Echigo-Tsumari: The Fram Kitagawa Philosophy


Talk of Echigo-Tsumari tends to immediately polarise art world folk in Tokyo. Or, rather, it tends to lead to an avalanche of support in favour of director Fram Kitagawa’s idealistic philosophy of public art promoted by ETAT (Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial) over the axis of political/corporate interests that dominates art in the big city – most readily identified with the Mori Development corporation, and led by Fumio Nanjo, director of the Mori Museum at Roppongi Hills. I’ve heard of this in terms of the “namboku senso” (“civil war”) of the North and South, to describe the titanic struggles of Kitagawa and Nanjo to court corporate and government sponsorship, and impose their visions over major public art initiatives in Japan. What is perhaps interesting to observers is not so much whose philosophy is right and wrong, but the fact that so much of what goes on in the Japanese art world is both controlled or directed by these two men—and that so much politics and money is involved. Moreover, that all this power and influence is being fought over in the name of something we might naively think as essentially benevolent: Art (with a capital ‘A’), that thing we all so “love”.

I was lucky to get an interview with the redoubtable Mr. Kitagawa in the weeks running up to ETAT 4.0, which opens this weekend in the mountainous region of Niigata way north of Tokyo. I was summoned to his operations base at Hillside Terrace, Daikanyama, for a late evening interview. Young assistants were still running around, there were coffee cups and ash trays everywhere, and Kitagawa himself was clearly exhausted at the end of another long day working the desk and the phones. I feared I wouldn’t get much more than a stiff formally translated PR presentation – the kind most American journalists get when they are whisked around Japan by their local minders – but the discussion quickly got animated, and his PA Rei Maeda conveyed the director’s earnest opinions frankly and without too much editing.

Kitagawa’s philosophy as it is stated officially is, of course, a very seductive one. The 20th century was an age of cities that led to a dark if not self-destructive art and culture, and a quite insidiously unhealthy alliance between art, urbanism and commercial interests. Cities have gone on developing, and art and culture have been co-opted as part of the economic drive. Japan has suffered more than anywhere the drama of modernisation and massive scale urbanisation, losing touch with nature, with community, and with ancient aesthetic sense, as its population has packed into cities and foregone its rural roots. Art, says Kitagawa, should not be a an index of this modern development, or a monument to consumerism, but rather be used to measure and appreciate what has been lost. “The contemporary age puts the highest value on approaching information in the shortest way – the most rapid way. I want art to be contrary to that, to be slow. Contrary to the idea that art that should sit on top of consumerism, I want to revive art in a different way. The original purpose of art is, I think, to help us measure the distance between humans and the nature or civilisation they have left behind. I think it might be possible to see this if art can be done in the severest of places.”

Hence, art comes to “satoyama”, the village and the mountainside. Echigo-Tsumari is bigger than the 23 wards of Tokyo put together, yet it is nevertheless a decimated part of Japan, with now fewer than 75,000 residents. Despite its thrilling landscape – including terraced paddy fields, and ancient innovations in landscape and water management – its agricultural base has been abandoned, and many of its town and inhabitations laid to waste. Export industries were once imposed over self-sustaining traditional agriculture, but now the industry has gone, the youth have left, societal links have broken, and the population is chronically ageing. Echigo-Tsumari was instigated as a pause in this decline; both a spur for tourism and reinvestment, but also a means to bring artists in connection with fragmented communities, and communities in connection with art and creativity. The art works are thus scattered “inefficiently” around the landscape, in villages, fields, mountains and forests; there is an emphasis on non-commercial avant garde artists, as well as a commitment to internationalism; the whole is dedicated to conservation, rediscovering the landscape, and (perhaps) an inner calm related to something harmonious that was once lost.

Behind this vision, that Kitagawa has developed during a 40 year career promoting and financing art and architecture in collaboration with cities, corporations and regions, there are clear targets. One is the alternate philosophy espoused by Minoru Mori for whom art lies at the centre of his reinvention through building of the metropolis, the attendant transformation (for this read: wiping out ) of popular neighbourhoods and their decadent social problems, and the re-education of urban populations through exposure to high art and culture in sublime locations. For Kitagawa, this is tantamount to saying that Art has replaced God. A museum on the 52nd floor becomes “a Parthenon for the contemporary world”, as he puts it; art here is always a commercial accessory to urban living, and ever more urban development plans. Behind this, is a longer standing target that goes back to his student days at GEIDAI studying Buddhist art. “When I started my career and decided to be committed to art, I thought I should destroy the Japanese art system and its hierarchy. But to do this, you would have to destroy the system it followed – the American art market – because the Japanese system is just a local variant of that”.

