an asset from a liability?
This kind of questioning, which has informed everything about the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale, one of the world’s largest contemporary art festivals held in one of Japan’s most inhospitable locales, is all the more pertinent in the wake of the recent earthquakes.
In the early hours of March 12, as Japan was still struggling to comprehend the devastation wrought by the previous day’s magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami in eastern Japan, a magnitude 6.7 quake, and then several aftershocks, occurred almost directly beneath the snow-covered mountainous region of central Niigata Prefecture, where the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale is held.
Several of the triennale’s greatest attractions — its permanent outdoor sculptures dotted throughout the landscape — suffered damage. So too did some of the old vacated schools and farmhouses that the triennale organizers had co-opted for hosting artists or artworks. One of them, dubbed Australia House for its adoption by the Australian Embassy in Tokyo, and for its having housed several Australian artists and curators during recent triennales, was completely destroyed.
“It’s a harsh environment up there,” says Fram Kitagawa, the 64-year-old director of Tokyo’s Art Front Gallery who kicked off the triennale in 2000 and has been its general director ever since. “For an inhabited area, it has one of the highest snowfalls in the world,” he notes.
The harshness of that environment has prompted many residents to gravitate toward more convenient urban centers and thus abandon their old farmhouses in the mountains. It was the desire to make something positive out of this unfortunate situation that prompted Kitagawa to create the triennale in the first place.
In 2009, the owner of what became Australia House was living in Tokyo, and he agreed to rent the renovated 100-year-old building to the triennale organizers. They, in turn, worked out an arrangement with the Australian Embassy that enabled Australian artists and curators to use the facility as a residence and studio.
Unfortunately, Kitagawa continues, “the buildup of snow in the area is so heavy that unless it is cleared off the roofs seven or eight times per season, they will give way.”
Already weighed down by about a meter of snow, it seems that the then unoccupied Australia House was unable to stand the violent shaking from the March 12 quake and its aftershocks.
However, in keeping with the thinking that engendered the triennale in the first place, Kitagawa saw an opportunity to turn a setback into something positive.
Staff from the Australian Embassy, who Kitagawa says “have been extremely enthusiastic in their support of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale right from the outset in 2000,” were quick to visit and examine the damaged site — and “within weeks” it had been determined that the house should be rebuilt.
A design competition is now being held for a new house that will encompass studio and residential space totaling about 130 sq. meters to be built within a construction budget of some ¥20 million — half coming from Japan and half from Australia. While that money will be from public sources in both countries, Kitagawa expects that further funds for preparation of the site will also come from private donors in both countries.
“We hope the new building will continue this tradition (of hosting artists and curators working with the local community) by blending the cultures of Australia and Japan, with a strong focus on disaster prevention and environmental sustainability,” the Australian Embassy said in a statement earlier this month.
Acknowledging that the construction budget is not large, Kitagawa explains that they have deliberately opened the competition to architects who are not yet fully qualified. “I think we’ll get a lot of entries from architecture students,” he says, pointing out that there are two professional Tokyo-based architects acting as coordinators of the project.
The head of the jury is the world-renowned Tadao Ando, and Kitagawa hopes that young architects will see the competition as a potential high-profile launching pad for their careers.
One of the only conditions on entries is that at least one of the participating members in an entering team must be Australian or must have resided in Australia for at least three years.
And how well does Kitagawa expect the entrants will be able to deal with the problem of the region’s heavy snowfall?
“That’s the big question. We’re looking forward to creative solutions there,” he says, before demonstrating his own penchant for creative thinking by suggesting that instead of the usual steeple roof, entrants may propose a pool-type roof, in which the snow would be made to melt.
The new Australia House is planned to be completed in time for use by Australian artists at next year’s edition of the triennale, which will be held from July 29 through Sept. 17.
Submissions for the Australia House, International Open Call for Design Proposals will be accepted from Sept.1-15. Those wishing to participate in a site inspection tour, scheduled for July 31, should apply to do so before July 22. For more details, visit www.echigo-tsumari.jp/2012kobo/eng/c/index.html.