In an era of relentless urbanization, global travel and weightless images, the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale has pioneered a ground-breaking model of place-based art curation that aims to cast a little edifying rural grit into the oyster of contemporary urban affluence. Centred on a declining, depopulating mountainous area of Niigata Prefecture around Tokamachi city, the project aims to bring people, energy, ideas, money, and ultimately pride to the region, using contemporary art as its chief instrument.

Art Place Japan: The Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale and the Vision to Reconnect Art and Nature, by Fram Kitagawa (Translated by Amiko Matsuo and Brad Monsma)
304 pages
Princeton Architectural Press, Nonfiction.

The triennial festival, which started in 2000 and held its sixth installment last year, was founded by and is still directed by Fram Kitagawa, a Niigata-born Tokyo-based cultural impresario. Kitagawa’s vision, initially dismissed as absurdly idealistic, has succeeded in attracting half-a-million visitors to each festival, and has become highly influential in Japan, with a host of other regional arts festivals modeled upon it, the most celebrated of which is the Setouchi Triennale in the Seto Inland Sea. However, despite working for many years with a roster of established and upcoming international artists, and attracting increasing attention from important cultural actors outside Japan, particularly in Asia, the audience and impact of this visionary enterprise remain largely confined to Japan.

The appearance of “Art Place Japan,” the first publication in English to substantially describe and document the project’s efforts and weigh its significance, will help lift the veil of this relative international obscurity. Consisting substantially of translated material authored by Kitagawa himself, with the images and texts of other contributors carefully curated by Gendai Kikakushitsu, Kitagawa’s own publishing house, the book cannot escape bearing the idiosyncratic cast of Kitagawa’s personality. But what it loses in critical distance, it gains in voice and character.

This distinctiveness is initially evident in the book’s format. Its 300-odd pages comprise 46 mostly short reflective pieces by Kitagawa, over 230 color photographs, and two substantial essays by invited contributors Adrian Favell and Lynne Breslin. It has neither the detailed maps and directions of the practical guidebook for visitors, nor the documentary comprehensiveness of a museum catalog for curators (equivalents of which are available in Japanese for each festival). Rather than an itinerary or an archive, the book seems to aspire to the condition of the landscape that forms its underlying referent, with the experience of reading it having something of the meandering experience of exploring the festival itself, along with its landmarks and main roads, byways and dead-ends, detours and retraced paths, and moments of sudden insight and transcendent beauty.

Kitagawa’s presence is also felt in the voice that colors the book’s core texts. Informal, loosely structured, ruminative, occasionally confessional, rarely theoretical or didactic, Kitagawa’s pieces have the feel of transcriptions of conversation (which indeed they may be). Reading pieces with titles such as “Every Place Reflects the World” or “Art is Like a Baby” while browsing through photographs of often cryptic artworks set in verdant landscapes or crumbling farmhouses, it can feel as if you are walking through the Echigo-Tsumari countryside with Kitagawa ambling along beside you, telling stories of the aspirations, struggles, epiphanies and reflections that have accompanied the life of each artwork or project site, and the people who have been connected to it.

This approach reflects Kitagawa’s own view of art as a site-specific, socially embedded act of forming collective meaning.

“I believe that art is about discovery, learning, exchange and collaboration,” writes Kitagawa. “Art has the power to create experiences and phenomenological effects in ways that may not be readily expressed through photographic documentation. This is why an artwork needs a visitor, and why art in public places has such potential power. … Art is meant to be experienced in the site where it is located and in the surrounding context. This exchange is what moves people, speaks to people, and engages people.”

Kitagawa’s philosophy of art as presented here is novelistic rather than scholarly in character — it coheres out of the stories that Kitagawa tells of the places, people and exchanges underlying the works themselves.

This leaves the task of making sense of and evaluating the significance of Kitagawa’s grand vision to external observers. Favell’s essay “Echigo-Tsumari and the Art of the Possible: The Fram Kitagawa Philosophy in Theory and Practice,” is indispensable in this regard. Favell, a sociologist who has written extensively on the Japanese art world, positions the festival within both the recent history of contemporary art production and reception in Japan, as well as the broader economic and social transformations of the country, while also grappling with the fraught question of how and whether art’s aesthetic objectives should be conscripted to serving social goals. He concludes that the “big field” of the Echigo-Tsumari festival, complete with its organizational and curatorial practices, can be understood as “a huge regional artwork in itself,” whose ambitions and achievements point the way to not just a new model of socially engaged art, but to a positive alternative future for a post-growth Japan.

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