The two in tandem led to the disastrous bubble market of the 1980s, when Japan was living in an illusory “air pocket” between East and West, that has left it exposed and bereft once the Cold War ended. It now can do little more than follow global trends, while failing to address the negative consequences of its own over-development in the past. Slow art, contrary art, placed in paddy fields or a battered, empty building, can revive art, but also perhaps revive a society unable to think itself back out of the urban/development mould—largely, Kitagawa argues, because Japan otherwise lacks the kind of rich civil society that would be needed to rebuild community and heal the damage development has done.

Echigo-Tsumari this year seems to be putting more emphasis on renewal and renovation in it choice of art and locations. Images I have seen of previous Triennials have been less than appetising in the apparent encouragement of some of the usual big (and toxic) plastic installations, familiar from the global art world everywhere, dotting the countryside. The commercial market also is not left out of the party. Many of the major Tokyo galleries seem to be represented and present. The dance with corporate interests also goes on, played out with now with the full partnership of Benesse corporation’s director, Soichiro Fukutake, a major benefactor of the project and someone with his own philosophy of renewal, and ways of squaring development and conservation. If Naoshima is the model, I imagine Echigo-Tsumari might inspire the same mixed feelings I had on that unreal art island, indeed the same feeling I get with many of the most benevolent museum and art developments in Japan: that there is something unholy about the way top down top down money and political power always get mixed with such exquisite aesthetic sensibilities. In Naoshima you could see how the project had transformed for the better some of the most ravaged, industry spoiled parts of the inner sea, and certainly delight in how art and architecture had been brought to decaying villages by the likes of Tatsuo Miyajima and Hiroshi Sugimoto. But at the same time, when you ventured up to the museums, you still had the feeling you were visiting the headquarters of Blofeld’s SMERSH (the baddies in James Bond movies).

The question in Echigo-Tsumari will be: How much of the vision is imposed and how much organic? Large amounts of contemporary art I can think of will have little to say to the good folk of Niigata – who might still prefer American baseball, pachinko parlours, or Macdonalds to the culture that is being laid on for them. Kitagawa speaks of the largely resistant local powers to many of his initiatives, and the long process of winning people over. The logistics as well as the financing involved is daunting: a budget of 900 million yen, over half of which must come from paying visitors. (A little maths can tell you that this means he needs between 150,000 and 200,000 paying entrants – at 3500 Yen a pop – to break even.) That’s a lot of city folk trampling over the countryside. Hard to believe it could all be coordinated from this small, overflowing office or be the vision of one man. It is certainly a grand, spectacular, breathtaking vision. I just wonder whether there is time time or space for small, quiet things or tiny gestures in this drama. But I guess public art will always be a macho business in Japan.

ETAT flaunts its international connections and roster of artists, as well as the universality of its message. I don’t know how much the message gets out, or indeed how international the public is that visits. Not so much I suspect, but it is a key concern for Kitagawa as he thinks of his legacy. He has certainly tried to take the message out on the road – to Europe, China, some day to America – but its not clear that audiences are responding. The creative city ideology, which has hooked art to big business corporate development in either the Mori development mould or to inner city renewal (as has been tried in Yokohama), is an inherently city-centred, heavily urbanised vision of the future. American cities are still, relatively speaking, quite disastrous places in terms of conservation and the dominance of city life over nature and rural alternatives; they will remain so, it seems, as long as there are fresh fields and deserts to build new housing tracks on, and still more oil to put in the tank. China may need the message even more, when it starts to sober up from the frenzy of over-development of the past two decades. Relative to this, given its rather shocking urban/rural divide, and the urgency of the problem it now faces in managing its decline and the social divisions it heralds, Japan today is in fact everyone’s future tomorrow. But it’s a grim prospect, a million miles from the vision Japan gave to the world at the Osaka expo in 1971, and which continues to be given to tourists in Roppongi Hills on a clear night in neo-Tokyo. In these matters, Kitagawa is surely right. We should not be erecting yet more monuments to art and money in unsustainable urban agglomerations, but considering what we are doing with this fragile planet as it spins on silently through the empty void. It’s certainly about time someone heard that message.







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