Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale: Niigata’s fields of art and inspiration

by Katherine Whatley

Contributing Writer

Deep in the mountains of Niigata Prefecture, the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale is preparing its hundreds of exhibitions, events and installations — some new, some already permanent — for its seventh edition.

The first festival in 2000 was initiated by Fram Kitagawa, who also directs the Seto Inland Sea’s Setouchi Triennale. The events, he says, are designed to “bring energy back to the region(s)” and to also encourage new ways of thinking about art, beyond what he calls the “urban focus of 20th-century art.”

Echigo-Tsumari is spread out over a mountainous part of Niigata that’s larger than the size of Tokyo’s 23 wards put together. It’s an area that regularly gets meters of snow for months at a time and, until relatively recently, locals were “unable to get out of their small hamlets over the winter months, having to rely on each other for everything,” according to Kitagawa. The Triennale’s permanent works and participating museums are now accessible throughout the year, and Kitagawa says part of their aim is to also enrich the lives of the fiercely independent locals.

For visitors, it’s an opportunity to see a combination of art, including many site-specific works, by a mix of well-established Japanese, international and up-and-coming artists, within a stunning rural setting.

This year’s edition has several new installations, including a tunnelled viewing deck restoration by MAD Architects and a group exhibition inspired by “Hojoki,” a classic Japanese text from the 13th century. Popular long-term installations from previous Triennales by artists such as Marina Abramovic, Yayoi Kusama, James Turrell and Jimmy Liao, plus hundreds of other works of art also remain scattered across the countryside, ready to be discovered.

The remodelling of the Kiyotsu Gorge Tunnel — a viewing platform looking out on the area’s stunning gorge — is easily one of the highlights at this year’s festival. MAD Architects, founded by Ma Yansong in 2004, took advantage of the tunnel’s curvature and view by installing a shallow pool of water to reflect the scenery at its far end. Gleaming interior panels mirrored this further to create a pictorial oasis, the lush green of vertiginous gorge bouncing off the water and walls. The lightness of the installation at the end of the dark and dank tunnel is revelatory.

Equally exciting is the “Hojoki Shiki” exhibition at the Echigo-Tsumari Satoyama Museum of Contemporary Art, Kinare, in Tokamachi. In “Hojoki,” the writer Kamo no Chomei leaves Kyoto and builds himself a small square hut in the mountains. There he contemplates society and the impermanence of the world. Taking inspiration from the account, artists, designers and architects have created worlds of their own within the same strict parameters of the original hut (2.73 × 2.73 × 2.73 meters).

Through the exhibition, Kitagawa says he “seeks to foster new ideas about architecture and society” outside of current understandings. Thirty small “huts” designed into shops, play rooms, galleries, living spaces and studios will be displayed in the cavernous modernist courtyard of the museum. Highlights include a children’s play space made of yarn by Yui Inoue, and a bird house, complete with moving wings, made of bark and wood by Masanori Koyama.

One of the distinct aspects of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale is the number of permanent large sculptures and installations located in rice fields, at road sides, in parks and near stations. Two to look out for in Tokamachi are Akiko Utsumi’s “For Lots of Lost Windows,” a window frame poignantly looking out on nowhere, and Richard Wilson’s “Set North for Japan,” a metal frame version of the artist’s own house that faces north and juts out from the ground at the edge of town. Studded at seemingly random spots on the rolling landscape, these various explosions of art often come as a delightful surprise.

For those with more time on their hands, some works of art in Tokamachi also function as accommodations. One of the Triennale’s well-known pieces, “The House of Light” — Turrell’s building inspired by Junichiro Tanizaki’s classic analysis of Japanese aesthetics, “In Praise of Shadows” — can be booked for overnight stays. Complete with tatami mats, light sculptures, a fiber-optic-lit bathing room and a retractable roof window, the building is a fascinating combination of contemporary art and traditional Japanese architecture.

Abramovic’s “Dream House,” an installation set within an old Japanese farmhouse requires its overnight guests to remain silent throughout the entirety of their stay. By bathing in ritual baths and sleeping in special suits and beds, the work is designed to elicit dreams. “Shedding House,” created over several years by Junichi Kurakake and sculpture students from Nihon University College of Art, also utilizes a farmhouse. This time, the wooden beams and every nook and cranny of the 200-year-old home, have been carved by the students, turning the building into a one-of-a-kind, site-specific sculpture.

Kitagawa says he envisions a new way forward for Japan — a decentralized unashamedly local country that is simultaneously forward thinking and strongly internationally minded. This year’s edition of the Triennale, like previous years, builds off of the preexisting works that now dot the Niigata countryside thanks to nearly two decades of dedication to the region.

“We have had the same concept from the beginning,” Kitagawa says. “That human beings are contained within nature and that we have to adjust with nature as we live.”

The 2018 Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale takes place July 29-Sept. 17 across Tokamachi and Tsunan in Niigata Prefecture. Due to the spread out nature of the installations, the permanent and temporary exhibits, installations, buildings and sculptures are most easily accessed by car. During the triennale, there will also be organized bus tours departing from Echigo-Yuzawa Shinkansen Station. All access passes may be purchased in advance or upon arrival (¥3,500 on site, ¥3,000 in advance). For ticket information and bus tour booking, see www.echigo-tsumari.jp/eng.