OKAYAMA – The city of Okayama was flattened by incendiary bombs in 1945. Many people died, more than 12,000 homes were destroyed and Okayama’s centuries-old wooden castle burned to its stone foundations. In 1966, the donjon was rebuilt with modern concrete, which was likely made in Mizushima — a smoke-spewing industrial site near Okayama that produced and refined the materials that helped pave over the physical scars of World War II.
Since then, a less tangible force began wiping out regional communities in Japan: depopulation and economic decline. The solution is equally intangible.
How do you help a disappearing community? If you’re curator Fram Kitagawa, you do it with contemporary art. Kitagawa pioneered the revivification-through-art approach in the early 2000s with his Echigo-Tsumari and Setouchi triennales, which have been successful in drawing tourists to dwindling regions.
The Okayama Art Summit opened in this shifting landscape on Oct. 8, the same day the nearby Setouchi Triennale reopened for its autumn season. But English conceptual artist Liam Gillick, artistic director of the summit, and Tokyo gallerist Taro Nasu, the event’s director, are not concerned with economic revival. Their concern is art.
Yes, the summit is a carefully planned, well-funded project, intended to raise the cultural capital of Okayama. On a closer level, the 31 participants — some of the world’s leading contemporary artists, many of whom are friends of Gillick’s — were tangled up in serious set of ideas, including time travel, a world without humans and the tensions that come with late capitalism. Sometimes they got so tangled that it was difficult to see exactly what was going on, especially for locals who may not be familiar with Western ideas about contemporary art.
Works are spread across eight sites, including Okayama Castle, and a handful of outdoor locations, such as a disused parking lot, into which Ryan Gander’s alien work has crash landed, leaving a path of torn bitumen in its wake — like a piece of conceptual art shot down by a baffled resident. Gander replicated a sharp-edged modernist 20th-century sculpture, but gave it the rounded edges of a 21st-century iPhone.
The festival’s theme is “Development” or “Kaihatsu” in Japanese, which translates roughly to industrial production or exploitation. Initially, not all participating artists were comfortable with the theme’s neoliberal nuances.
“When I saw it I thought, ‘Development … Really?!,’ “said German sound artist Hannah Weinberger on opening day. Turkish artist Ahmet Ogut shared her concern: “Development has a couple of meanings, but they’re mostly negative for me.”
Weinberger responded by hiding mobile phones in flowerbeds outside the Okayama Prefectural Government Offices and having them randomly call each other. Adjacent, Ogut installed diminutive bronze sculptures of protesters being attacked by police dogs (with the bronze canines lurking nearby). Both works reflected a concern about the inhumanity of progress, whether social or technological.
Then there is the nonhumanity of progress. Katja Novitskova’s monstrous worms and Yu Araki’s clever account of Satan’s entrance into Japan (in the form of an octopus) engaged with the nonhuman entities that medical or cultural development has been contingent on. Pierre Huyghe also belongs with the nonhumanists. He presented two sculptures — a statue with a beehive for a brain; an aquarium containing a hermit crab in the head of a statue — and “Human Mask,” a 2014 film.
No other work at the summit put humanity’s precarious future into a Japanese context as clearly as this film. In it, a real monkey wearing a noh mask and wig wanders around an empty restaurant in a post-disaster zone, gradually growing more afraid as it realizes no one is coming back. To local audiences who have lived through the effects of the Great East Japan Earthquake, the film links back to the animals left in Fukushima’s exclusion zone. But it’s also a disturbing vision of a world after humans.
This exchange between science fiction and reality taps into some of Gillick’s more complex ideas about temporality. The theme of “Development” also refers to our relationship with time and the stories we tell ourselves about the past and future. When Gillick invited each artist to participate, he included an article from the London Review of Books: Fredric Jameson’s review of “Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative” by David Wittenberg, a book that analyzes the philosophy of narrative through the time travel subgenre.
Infinite regresses — the time traveler who sees themselves seeing themselves in a past or future reality — showed up in the structure and content of some works. Rirkrit Tiravanija’s site-specific mirrored teahouse (on the site of Okayama’s original castle) infinitely reflected itself and Simon Fujiwara’s installation and film, “Joanne” showed a woman engineering an authentic version of herself through a social-media campaign.
Even if artists didn’t link explicitly to Jameson’s text, they echoed the displacement of crossing timelines. There’s Jose Leon Cerillo’s fragmented wireframe structures or Motoyuki Shitamichi, the only Okayama local to participate, who traced boundary-less boundaries — in mixed-gender hot springs, around suburban shrines — using photographs and a continuing column in a local newspaper where children reflect on everyday borders.
Development takes many forms. In Okayama it is in the smoke leaving Mizushima’s chimneys, in the concrete of Okayama Castle and in the economically flagging hinterland, slowly filling with art tourists. The Okayama Art Summit touches on this geography and history but wades out further, into the confusing, complex waters of Earth’s precarious future.
The Okayama Art Summit runs until Nov. 27; 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. ¥1,800. Closed Mon. www.okayamaartsummit.jp