To visit Antony Gormley’s “Another Time” — a life-sized iron figure which looks eastward across Oita Prefecture’s Sento district of Kunisaki from atop a mountain ledge — is a breathtaking experience. Not just because it’s a stong piece of art or that the location offers a stunning vista of verdant treetops and rolling hillsides, but because it also involves a bit of a trek to get to it — 20 minutes if you start from the reception hut, 70 if you take the full hiking course.
The artwork is just one of the exhibits of the Kunisaki Art Festival, which opened in early October and runs until Nov. 30. And its remote location, via makeshift paths and past the area’s famous animistic stone monuments, is as much part of the attraction as the sculpture itself.
Director Junya Yamaide, who is known for his stewardship of the Beppu Mixed Bathing World Triennale, says the Kunisaki Art Festival’s aim is to “restore physicality to reality” — to draw the public away from online communities and remind them to interact with the real, physical world. It also seeks to help restore vitality to an area of aging population and, like several similar art festivals in Japan, involves re-purposing abandoned buildings, as well as the collaboration of locals.
What sets Kunisaki apart from other art festivals, however, is its overtly direct interaction with nature.
Gormley’s figure, which was one of the first works to be installed in 2013, is coated in pure iron, once a natural resource of the area, and designed to be gradually worn away by the elements. Others constructed that year include Yoko Ono’s stone-like “Invisible Benches,” which face grassy fields ahead the Suonada Sea; Choi Jeonghwa’s “Iro iro iro,” a raised wooden viewing platform that overlooks expansive beds of seasonal flowers; and Saburo Teshigawara’s towering glass “Moon Tree,” which, when observed from a specific spot afar, can be seen to reflect the sunlight into a glistening golden circle in the water of Nami-ishi Dam.
Two new works, installed this year for the festival’s official inauguration, are likewise embedded into nature. Tatsuo Miyajima’s “Hundred Life Houses,” a cluster of 100 boxes featuring his signature LED numbers that flicker in red, yellow and blue, faces outward from a rocky outcrop overlooking a tree-lined Jomon Period (10,000-200 B.C.) archaeological site in Jobutsu. In collaboration with locals and students, all the house-shaped containers were made in workshops where participants could choose the color and speed at which the numbers flash.
In a more literal dialogue with nature, Tadashi Kawamata’s timber “La Chaire” is surrounded by the Mount Futago woodland of Kibe and was built by locals under the artist’s direction. A mezzanine stage-like structure, it encourages visitors to walk among branches along paths above ground, perhaps talk to each other from two inbuilt podiums or simply relax on benches in its central resting area below. But the real beauty lies at the far end of the installation where visitors will find an idyllic view of nearby villages, framed picture-perfect by the leafy boughs of trees ahead.
Though rural environs are key to such artworks, others housed in abandoned buildings reveal equally impressive affinities with nature. Creative outfit teamLab, inspired by the area’s vibrant and abounding flora of fields, gardens and grassy road embankments, produced an immersive digital work of a plethora of flowers that overwhelm all four inner walls of a former sewing factory in Usuno, Bungotakada. In the interactive piece, teamLab’s cosmos, chrysanthemums and roses bloom and explode into cascades of petals as visitors approach the walls of the darkened room, and then wither as the flora of another season begins to blossom.
Less dramatic but almost more fascinating is the artist-in-residence project “The Principle of Hope,” curated by Mizuki Endo and housed in the former Kakadi Town Hall in Bungotakada. Particularly enamored with the unknown origins of Kunisaki’s indigenous animistic stone sculptures, Endo chose to leave the exhibition artworks, created by 18 artists, untitled and unlabeled.
The anonymous approach also means that visitors stumble across the artworks, which are scattered among the original furnishings of the old town hall. Deliberately unrenovated, the building itself becomes part of the project, its peeling wallpaper, broken clocks and worn furniture sometimes indistinguishable from the artworks — an ambiguity that Endo says is the whole point of the show.
“This is the way to introduce art to locals,” he explains. “To have them discover it themselves, as they do with stone sculptures in the forest.”
The works are eclectic, a collection of paintings, photography, ceramics, multimedia work and installations that range from careful placement of entomological specimens and an unnerving sound installation inside a locked safe to more conventional Onta-ware pottery and figurative sculptures.
An underlying theme alluded to by all the works at the festival is the relationship humans have with nature — be it in destroying it, cultivating it or being overwhelmed by it. Under the guidance of Sohei Yamada, a consulting member of the festival’s team and a sociologist specializing in people of the region, the works are almost dependent on the history and environment of Kunisaki.
With other projects providing the details of locale, such as Naoki Ishikawa’s photographic documentation of landscapes and traditions at the Kunimi Furusato Exhibition Hall, the Kunisaki Art Festival is like the hike to see Gormley’s iron man — intriguing, a little wild and well worth the journey.
The Kunisaki Art festival can be reached by car from Oita Airport and Usa Station. Guided tours available, which range in price from ¥4,000 for a day trip to ¥92,000 for a weekend tour organized by The North Face. kunisaki.asia