In the last decade, local art festivals have become very popular in Japan. Often held in open spaces, the real appeal of such festival lies in the gathering and interaction of people. For this reason, in 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, some were cancelled or postponed; in 2021, some were finally held after infection control measures were put in place.
In this piece of writing, the author, who covers art festivals quite frequently, presents a chronological list of the 11 art festivals that left a particularly strong impression in FY2021, from August 2021 to March 2022, with overviews of events and notes on a few works. Overall, in addition to their regional characteristics, many of the works bear social relevance to the world facing the COVID-19 pandemic and the issues arising from it. In addition, the audiences seemed more sensitive to the artworks, which reminded us of the importance of such art experiences in times of crisis. In the final part of this article, I will pick up major art festivals in 2022.
Reborn-Art Festival 2021-22 (first term)
A comprehensive arts festival of “art,” “music,” and “food” that began in 2017 in Ishinomaki City, Miyagi Prefecture, one of the areas most severely affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake, and is now in its third edition. This time, 10 years after the earthquake, the festival is divided into first and second term in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the first semester running from August 11 to September 26, 2021. In addition to the downtown Ishinomaki area and the Oshika Peninsula, artworks were exhibited for the first time in the vicinity of Onagawa Station in the neighboring town.
The theme set by Takeshi Kobayashi, chairman of the executive committee, was “altruism and fluidity.” With Kenji Kubota as a curator, the festival aimed to create a space in which people could share their imagination for others and the world to come. Twenty-three artists, including MES, HouxoQue, Makoto Aida, Yoko Ono, Tsubasa Kato, Lieko Shiga + Yusuke Kurihara + Takahiro Sato + Sotaro Kikuchi, developed works reflecting regional characteristics and the movement of the age. Since I was rocked by the first edition of the festival in 2017, I myself have been involved in this festival, but even without my preconception, this was the best art festival of 2021.
MES refers to the process of “reconstruction” that Ishinomaki has gone through and of the development of Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, which were billed as the “Olympic Games of Recovery.” In the public bathhouses that have been a source of comfort for people since the earthquake, scaffolding was put up over the partition walls, and various kind of sighs echoed.
HouxoQue’s work was installed at the former Senninburo, a popular community space constructed after the earthquake. The water, which is said to be non-polluting, flowed down from the glowing monitor, reflected the viewer’s image, slipped through the debris of the forgotten abandoned building, and circulated like hydrogic cycle of the earth.
Rieko Shiga, who has been interacting with hunter Nozomu Onodera since 2019, developed an installation that could be considered land art with Yusuke Kurihara, Takahiro Sato, and Sotaro Kikuchi. They dug trenches to aerate the marshy land and used the excavated soil for fields. The work also reminded me of the presence of the Onagawa nuclear power plant.
NorthernAlps Art Festival 2020-2021
The second edition of Northern Alps Art Festival was held in in Omachi City, Nagano Prefecture, respectively setting the period for visual art from October 2 to November 21, 2021. The first edition of the festival was held in 2017, and the second, scheduled for 2020, was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the concept of “Water, Tree, Earth, Sky: The land as atmosphere, transparency, and mass” presented by General director Fram Kitagawa, 36 artists participated in it.
In this work by Nagano-based artist Atsuko Mochida, two former teacher’s residences are cut off and overlapped each other. This land is located on the western edge of the Fossa Magna, which divides the Japanese archipelago into east and west. Artist moved and transformed these supposedly immovable houses built on the land that had been formed through repeated crustal movements.
Saudi Arabian artist Manal AlDowayan represents the path of light for deity on the stage of Sunuma Shinmeisha Shrine, where Amaterasu is enshrined. The overwhelming amount of shimenawa (sacred ropes) installed on the stage, which were made to look like trees surrounding the shrine, is reminiscent of the shimenawa spoken of in the myth of Ama-no-Iwato, and evokes resistance against darkness.
Okunoto International Art Festival 2020+
Following the first edition in 2017, the second edition, originally scheduled for the fall of 2020, was postponed to the fall of 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 53 artists expressed the history and characteristics of the region and unearthed the potential of the land of “saihate”. The executive director was Fram Kitagawa, and of the 53 artists, 47 presented new works.
