Christian Boltanski’s mesmeric “No Man’s Land” draws visitors to the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale 2012′s new Satoyama Museum of Contemporary Art

by Mio Yamada

Staff Writer

Christian Boltanski’s “No Man’s Land” is both daunting and mesmerizing. It’s difficult to take your eyes off the 20-ton mound of clothing, which at 9 meters tall dwarfs an accompanying crane that tosses on more T-shirts, trousers and dresses with a giant claw.

“There will also be the sound of heartbeats,” said Miwa Worrall, a staff member of Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale 2012, who explained at last week’s preview that a pulsing soundtrack drawn from Boltanski’s worldwide “Heartbeat” project will add even more intensity to the visually arresting work.

“No Man’s Land” is an adaptation of an installation that Boltanski originally created for the Grand Palais in Paris in 2010, and then later for the Park Avenue Armory in New York — and the sentiment behind it hasn’t changed. Using discarded clothing to symbolize humans, Boltanski comments on what he suggests to be one of the most brutal losses for mankind: the loss of identity, individuality and memories.

The work is one of the main attractions of Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale, which stretches across six areas of Niigata Prefecture and opened last weekend. It is the region’s fifth art triennale, and as its first incarnation since the Great East Japan Earthquake it takes on the theme of “Reconstruction from Disaster.” Boltanski, who visited the afflicted Tohoku region last year, chose to present “No Man’s Land” because he felt it would resonate in a country still recovering from the March 11 disasters. His installation is now the focal point of the festival’s new central hub: the Echigo-Tsumari Satoyama Museum of Contemporary Art, Kinare.

Renovated to include a spacious gallery, the museum opens with an exhibition of eclectic contemporary works, all of which allude to the importance of identity and local environment. Some, such as Leandro Erlich’s visually disorienting mini tunnel and Carlos Garaicoa’s fluttering confetti of tiny silver buildings, take inspiration from local architecture. Others, including Gerda Steiner & JOrg Lenzlinger’s colorful “Ghost Satellites,” give new life to found objects collected from the Echigo-Tsumari area. One of the highlights, Ryota Kuwakubo’s “Lost #6,” does both: Set in a darkened room, a model train equipped with a bright LED lamp runs around a collection of locally found textile-factory parts that cast silhouettes of landscapes onto the walls.

Even the new cafe space — Massimo Bartolini’s “Circle in Square” — reflects the local scenery and emphasizes community. Its ceiling is filled with around 1,000 circular mobiles that gently rotate to represent the rippling movement of the Shinano River. Meanwhile, the curved shelves — filled with reference books and local ephemera — also provides a place where visitors can exchange objects for something left by another guest.

Many of this year’s new projects similarly re-invest found and abandoned objects with sentiment and history.

Like “No Man’s Land,” “Ghost Satellites” and “Lost #6,” “Gejyo Thatched Tower” in Gejyo also presents a collection of previously unwanted items. Standing at 7.85-meters tall, the thatched structure is part of a project on the JR Iiyama Line that plans to turn rarely used stations into social landmarks. Visitors can meet beneath and peer into its tall roof, which is stuffed with bric-a-brac, including weather-worn tools, frayed baskets, old clocks and other nostalgic household items.

In an abandoned school in Matsudai, Tadashi Kawamata’s “Yusuke Nakahara’s Cosmology” turns one man’s personal library into a grand monument of inspiration and ideas. Walking into the installation of 30,000 books, which are crammed into shelves and stacked into a seemingly precarious dome, is like stepping into the mind of the late art critic Yusuke Nakahara.

The books cover art, science, history, philosophy and more, and are testament to our ability to learn, progress and be inspired. They’re also an optimistic reminder — just as the entire art festival is — that remaining curious allows us to be resourceful under any circumstances. And that even in the face of economic and social decline or the destruction of a natural disaster, we can still find ways to recover.

Other 2012 highlights

The Asian Photography and Moving Image Center, Myokayama

Photographers RongRong and Inri helped organize this collection of renowned artists’ works, which includes dramatic prints from Daido Moriyama and Naoki Ishikawa.

The Soil Museum, Tokamachi

Yuki Honda’s swaying lotus sculptures are a highlight of this gallery, which takes on the unusual theme of earth. You’ll also find a 10,000-year Japanese soil profile, other soil-related artworks and workshops for kids.

The Dragon Museum of Contemporary Art, Tsunan

Cai Guo-Qiang’s gallery is showcasing Ann Hamilton’s “A Cloud of Sound,” an installation that uses the breath of visitors to the gallery to fill bellows that will, she says, “sound the dragon” in a nearby abandoned building.

A passport to the Echigo-Tsumari Triennale costs ¥3,500 and includes access to around 360 artworks with discounts to events. For more information call (025) 757-2637, or visit www.echigo-tsumari.jp/eng.