Art

Embracing life and death at Reborn-Art Festival

by Alyssa I. Smith

Staff Writer

The date March 11, 2011, carries a lot of weight in Japan. When the magnitude 9 Great East Japan Earthquake rocked the Tohoku region in the northeast of the country, it devastated the landscape and altered the lives of residents. And now, eight years since the disaster, Takeshi Kobayashi is dedicated to bringing life, in many senses of the word, back to the affected area.

A respected musician and producer who has worked with Japanese acts such as Mr. Children, Southern All Stars frontman Keisuke Kuwata and Kyoko Koizumi, and has written several film scores, Kobayashi also founded the Reborn-Art Festival, a two-month-long event focusing on art, music and food. The festival was first held in 2017 and it is now poised to kick off its second edition this August in the area of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, and the broader Oshika Peninsula, roughly 70 kilometers from the earthquake’s epicenter.

The idea for an art festival to revitalize the Tohoku area came to Kobayashi in 2012, after he was invited to visit the Echigo-Tsumari Art Field, an art triennale held in Niigata Prefecture, that incorporates various artworks into the natural landscape as a way to combat the depopulation and aging of towns in the area.

“In that vein, I realized that there’s a way to bring art to a region that’s struggling and to show the beauty and resilience of its spirit through art and to bring people back to a place that had been abandoned,” Kobayashi says.

Kohei Nawa's 'White Deer'
Kohei Nawa’s ‘White Deer’ | © Reborn-Art Festival

As one of the original founders of a nonprofit organization called AP Bank, Kobayashi is no stranger to philanthropy and efforts to promote sustainability.

“I think each person has a responsibility for the future. It’s not cool to just complain and blame other people,” he says with a laugh. As a musician, however, it had never occurred to him to organize an art festival before. Unlike music festivals, which only last for a weekend or so, art festivals have the potential to run longer and subsequently draw more people to a specific location.

“I thought that (the festival) might be a necessary thing to do in an area that has been affected by such a terrible earthquake,” Kobayashi says.

Armed with the idea that something negative could be transformed into a positive and enriching experience, Kobayashi set out to create a festival that not only showcased art, music and food, but also the vitality of Ishinomaki despite its devastation. It was important to enmesh all of these elements in nature to show that the area could still thrive. The name of the festival was carefully chosen to reflect that hopeful outlook.

A scene from RAF 2017 | © Reborn-Art Festival
A scene from RAF 2017 | © Reborn-Art Festival

“These are words that Shinichi Nakazawa (a fellow RAF organizer) thought up,” says Kobayashi. “The word ‘reborn’ itself suggests that repeating the cycle of life and death; that combination, is what it means to live. As for art, it implies the artistry of living and the way of life. Together the name represents the festival’s intentions.”

The theme of this year’s event is “Texture of Life,” which Kobayashi says is a concept he would often use in conversation to express his concern that, in modern society, people were moving further away from the things that are necessary to experience real life.

“‘Texture of Life’ is a bit of an odd concept but I think it’s the perfect theme,” he says. “As a pianist, I’m impressed with the idea that we have hands that allow us to reach out and feel. That sensation is such a crucial part of living. So, this theme embraces all the senses we use to live.”

One of the most unique aspects of this year’s event is that seven teams of curators — including such reputable names as Etsuko and Koichi Watari, co-founders of The Watari Museum of Contemporary Art, and Shinichi Nakazawa, a revered anthropologist — were assigned to different areas and charged with the task of working closely with around 40 artists to realize the overall theme while also embracing distinct “area themes.” The end result is that visitors will be taken on a cohesive journey to fully appreciate the rich, natural beauty and history of the Ishinomaki area.

Culinary delights: Food from the Tohoku region will be offered as part of the festival. | RIKO MONMA
Culinary delights: Food from the Tohoku region will be offered as part of the festival. | RIKO MONMA

However, Kobayashi admits that even he had some doubts about having multiple curators involved.

“Once we figured out who would be in charge of which areas, I started to feel like things could go really well,” he says. “But it wasn’t until recently that I felt fully convinced that it was a perfect arrangement. Listening to the curators give their presentations on what’s to come, it made me think this is something exciting.

“It’s kind of like a music session. I’m a musician and I produce so that might be why I think in these terms, but the first festival was curated in a way like it was precisely scored. This year’s festival was a bit like improvisation.”

Kobayashi has assumed the role of curator for Momonoura, a fishing village located in the northwest of the Oshika Peninsula, at RAF. Although the community has strong ties to the ocean and a thriving oyster industry, a seawall was constructed after the 2011 earthquake to protect the inhabitants from tsunami, therefore impeding the natural landscape. With this in mind, the area theme is “Living Space,” to demonstrate how living environments are altered and utilized to reflect the past, present and future of a community.

A scene from RAF 2017 | © Reborn-Art Festival
A scene from RAF 2017 | © Reborn-Art Festival

Momonoura will feature the work of artists Yayoi Kusama, Parco Kinoshita and Sebastian Masuda, while also taking advantage of the abandoned Oginohama Elementary School building. In addition to art exhibitions that can be visited during the day, the village will also host an all-night event called “Yorugawa no Dekigoto.” According to Kobayashi, the cover of darkness offers a unique opportunity to embrace a different side of a place that has experienced a nearness to death.

As the Reborn-Art Festival expands its scale to incorporate opportunities to explore the regional culture through local ingredients, a post-rock opera and overnight stays, Kobayashi continues to stress the importance of creating a deep experience that touches on all the senses. “We put a lot of thought into ensuring that getting around (the festival) would be easy. The distance between the artwork is very manageable for visitors,” he says.

Kobayashi brings up the Japanese idiom, ichi-go, ichi-e, the concept of treasuring a moment that only happens once in a lifetime.

“If you’re interested in just looking at art, you can go to a museum in Tokyo,” he says. “But one of the greatest strengths of an event like this is how you encounter pieces of art in a specific moment in time. We wanted to make it a journey and make people stop for a moment to take in the art and create a memorable encounter that might bring out something unexpected in them. That’s what we’ve created this time.”

Reborn-Art Festival 2019 will take place from Aug. 3 to Sept. 29 at locations near Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, and the Oshika Peninsula. Reservations have opened for one-day English-language tours: https://campaign.japantimes.co.jp/raf2019/. Japan Times subscribers are entitled to receive a commemorative souvenir. For more information about the festival in general, visit www.reborn-art-fes.jp/en.