New art council jumps right into the action

Video-art festival is launched in Ebisu photography museum


Two years: That’s how long it took Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara to set up a new “arts council,” extract from it a range of new policy ideas and get his staff to start putting them into action. It’s not rocket-paced, but in a country famous for the slowness of its bureaucracy, it passes for commendable.

Of course, it would seem likely that Ishihara’s haste was prompted by a simple and concurrent need: to bolster the cultural credentials of his city’s 2016 Olympics bid. It seems obvious enough, that is, though his staff members deny a causal connection, saying the cultural reforms were made separately from the bid preparations. They claim, instead, that the reforms are simply meant to improve the cultural life of the city.

Either way, in the run up to the International Olympic Committee’s decision in October on who will be the Olympic host in 2016, Tokyo residents are suddenly presented with an impressive array of new cultural treats, many of which can be traced back to Ishihara’s new council.

One is the Yebisu International Festival for Art and Alternative Visions, which will be held for 10 days from today at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography in Ebisu (SYABI).

Keiko Okamura, a SYABI curator and the festival director, was building up expectations late last week, promising the venue will be so transformed that regular visitors won’t recognize it. Held not just in the galleries of SYABI but in hallways and lobbies throughout the museum, the event will explore the role of the moving image in society.

“I wanted to include a plurality of views in the program, so there are many different types of moving images,” Okamura told The Japan Times.

One of those is what you might call conventional video art. Local artist Takuji Kogo will exhibit a giant installation across five 150-inch screens showing a mesmerizing, mandalalike mixture of time-lapse video footage from urban scenes around the world.

Important early works of video art will also be shown, including a selection of Andy Warhol’s famed screen tests from 1964, one of which features Japanese actress Kyoko Kishida (well known for her appearance in the film “Woman in the Dunes” from the same year).

Videos from outside the art world will also be included. “We wanted to give the public the chance to see the kind of footage that they can’t these days,” said Okamura. One example is Nagisa Oshima’s 1968 film “Daitoa Senso” (“Greater East Asia War”), which from its very title sought to give an honest depiction of Japan’s own experience of the war. (Since the U.S. Occupation, the Japanese government had referred to the war using the preferred U.S. term, the Pacific War.) “The film was made for television, but it is the kind of thing that TV companies just wouldn’t make these days,” said the curator. “I want people to think about why.”

While the content of the festival was developed by Okamura, its genesis was convoluted. Back in May of 2006, Governor Ishihara first announced he would create a council of specialist art advisers modeled on Arts Council England. The Tokyo Art and Culture Council, launched in March 2007, represented one of the first times in local government in Japan that arts professionals, instead of just bureaucrats, would play a formal role in deciding where arts funding was allocated. Among its members were architect Tadao Ando and fashion designer Issey Miyake.

According to the minutes of that initial meeting, one of Ando’s first recommendations was for a large arts festival based in Roppongi, which would utilize Roppongi Hills and Midtown.

“With those facilities, it could rival the Venice Biennale in the scale with which it delivers culture to the world,” said Ando.

Miyake suggested the group focus on laying the foundations for the creativity of future generations. “Covering school grounds with grass (instead of asphalt) might be one way” to improve the environment in which Tokyo’s children grow up, he said.

But, before the council got on to such concrete proposals, they first decided to create a broad framework by which the city could hold a series of new cultural events in the immediate future. That translated into the Tokyo Culture Creation Project, a three-year, generously funded program of culture activities that began in April 2008.

“The idea is that it takes culture outside of the city’s existing museums and to the people,” explained Masanori Sugitani, who heads up the project office.

One of the first events held within the project, which had a total budget of ¥1.1 billion for fiscal 2008, was the massive “Tokyo Grand Tea Ceremony.” That event attracted 11,000 people to Hamarikyu Gardens in October last year.

Another highlight will come at the end of March. “Roppongi Art Night,” a 32-hour feast of visual and performance art held throughout Roppongi from the morning of March 28, reflects Ando’s suggestion from that first meeting.

Among these and many other events, the current Yebisu Festival is slightly unusual, in that it is held at one of the metropolitan government’s existing facilities. Still, it has benefited from the injection of project funds to the extent that, as Okamura says, it will be unlike any show the institution has ever put on.

In that case it seems likely to make a big enough splash to catch the attention of the International Olympic Committee voting members in Lausanne — of whether or not that was the original intention.

That’s not to say the nature of Ishihara’s original intention — whatever it might have been — is unimportant. Far from it: It will likely determine whether the hastily convened but nevertheless valuable Tokyo Art and Culture Council is maintained on a permanent basis or quietly discontinued after the Olympic showboat eventually leaves town, either in eight months’ or eight years’ time.

“The Yebisu International Festival for Art and Alternative Visions” is showing at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography till March 1; admission free (except for select screenings); open 10 a.m. – 8 p.m. For more information, call (03) 3280-0099 or visit