It’s winter. Inclement weather in December far north of Tokyo should come as no surprise: the farms and forests are normally blanketed in snow. So while preparing for our stay at the “House of Light,” an installation in Niigata Prefecture by U.S. conceptual artist James Turrell, we aren’t deterred when we receive a call from the “House’s” staff warning us to anticipate snowfall.
Thoughts of snow-covered rice fields and boots sinking deep into white drifts takes my mind far from Tokyo, to the winters of my Canadian childhood, of days spent engaged in battles in imperishable snow forts and woollen mitts half frozen under sequins of tiny ice balls. But nature has other plans.
My fellow travelers and I leave Tokyo and head north by way of shinkansen, and in two hours rural Niigata welcomes us with stretches of farmland — an endless tapestry of yellow, intermittently broken by the white of snowy peaks. As the train nears Tokamachi Station, the sky is azure, the air bright and sharp, and the ground free from any hints of snow.
This region, known as Echigo-Tsumari, is renowned for its rice, sake, abundant snowfall and the roughly 160 artworks installed here by some of the world’s best contemporary artists, including Yayoi Kusama, Marina Abramovic, Jenny Holzer, Carsten Holler and Cai Guo-Qiang. The region became an art hub, now known as Echigo-Tsumari Art Field, in 2000 thanks to Niigata native Fram Kitagawa, a Japanese curator known for his involvement in turning Naoshima into an art island and for directing the Setouichi Triennale. Kitagawa brought artists to the area as a means of reviving its flagging economy, which had been in a tailspin since the mid-1990s.
The unseasonably warm weather surprises us as we leave the train — it probably came as a surprise to the organizers of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Field; most artworks had been listed as “Unavailable” in anticipation of the snow. However, as many of these are installed outdoors, and rather immovable, it’s easy to get up close and intimate with them when the weather is fine.
We head toward Matsudai Nohbutai, a futuristic museum designed by Netherlands-based architecture firm MVRDV, and are greeted by the first “Unavailable”: Yayoi Kusama’s “Tsumari in Bloom,” an erupting, hulking flower sculpture covered in Kusama’s trademark dots. It has been trussed up in struts and braced for winter, frozen in an eternal celebration of spring’s rebirth.
We continue looking for “Unavailables,” and find Yoshiko Fujiwara’s homage to environmentalist and author Rachel Carson 10 minutes from Turrell’s “House of Light.” Fujiwara’s installation includes a series of metal sculptures — of a donkey, Doric shrine, rabbit and birdman — strewn about an empty field in silent protest, and inspired by the books of Carson and her efforts to hold industry accountable for its detrimental impact on the environment.
Echigo-Tsumari Art Field is more than 15 years old and local residents, once resistant to their land being turned into a public gallery, now live beside some of Japan’s best public artworks (and a stream of art tourists). Turrell’s “House of Light,” the catalyst for our trip, is one of the centerpieces. Inspired by Junichiro Tanizaki’s 1933 essay on Japanese aesthetics, “In Praise of Shadows,” this otherworldly wooden Japanese house has been fashioned after the historic home of Niigata’s prominent Hoshina family. It is filled with Turrell’s enveloping, mutating light installations. Visitors who are lucky enough to book a room can stay overnight in the house and indulge in its illuminated bath. Each sunrise and sunset, the retractable roof can be opened (except when it is raining or snowing) to watch a programmed light show, with changing hues inside the main tatami room framing the sky.
From afar, I’m struck by the house’s lonely, haunting presence — alone on a hillside, surrounded by trees, it seems more “Unavailable” than the officially hibernating installations nearby. How will it feel to sleep in a piece of contemporary art?
The house slowly pulses with colored light, which gently reflects off windows, wooden frames and tatami mats. Rather than illuminating, it seems to be conspiring with the shadows, embracing the corners with a procession of muted hues and tones.
The interior feels like the set of an unmade Stanley Kubrick film, an alternative sequel to “2001,” a bizarre dream sequence that unravels in a wintry, rural Japanese landscape. Though warming, Turrell’s lights transform the traditional wooden house into a distinctly inhuman space. The automated movements of the lights do not seem to be happening for my entertainment. It appears less a feat of programming than pure ceremony, dictated by the house itself — it makes the house seem strangely sentient.
As the sun sets, the display begins and I push a button to open the roof. The house utters its first sounds as the panel above us slides open in groans and creaks, piercing the silence of the surrounding farmland. The hourlong light display tricks the eyes with one colorful outfit change at a time — pastel hues match and clash, merging with and parting from the clear patch of sky.
At 5:30 a.m. the following morning we wake up and repeat the ritual. Staring up at the ceiling, mesmerized by the changing light, I am reminded of Tanizaki’s own awe of light upon gold leaf, “changing not in a flash but growing slowly, steadily brighter, like color rising in the face of a giant.”
Left alone with the unmanned, lonely artworks of Echigo-Tsumari, the pieces can become unsettling — to city folk this depopulated landscape is as foreign as the sculptures that interrupt it. “Those who live precariously and are habitually crowded together develop a phobia about open spaces,” wrote the late English art critic John Berger, “which transforms their frustrating lack of space and privacy into something reassuring.”
If these artworks survive the decade, the century or even the millennium, what will future travelers make of Echigo-Tsumari’s glowing houses, hulking flowers and birdmen? How long until these works become, like Stonehenge, lost to time and the elements, transformed into objects that are undecipherable and truly “unavailable”?
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