Kayoko Nakashima’s “Akarui Ie” (Bright House), which was created through countless holes in a vacant house that used to be an office for a diatomaceous earth factory, lets in sunlight during the day and leaks light from the lamps at night. In a place on the edge of the sea that has gone through growths and decays, the work makes us think about hope, abundance, and human desire, which are symbolized by light.
The Suzu Theater Museum, housed in a renovated gymnasium of a former elementary school, is a theater-style folk museum that collects and exhibits housewares from local homes, and presents a performance with music and video every once in a while. Artists such as Yoshiki Nanjo, Saori Miyake, and Ayako Kuno have breathed new life into housewares in their respective works.
Rokko Meets Art 2021
Rokko overlooks the port of Kobe, which was opened to foreign trade after the Meiji Restoration, and has abundant nature. It was developed as a recreational mountain by foreign residents and was a place where new and old cultures met. As usual, Rokko was the stage for the 12th edition of this annual autumn event, which was held from September 11 to November 23, 2021, with a total of 34 works installed at 12 venues in the Rokko area and a satellite venue in the Arima Onsen area. The director/curator was Kiyotaka Takamizawa (Senior Director, Rokkosan Tourism).
At the Church of the Wind, designed by Tadao Ando, Tabaimo’s animation depicting the church as a physical body was projected on the ceiling. On the concrete ceiling, images like brains, plants, and clouds appear. This animation, exactly like the ceiling paintings in the church, produced the effect of spatial expansion.
In the former Parnassus Resting Hut, which was built 80 years ago as a golf course clubhouse, consisting of Yusuke Asai, Natsuki Takayama, Erina Matsui, and Goro Murayama, exhibited paintings and drawings worked on by them under the theme of the former Maya Kanko Hotel on Maya Mountain, also known as the “queen of abandoned buildings”. Through the paintings smeared with water dropped from leaking roof and drawings on found photographs I revolved the growth and decays of the tourist resort.
ALTERNATIVE KYOTO: imagination as a Form of “Capital”
The festival was held from September 24 to November 7, 2021 in Kyotango, Miyazu/Amanohashidate, Yosano, Fukuchiyama, Nantan, and Yawata, Kyoto Prefecture. The director is Shinya Yamaki, Culture and Arts Division, Culture and Sports Department, Kyoto Prefectural Government. The theme of the event was “The Possibility of Imaginative Art as New Form of Capital to Change the Coming Society.”
The 25 participating artists included SIDE CORE, Kenta Ishige, BIEN, Kenji Yanobe, Ryoji Ikeda, ANOTHER FARM, suplex Yamanaka, Yu Araki, Ryuichi Ishikawa, and Michihiro Shimabuku. Individual artists treated the history, climate, cultural assets, scenic spots, and nature of each area as their subject matter. Some combined local culture with cutting-edge technology to create a piece of digital art that can alter the meaning of a certain space, and others exhibited works based on their practice during artists-in-residence program.
SIDE CORE, which has been in residence program since 2018 in Kyotango, exhibited “cyclops at cape 2021” at a former textile factory. This work is the final piece in a series focusing on the lighthouse, which is now dwindling in numbers throughout Japan. Photographs of andesite rocks seen along the coastline of the Tango Peninsula were pasted on benchs placed at the venue, with drifted objects placed on it.
In Fukuchiyama, Yamanaka suplex held the exhibition “Light of My World” using the New Testament phrase “You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world” as a starting point.
Curated by Takuya Tsutsumi and others, young artists such as Asako Fujikura and Takuro Goto displayed mainly paintings and other kinds of works that face audiences squarely at a former pachinko parlor.
The theme of Yawata area, which is located adjacent to the south of Kyoto City and has some auto scrappers and waste recyclers, is based on the words “hosho” (releasing captured fish, birds, and other living creatures for the purpose of accumulating virtues) and “oukan” (to come and go). Michihiro Shimabuku created a stone garden made of rubble at Ishinomizu Hachiman Shrine.
