Sapporo is generally known for three things: snow, ramen and beer. These things, and festivals such as the Snow Festival or City Jazz, are what draw more than 14 million tourists to the city every year.

However, as the production of real materials increasingly moves offshore and a knowledge economy takes hold, Sapporo may need less tangible lures to draw visitors. The current bait? Media art and Ryuichi Sakamoto.

For 72 days during the peak of summer, the city will host the inaugural Sapporo International Art Festival (SIAF). Mayor Fumio Ueda and Creative City Sapporo, who are organizing the event, scored their first success in 2012 when they recruited composer Ryuichi Sakamoto to be the guest director, which quickly piqued international interest.

“Because we are late to the (art festival) game, we wanted to do something different than other cities, so we hired Mr. Sakamoto who is adept in music, sculpture and art,” according to the festival’s promotional material.

Last week, however, the 62-year-old Sakamoto announced he had been diagnosed with throat cancer in late June and would be pulling out of all public engagements.

“After much thought and consideration, I have decided to take time off in order to concentrate on treating it,” he wrote in a letter posted to his official website. This meant he’d have to forgo his official duties as SIAF director, an unfortunate end to a project he says he has spent “the past two painstaking years preparing.”

The festival will go on without Sakamoto’s presence, but his commitment to Sapporo will continue to be felt throughout the city when SIAF opens to the public from July 19 until Sept. 28. His composition “Welcome Sound” will greet visitors at New Chitose Airport, but his influence will also be felt in more abstract ways. For instance, Sakamoto’s perspective as a Japanese artist living in New York may give SIAF the type of engaged global perspective that other festivals across Japan often lack.

What’s more, his passion for technologically articulate music and avant-garde experimentation with media will also be front and center via the artists he has selected: media artists such as Carsten Nicolai (a Sakamoto collaborator), industrial sculptor Anselm Kiefer, fog artist Fujiko Nakaya and composer Akira Ifukube (of “Godzilla” soundtrack fame), to name a few.

Projects and performances will take place at venues throughout the city. Art museums will naturally host some of the work, but a former government building and underground passageways count among the more unusual sites that SIAF will utilize. One fascinating venue is sculptor Isamu Noguchi’s “Moerenuma” — a towering glass pyramid circled by a sprawling park.

Sakamoto spoke to The Japan Times in early June, a couple of weeks before he was diagnosed with cancer. He was enthusiastic about working as curator and shared his ideas about SIAF’s “Cities and Nature” theme.

“In the early 20th century, European philosophers and artists reflected on what modern civilization was,” he said via email from New York. “Then, echoes of this questioning took place within the youth rebellions of the 1960s. I think that with the experience of the earthquake on March 11, 2011, and the subsequent nuclear power plant accident, the time has again come to reflect on modern civilization.”

This reflection Sakamoto talks about is fairly broad, but it is something he is extremely passionate about — shadowed by past and future disasters, and activism. He is no stranger to either of these elements. The artist has been engaged in the Stop Rokkasho campaign to close a nuclear reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, since 2006, but his advocacy took on a stronger tone after the Great East Japan Earthquake, pushing him to become more vocal about nuclear issues in Japan. There is an undercurrent of disaster and activism running through SIAF, and Sakamoto sees his work at the festival as fitting into the line of “people who link art and activism.”

“In the 1980s, Josef Beuys planted the seed that activism could be considered as art,” he says. “I am influenced by the idea of his idea of social sculpture.”

Shihoko Iida, who worked on last year’s Aichi Triennale and takes a sociological approach to her curation, is one of two Japanese curators assisting Sakamoto in his director’s role. Iida will curate the “Cities and Nature” exhibition held between the festival’s two main spaces at the Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art and the Sapporo Art Museum. She will build on Sakamoto’s vision, and it will be worth visiting these venues to see Fujiko Nakaya’s fog sculpture, and in particular, a series of sculptures by Tetsumi Kudo, India’s Subodh Gupta and, particularly, Germany’s Anselm Kiefer, who is a key figure at the festival — he is also the subject of the 2010 film “Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow,” which will be screened during SIAF’s opening weekend.

