Kenpoku Art 2016! is one of the latest projects to appear in an area for which art has been a relatively niche concern. Despite the fact that Okakura Tenshin, one of the central figures of Japanese art history, set up shop in Ibaraki Prefecture in 1906, and Art Tower Mito consistently provides top-class exhibitions, Ibaraki mostly has a reputation for being a no-nonsense, conservative farming heartland. Parts of the prefecture continue to thrive on agriculture, but many small towns are struggling with problems of aging populations and infrastructure.
Viewed in the most utilitarian way, Kenpoku Art 2016 is a hook onto which hopes of revitalizing local economies are being hitched, and there is always a tension between art being accessible and provocative with this kind of event. While looking at an installation of fluorescent chandeliers titled “Crystal Palace: The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nuclear Nations,” I overheard an older local resident complain that she didn’t understand what it was for and that somebody should be there to explain it.
Ironically, the exhibits generally do have staff on hand to provide context, and in the case of the luminescent piece by Ken and Julia Yonetani, the invigilator had just briefly popped out of the room. By contrast, in some cases you may find yourself pounced on and told what to think before even having the chance to take in what you’re looking at.
Having said all that, Kenpoku succeeds very well as an art event. Over a fairly large area, which takes more than a day to cover, there are around 100 works to be seen. These appear in settings that range from the serene to the scuzzy. Fumiaki Murakami’s “Magic Landscape Lantern” is a viewing device that grandly points out over the Pacific from the raised elevation of Hitachi Station, but surprisingly shows a Monty Python-esque animation when you peer into it. Ei Wada’s installation “Electronicas Fantasticos!” created from old-fashioned TVs that display colorful abstractions and emit sounds when touched, has been set up in an empty high street shop. Hiroshi Fuji’s spectacular displays of collected toys are carefully laid out in the second-floor of an old bank building, while Sudsiri Pui Ock’s sculpture of a giant hermit crab with human fingers has been installed among the extraordinary rock formations on the Takado coastline.
Repurposing old buildings and enlisting the beauty of scenic areas is part and parcel of this kind of event. The success of Kenpoku is that the works, for the greater part, excel at what site-specific installation can do best: make use of their venues to intensify the experience of the artist’s vision and, at the same time, allow us to reconsider what we may have become too familiar with.
Kenpoku Art 2016! runs until Nov. 20 in the Ibaraki towns of Hitachi, Takahagi, Kitaibaraki, Hitachiota, Hitachiomiya and Daigo. Some exhibits are free to view, a passport to all events is ¥2,500. For more details, visit kenpoku-art.jp.