An art fair, “Art Collaboration Kyoto,” was held at the Kyoto International Conference Center from November 5 to 7, the end of the period of this festival. Twenty-two Japanese galleries hosted the fair, and galleries based overseas were invited as guests to share booths and exhibit their works. For example, Tokyo-based gallery ANOMALY and Los Angeles-based Blum & Poe co-exhibited works by Chim↑Pom, Ishu Han, and others that raise social issues, while TARO NASU from Tokyo and Berlin-based Esther Schipper exhibit conceptual works by Ryan Gander, Simon Fujiwara, and others.
OKUYAMATO MIND TRAIL: Museum in your mind
The event was held from October 9 to November 28, 2021, in Yoshino Town, Tenkawa Village, and Soni Village, Nara Prefecture. The first edition was organized during the pandemic in 2020, this second edition again had a theme for each of the three areas: forest (Yoshino), water (Tenkawa), and earth (Soni). Visitors walked around each area for 3 to 5 hours to view works by a total of 26 artists.
The producer is Seiichi Saito (President of Abstract Engine Co., Ltd.). The Yoshino area was curated by Yoshinari Nishio (artist/associate professor at Nara Prefectural University), the Tenkawa area by Hiroko Kikuchi (artist), and the Soni area by Kiyoshi Nishioka (photographer/artist), with Kazumasa Sashide (chief editor of the magazine “Sotokoto”) serving as cross-area curator for the event.
A man was taken by a giant eagle and left on a precipice because of his prideful behavior. A high priest took pity on him, transformed him into a frog to save him, and then returned him to human form by reciting sutras. He portrayed the legend warning against the arrogant vividly in his lightbox.
Tenkawa is considered the birthplace of Shugendo(way of trial and practice) , and there are still areas where women are forbidden. The video artist Senzo Ueno developed an installation using water as a screen in this place where the clear stream “Amanogawa” flows. When a viewer drops a drop of water into a bowl placed in the center of the room, the surface of the water reflects the landscape beautifully.
Streaming Heritage｜Between the Plateau and the Sea (Fall Term)
The event was held on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays from November 12 to 28, 2021, in the Nagoya Castle area (Nagoya Noh Theater and Shikemichi), Nayabashi area, and Atsuta/Miyanowatashi area. The project was an attempt to shed light on the flow of the Horikawa River from Nagoya Castle to the Port of Nagoya, streaming the history and cultural heritage of Nagoya in real time. The directors were Fuminori Akiba, Eriko Esaka, Yosuke Kawamura, Kei Fushiki, and Wataru Yamada. Following the spring term, which was held from March 12 to 28, the fall term was also attended by six participants: Etsuko Ichihara, Chiharu Shinoda, softpad, Akiko Nakayama, the Formant brothers, and Kanta Horio.
Kanta Horio created a viewer-participation installation at the Niwa Family Residence, which was originally an inn from Edo period. As visitors walk along a long, narrow passageway by grabbing a hanging strap, they find a table rotating in a nearby room, and a plastic bottle rising and falling in the courtyard. The outside of the entrance retains the appearance of a fine inn, but the back side of the building looks like a Showa-era apartment building. By setting ingenious contrivances, the artist amplified the strangeness of a building that has been preserved through repeated renovations.
At the Ito Family Residence, Etsuko Ichihara exhibited a work that combines technology with the motif of invisible beings. In this work, she installed a certain program on the household robot “Pepper” to allow it to be possessed by a deceased person and to automatically extinguish it after 49 days. This time, she “possessed” the robot herself, becoming a “modern Kannon” to explore the nature of prayer in an age of pandemic.
Nakanojo Biennale 2021
The festival was held from October 15 to November 14, 2021, with its main venue in a vast satoyama area dotted with hot springs in Nakanojo Town, Gunma Prefecture. First starting in 2007, the theme of its 8th edition was “PARAPERCEPTION- From Beyond Perception”. It intended to provide an opportunity to communicate and reflect on the sensations of everyday life that have been changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The general director was Tetsuo Yamashige, and 125 artists participated in the biennale to show the artworks and performances created through residency programs.
