Ever since the Towada Art Center opened five years ago, the city in Aomori Prefecture has seen its prospects dramatically alter. Not only by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, but by the subsequent devastation of neighboring areas, all of which compounded the dwindling prosperity of Towada. It was detached from nearby Misawa in 2012 when the railway connecting the two cities closed, though conversely the prefecture as a whole benefited from an extended Tohoku Shinkansen Line stretching from the old terminus of nearby Hachinohe to the prefectural capital, Aomori City. There’s a lot to love in this quiet, unassuming place but it has definitely seen better days.

With the help of the Art Center, this is now changing. It seems unlikely that a city renowned for horse breeding be best served by the addition of an art museum, and yet the Art Center is proving its worth, maintaining a healthy reputation with visitors traveling from afar to see artwork unlikely to be seen elsewhere in Japan.

“Survive,” both the title and theme for Towada Oirase Art Festival 2013, marks the museum’s five-year anniversary, and through performance and documentation related to a changing culture now reliant on the use of modern technology, the works explore relationships between the land we live on and its material value. Spread between the Art Center and sites in the Oirase area, the works have been curated and positioned to reflect each of their environments. Works at the Art Center, for example, echo the clinical, unforgiving space of a gallery space, while still taking in the surrounding landscapes of both Japan and abroad.

In Ragnar Kjartansson’s video piece “The End — Rocky Mountains” (2009), he depicts a musical collaboration with artist Davíð Þór Jónsson, filmed in and around North America’s snowy Rocky Mountains. Shimpei Takeda’s photographic portraits of radioactive soil collected from near his hometown, a mere 65 km from the Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant, retell a more sinister yet compelling story. The images, created on photographic paper without a camera, form a microscopic-like scenery that give substance to the invisible specter of radiation.

Kenji Shibata’s paintings face Takeda’s images and can be found dotted through the Art Center. Ambient light causes subtle shifts in their tone and color, revealing suggestions of shape and form, though never explicitly. This subtlety mirrors Aiko Miyanaga ceramics, which occupy the smallest of spaces in the center. The glaze work, a technique she has studied over several years, is allowed to gradually break apart as it sits on display, with the faint sound of cracking barely audible — a balance between materials and poetics. As the glaze cracks, the strength of local clay, which is mixed with spring water from nearby Pony Onsen, keeps the objects from falling apart. This kind of tension between object and its environment is also visible in Marcus Coates’ “Dawn Chorus” video, where the voices of actors in ordinary surroundings are replaced with squawks, whistles and the sound of wildlife.

Artwork in the surrounding Oirase area is more open to the elements, displayed in wilder and unexpected venues, foregoing the gallery altogether. After seeing all these works outdoors, it becomes clear the real focus of this festival is the Aomori landscape itself. Nobuhiro Shimura and Shuji Yamamoto separately frame the surrounding woodland with projected video and devices you can look through, introducing ways to literally read the landscape.

Working collectively, artist Tatsuya Umeda, photographer Lieko Shiga and the performance group contact Gonzo occupy the abandoned Towada Mori no Hotel. They excavate the basement, remove and appropriate old furniture, and refashion the hotel interiors as if performing an environmental autopsy. An old cigarette dispenser becomes the counterweight for an improvised waterfall that siphons water from a nearby stream, while a meeting room is carefully flooded and lit by a solitary spotlight that illuminates a curtain and the water, which at several inches-deep visitors are encouraged to wade through.

In Robert Macfarlane’s book “The Old Ways,” the writer says, “Stories, like paths, relate in two senses: they recount and they connect.” This is true of Mamoru, a sound artist who narrates and reveals stories to ambient sound heard over loudspeakers on boats that ferry visitors in a series of trips that take in the surrounding scenery around Lake Towada.

Other events include a three-day music festival curated by Yoshitomo Nara and the opportunity to purchase an anthology of writing, illustration and photography, which accompanies the festival. Edited by poet and writer Keijiro Suga and with photographic documentation by Naoyo Hatakeyama, the book parallels the entire festival and considers the essence of what’s shown, while visually traveling through the Oirase landscape and across its waters. When asked what the festival title meant to him, Suga simply replied, “I don’t think we (will) survive (generally speaking) but something will. Keep watching. Something big is going to happen.”

That “something big” is yet to reveal itself, but in a city that has struggled more like a town, a sense of survival and need for inspiration has never felt more important. Two new buildings will be built over the coming years, extending the museum while also reworking Towada’s modest city center.

Like Takeda’s “camera-less photography,” the festival asks what are these invisible forces surrounding, affecting and at times threatening us. Instead of simply abandoning everything, how can we build around these obstacles to recover, and moreover to survive? It’s a compelling question with no straightforward answer, though the chances are solutions may be discovered through a festival that has the potential to turn around the fortunes of this lovable place.

“Survive: Towada Oirase Art Festival 2013” at Towada Art Center and Oirase area runs till Nov. 24; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ¥2,000 (for a passport to all events). Closed Mon. (Tues. if Mon. is a national holiday). Towada is 40 min from Shinchinohe-Towada Station by Towada Kanko Bus and 40 min from Hachinohe Station by JR Bus. For more information, visit www.artstowadaoirase.jp/en

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