I’ve never been comfortable with the idea that Japan has three “most beautiful” places. It’s a tradition, or a received wisdom, if you like, to rank the triad of the land bridge Ama-no Hashidate, the rocky islands of Matsushima and the sacred torii in the water at Miyajima as the indisputable height of Japanese landscape.
It’s a less codified tradition, but fairly common none the less, that Saitama Prefecture comes pretty low in the league table of places to see before you die, and, as a commuter suburb to Tokyo, it has very little reputation as a center of art and culture. Takashi Serizawa, the director of the new Saitama Triennale and a veteran of organizing similar events in Yokohama and Beppu, has sensibly opted not to sugar-coat this new arts festival with claims that Saitama is a region of undiscovered beauty and hive of overlooked cultural production for which the triennale can act as a lure to bring in tourist traffic.
As Serizawa acknowledges, this event is not an “art festival that has an influential museum or art center as its core” or a “localized tourism-based art festival that has backup from its tourism resources, such as breathtaking natural scenery of beautiful satoyama (farmland nestled in the area between mountain foothills) or island-studded seascapes or onsen (hot springs).”
Serizawa’s view — after due consideration of the landscapes, modern and traditional residential areas, farmland and urban centers that actually do exist in Saitama — is that the prefecture “has everything.” It’s just not particularly famous for any one thing.
This seems to be a great starting point for an art festival. Life in Saitama is representative of many people’s everyday lives in contemporary Japan, and the wellspring from which the triennale will draw much of its sustenance is life lived more ordinarily. This is far more challenging and socially meaningful than to dazzle and distract in the hope that visitors will then pass through to a local well-known tourist attraction, or famous natural beauty spot.
A look at the roster of participating artists does not reveal an overall aesthetic, or any tremendously big names, but rather an eclectic and provocative mix of younger practitioners who will all be making new work for the event. They have been chosen for their line of enquiry, not for parachuting in with ready-made eye candy.
The theme of the inaugural event is “Envisioning the Future!,” which at first sight is toe-curlingly upbeat, but Serizawa’s interest is in promoting the reflection of the consequences of inaction. As he put it, “The future I’m speaking of here is not only positive visions. My true thoughts behind this theme are that everyone should once again ask himself or herself: ‘Are we fine to be in this state now?’ ”
One of the participating artists that I was able to talk to is Momoko Suzuki. A graduate of Central Saint Martins in London, she likens her task as a contemporary artist in Japan to hacking out a path through the undergrowth in the middle of nowhere and putting up a flag.
“Britain has Tate Modern, and Japan has art festivals,” she observes. In other words people flock to recognized centers in the U.K. with expectations of excellence, while art festivals in Japan pop up in peripheries in the hope that if contemporary art is put in people’s way, they just might trip over it.
Suzuki’s drawing projects are fecund, semi-figurative, vaguely obscene growths that evoke both the elemental beginnings of life and the complexity of computer-generated fractal imagery. As participatory performances, images will emerge as visitors contribute to the piece, and disappear by the time the event ends.
We are, she seems to be saying, fine, as long we understand that our state is a constantly changing “now.” Envisioning the future for Suzuki means facing the cosmic void; in the end there is the formless universe without consciousness. Perhaps counter-intuitively, this makes paying attention to the process of “becoming” all the more important. The background to this is not Zen, but the emotional and intellectual fluidities of French thinkers Georges Bataille, and Gilles Deleuze. The latter may initiate a bored yawn from many artists and art professionals in Europe, who have seen the post-structuralist’s name appropriated once too often, but to that I would rebut with the words of Ella Fitzgerald, “It ain’t what you do, but the way that you do it.”
This is also true of the biennale/triennale as a format in general. One of the primary goals of these art festivals, which have become especially popular in Asia, is that they should break down the cultural hierarchy of centers versus “peripheries” (i.e. regions that are not part of traditional Western art history). But, as time goes by, the sins of the old art world sometimes just end up finding another breeding ground.
This new beginning for the place that “has nothing” looks, however, to be an event that will have depth, subtlety and relevance, both for contemporary art and contemporary life.
The Saitama Triennale 2016 runs from Sept. 24 to Dec. 11. For more information, visit saitamatriennale.jp.