Contemporary art helps revive a city

by Lucy Birmingham

For theater, dance and art fans in Japan, an unprecedented gourmet selection of performances and exhibitions — the inaugural Aichi Triennale 2010 — will kick off in Nagoya on Aug. 21, running until Oct. 31. Promoting cutting-edge and cross-genre concepts with an emphasis on performance-based works, the triennale has invited a surprisingly large number of artists, many of whom are internationally recognized. Several well-known international curators were also involved in making the selections. With the blessing of Aichi Governor Masaaki Kanda, an art enthusiast, 70 percent of the funding has come from the prefecture — a much needed boost for Japan’s flagging arts support.

Interestingly, the target audience is local, unlike other biennales and triennales aiming for art tourism from outside their locality. Emphasizing the draw for residents, the event has also included a “Kid’s Triennale,” for families to enjoy.

“It’s very important for us to attract the local residents who are ordinary people, those not involved in the art world. They’re our first target,” explains Artistic Director Akira Tatehata. “Of course we also hope to get Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese and Western visitors,” he quickly adds. “If we can attract 300,000 visitors, then we’ve succeeded.”

For the organizers, local participation, as defined by the “Arts and Cities” theme, has been key. As the home of Toyota, Nagoya has been hit particularly hard by the current economic fallout, a situation that has been worsened by the carmaker’s recent manufacturing scandals. Venues throughout downtown Nagoya will be used in the hope of boosting local business, including the Choja-machi area, still an important wholesale textile district.

There will be about 60 main contemporary performances during the 72 days, which includes five theater companies and a full-scale opera, “Les Contes D’Hoffman.” During the Shukusai Week (Festival Week) of Oct. 11-17, there will also be ballet, kabuki, taiko drumming and other classic productions. All performances will be held at the Aichi Arts Center, the area’s showcase cultural-arts complex.

Eri Karatsu, the senior curator of Performing Arts at the Aichi Arts Center, says this triennale is unique in the world. “People want to see a wider genre of performing arts,” she says. “We’ll be offering a strong selection of cutting-edge creativity, many of which will be Japan or world premieres.”

International stage highlights will include Jan Fabre’s “Another Sleepy Dusty Delta Day,” on Sept. 18, 19 and 20. Based in Antwerp, Belgium, Fabre began his career in 1980 as a stage director, later establishing his theater company Troubley/Jan Fabre in 1986. Also intrigued by BioArt, Fabre has had his work included in the Mori Museum’s recent exhibition “Medicine and Art.” For the triennale performance, Fabre skillfully combines his remarkable multidisciplinary talents as stage director, designer, choreographer, playwright and artist. The riveting solo dance performance, dedicated to his mother and wife, explores the themes of suicide and love.

On Sept. 3 and 4, dance/bodywork duo Delgado Fuchs, on their first visit in Japan, will perform “Long Sky-blue Woolen Coat, Worn With a Large Roll-neck Jumper, Peach Leather Trousers and Red Nubuck Pointed High-heel Shoes,” which tests the extremities of body movement and strength with tantalizing humor. Mark Delgado, originally from Spain, and Swiss-born Nadine Fuchs formed their partnership in 2002 and are now based in Switzerland and Belgium.

For the Aichi Triennale’s grand finale on Oct. 30 and 31, “3Abschied,” a production based on Austrian composer Gustav Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” (“The Song of the Earth.”), presents a thoroughly surprising collaborative performance between Belgian-born minimalist dancer and Rosas dance company choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, the controversial French conceptual artist and choreographer Jero^me Bel, and Belgian musical ensemble Ictus.

The Japanese contingent is just as internationally recognized as the festival’s foreign guests. Theater company chelfitsch, headed by playwright/director Toshiki Okada, has gained worldwide attention for its youth-fueled, off-beat performances. “We Are the Undamaged Others” will be a world premiere, playing at the triennale on Sept. 24, 25 and 26. The name “chelfitsch” — a hybrid of “selfish” and “childish” — reflects the group’s commentary on Japan’s disenchanted post-bubble youth and the country’s “state of disarticulation.”

For yet another world premiere, veteran theater director Oriza Hirata teams up with humanoid-robot designer Hiroshi Ishiguro (Ishiguro Laboratory, Osaka University) for “In the Heart of a Forest,” showing on Aug. 21, 22 and 23. Ishiguro has been making headlines with his brilliant but freaky humanoid robots — his latest Telenoid R1 telepresence robot, a Casper-the-friendly-ghostlike creation, being described in various articles as “his creepiest robot” yet.

“We’re questioning what defines a human,” says Hirata, explaining how the play’s title was inspired by Joseph Conrad’s novel “Heart of Darkness.” To do this, the rights of humans, robots and monkeys are explored through conversations between the actors and the robots. Hirata and Ishiguro appear to have found creative soul mates in each other. “We both don’t have much confidence in people,” admits Hirata with a wry smile. “Honestly I don’t like actors much, but I don’t have a choice. I prefer robots because they’re not so selfish. They’re only selfish when their batteries run out.”

Multimedia artist and dancer Horiaki Umeda, 33, probably best defines the triennale’s artistic crossover theme, with his captivating performances that combine digital light, sound and solo dance. Although self-taught, he has garnered high praise at both digital arts events and theater festivals abroad, where he spends most of his time.

“The dance scene in Japan is not so active and most performers have to support themselves,” Umeda says. “In Europe, artists can get government support for their productions as well as a salary. (For Japan,) the Aichi Triennale has been unusually generous.”

Umeda will be performing “Adapting for Distortion” and “Haptic” on Sept. 11 and 12. His video installation “Untitled” will also be on display throughout the triennale, as part of the visual art exhibitions.

Another big name lending her art-star status to the festival is Yayoi Kusama, who has worked with triennale director Tatehata on several exhibitions and books as director of the National Museum of Art, Osaka. Along with Kusama’s iconic dot-filled works are noteworthy pieces including Bangladesh-born Firoz Mahmud’s installation “Sucker’wfp21,” a fighter jet covered in beans symbolizing disproportionate government spending on militarism rather than needed food programs; Japanese art photographer Lieko Shiga’s eerie and captivating insider’s look at the lives of aging residents in a small village; and Aiko Miyanaga’s naphthalene installation that fades with time, illustrating the art of disappearance.

The Aichi Triennale is art fever at its best. Let’s hope that it will not be a fading ambition and support will continue for another round in three years.

Nagoya City is about 1 1/2 hours from Tokyo Station by shinkansen and all venues are within walking distance of local stations. For more information, visit