When the Contemporary Art Biennale of Fukushima was first held, in 2004, its objective was not so much to showcase art as to broaden the horizons of the students at Fukushima University’s education faculty, which organized the event. As its fourth incarnation got under way on Saturday, it was clear that in some ways nothing had changed. In others, everything had.

“Can we go and get lunch now? The students will be waiting for me upstairs, and it’s getting late.” In the course of an interview last Tuesday, Fukushima University professor and biennale director Koichi Watanabe had taken four phone-calls — from artists, university staff and students — and now he needed to make sure the 30-odd students with whom he was setting up the biennale would not go hungry.

No, nothing had changed: The biennale remains first and foremost a university-run operation, with the energetic Watanabe at its helm. As always, funding for the event was limited — to just ¥3 million, ¥1.5 million each from the prefecture and national government. But where Watanabe and his students lacked cash, they had a surfeit of enthusiasm.

And yet, at the same time, everything had changed. The most immediate consequence to the biennale of last year’s Great East Japan Earthquake was that its regular venue, Fukushima Prefectural Culture Center, was damaged and rendered unusable. Nevertheless, calamity also bore opportunity, and Watanabe was able to switch venues to Fukushima Airport, which had been pitifully underutilized since the March 11 disaster.

How to organize an art event whose name is now synonymous with nuclear catastrophe?

In some ways, Watanabe’s task was made easier. For the biennale theme he decided to revisit the concept of “sky,” which had been used in 2006.

“Back then, I chose it because there is a line in a Kotaro Takamura poem about how Tokyo has no sky, that the real sky is in Fukushima,” he said, explaining that Takamura’s idea was that Fukushima’s heavens were unsullied by development. “Now, of course, the sky, which carries this invisible poison, has been taken away from Fukushima.”

Having decided on the theme, Watanabe knew he wanted to include Yoko Ono’s well-known work “Sky TV,” which consists of a live video feed of the sky outside. Given the events of the past 18 months, she was only too happy to oblige.

Other big names followed. Kenji Yanobe not only agreed to participate, but was so taken with the idea of exhibiting his 6-meter-tall “Torayan” sculpture, which was based on his own experiences at Chernobyl in the late 1990s, that he personally raised the ¥2 million necessary to transport it to Fukushima.

Other artists in the lineup include Tatsuo Kawaguchi and Kazuhiko Hachiya, who were both invited to participate by Watanabe. Many others — over half of the total of 118, in fact — contacted Watanabe themselves, offering to send works.

“I guess a lot of people have something they want to express about Fukushima at the moment,” Watanabe said. “We tried to accommodate as many as possible.”

And how does Watanabe think the Fukushima locals will respond to the show?

“Now that a year and a half has passed, people have had time to put their thoughts in order,” Watanabe said. “I think they will find this meaningful.”

The Contemporary Art Biennale of Fukushima at Fukushima Airport runs till Sep. 23. Admission is free. www.wa-art.com/bien.

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