The second curator assisting Sakamoto is Yukiko Shikata, an associate curator at Mori Museum who previously worked for one of Tokyo’s best media-arts institutes, NTT InterCommunication Center (NTT ICC). She’ll be in charge of the “Sensing Streams” exhibition being held in the Sapporo Ekimae-dori Underground Walkway. Additionally, she has curated the “Art X Life” project and “Forest Symphony,” a performance stemming from a collaboration between the Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media (YCAM) and Ryuichi Sakamoto, which will be held inside the glass pyramid known as “Hidamari” inside Moerenuma, a sprawling sculpture-as-municipal-park designed by Isamu Noguchi.

These carefully curated selections are par for the course at a festival such as this, but SIAF is attempting to address art in its most unbounded sense. Sakamoto is undoubtably a romantic and an idealist. As a result, the art-world’s fascination with self-reference and labyrinthine theories is nowhere to be seen. Art world? “Sorry, I don’t really know about the art world,” he says.

“Art is often defined as a famous masterpiece in a gallery and we are meant to visit the work and view it to appreciate it,” he continues. “But that is not all there is. Art is involved in everything — food, politics, eroticism, environment, philosophy, activism and technology.”

The technological aspect of art will certainly be on show at SIAF. Sakamoto has leveraged his experiences in the world of media and sound art and drawn in many of its key figures and institutions in Japan including YCAM, of which Sakamoto is a huge supporter. But he has also brought in younger figures who show promise, such as So Kanno and Takahiro Yamaguchi who have made a “senseless drawing bot” that creates automated graffiti through pressurized spurts of colored paint.

Sakamoto’s friend and collaborator Nicolai will produce a snow-themed work for the festival. His planned performance with Sakamoto set for Sept. 27, however, was canceled due to Sakamoto’s diagnosis. At press time, a substitute has yet to be rescheduled.

Aside from the curated exhibitions, smaller performances and participatory events are sure to be memorable moments at SIAF. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet’s “Babel (words)” has traveled the world and will finally arrive in Japan (it will be performed as part of SIAF in Sapporo and then at Tokyu Theatre Orb in Tokyo at the end of August). Also showing is “Chroma,” a critically acclaimed dance performance directed by Shiro Takatani and co-produced by Kyoto-based media-art heavyweights Dumb Type Office.

There will also be a man who pushes a stone around; contemporary artist Shimabuku’s “Stone from Nibutani” was produced following an extended research trip to Sapporo with Sakamoto. And if any of that sounds a little too artistically challenging, there is always crowd pleaser Fujiko Nakaya and her new fog sculpture, “Fogscape #47412,” which involves turning a the courtyard of the Sapporo Art Museum into a dense cloud.

Sakamoto is no stranger to art projects such as SIAF, but his experience is limited. Over the past two years, he began working closely with arts institutions and museums in Japan as both curator and artist. In December 2013, he became general adviser of an exhibition at Tokyo’s Museum of Contemporary Art subtitled “Art & Music — Search for New Synesthesia.” In some ways the show was a foreshadowing of what was to come at SIAF, with its mix of sound artists and composers working at the crossroads of art and media.

SIAF claims it doesn’t just want to use visiting artists as spectacular, shimmering bait to lure in the cash of art tourists, something that may set it apart from other regional festivals. Sakamoto’s eyes are firmly fixed on a goal further in the distance: He visualizes a Japan that has started “placing importance on old things, rather than money, a society that values culture and virtue.”

“Hopefully we will become a stronger democratic society and avoid falling into xenophobia, hopefully we build good relationships with our neighboring countries,” he says, “and, rather than acting for profit for the current generation, acting in a way that will ensure we leave natural resources for future generations. That’s what I’d like us to become.”

Sapporo may be the right place to try out a new perspective. It’s a modern city that has learned to capitalize on its unique history and geography. In 1950, it launched the Sapporo Snow Festival, which is now one of the largest winter festivals in the world, bringing in 2 million visitors (roughly the same population as the city itself). Things were taken up a notch in 2013, when the city won its bid to become part of UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network. Selected cities receive a designation based on qualities they want to foster and in Sapporo case it’s media art. For festival organizers and Mayor Ueda, SIAF will be about proving the city deserves this designation.

“What I wish for most is that SIAF becomes a sustainable (and continuous) cultural stimulus for the people in Sapporo and Hokkaido. In a way, I would like it to become a seed for the future,” Sakamoto says.

Sapporo International Art Festival 2014 takes place in Sapporo from July 19 until Sept. 28. For information on participating artists, scheduled events and venues, visit www.sapporo-internationalartfestival.jp.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.