Inspired by a dammed lake located deep in the Rokugo area that supplies electricity to the city, Takashi Hokoi installed swaying sculptures like a balancing toy inside and outside the 200-year-old former Yumoto House, respectively. The outside objects were made to move with natural wind and the inside ones with electricity, but by connecting them with threads, the artist made us feel that natural energy and man-made energy are interrelated and that human beings are kept alive in the ambiguous space between the two.
After visiting the former Hirozakari Sake Brewery, which is no longer in business, and the words “absence,” “forgetting,” and “sleep” came to his mind, Soshi Nakamura created a video installation. The image of the Greek myth of Lethe, a symbol of oblivion, was superimposed on the act of drinking sake and fused with the local ninja traditions. In doing so, he traced the taste of sake which exists only in the memories of a very few people.
ICHIHARA ART x MIX 2020+.
The third edition of the this art festival, which began in 2014, was scheduled for spring 2020, but was postponed for about 18 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fram Kitagawa and Ryo Toyofuku served as general director and art director, respectively. Sixty-eight artists participated under the theme of “Peeking into the World from the Satoyama of Boso.”
Tatsu Nishino opened a hotel at Kamiasokubo Station, which is unmanned but still functions as an active station. The waiting room on the platform was made to look like a terrace, and guest rooms were installed in the back of the station building. The public restrooms have been converted into modern Western-style toilets and hot shower rooms. When the situation is changed, the scenery of rice fields in front of the station looks different.
At a mansion in the small village of Tsukisaki, where an influential man once lived, Ayse Erkmen displayed a large number of items from inside the house along the garden pathway. Paintings, stuffed animals, and a plaque with the “Five Articles of Oath”were displayed in the garden, where various stone statues originally stood, to evoke the character of the former owner of the house.
Tamae Hirokawa in BEPPU
The festival “in BEPPU,” an art festival in the form of a solo exhibition, invites one artist each year to Beppu City, Oita Prefecture, one of Japan’s leading hot spring resorts, to develop an art project that makes use of the local characteristics of the area. 6th edition of the festival invited fashion designer Tamae Hirokawa. A series of events were held from December 18, 2021 to February 13, 2022, at various locations in Beppu City, Oita Prefecture, and online. The general producer was Junya Yamade.
Hirokawa set the theme of “Matsuri (festival)” since she saw it as something needed in this era of drastic changes in daily life and unpredictable future. Particularly impressed by gushing steam and hot springs “Jigoku(hell)” in Beppu, she created a new festival mainly in Kannawa Onsen, the area with a lot of Jigokus, by holding three rituals that trace the water veins of the hot springs from the mountains though the town to the sea.
On December 18, the first day of the exhibition, she held “Jigokumatsuri Shinji Honou”. Starting from Honou-Honome Shrine, dancers Ema Yuasa, Daisuke Omiya, the locals of Beppu, and others paraded as “marebito” in costumes designed by Hirokawa. At the final stop, the square in front of Kannawa Mushiyu, they danced in a circle with audiences and performed an earth-stomping dance. The building of the Kannawa Mushi-yu was decorated with lanterns and short split curtain made of Hirokawa’s signature “Skin Series” to ward off evil spirits, creating a different atmosphere from the usual.
A video work was shown at the sentakuba-ato, which was once used as a community laundry. Costumes were also displayed in the park. Although many Japanese traditional festivals across Japan had to be canceled or postponed due to the pandemic, the festival in Beppu, where I could directly feel the energy of the earth, and the energy of the people who gather there, provided an opportunity to reaffirm the importance of festivals.
Sense Island –Sarushima Dark Museum 2021–
The event was held in Sarushima, an uninhabited island in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, during night on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays from January 22 to March 6, 2022 (and February 10). It was started in 2019 under the concept of sensing Sarushima and its nature in the dark through the art works as a lens. The second edition, which was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, was held under the theme of “sound,” with 13 groups exhibiting their works. Seiichi Saito served as a producer.
Sarushima is a place where there are caves that show how people lived in the Yayoi period, where fortress was constructed in the late Edo period and in the Meiji period to defend the capital, and where it was used as an air defense battery in the early Showa period, and the ruins of this fortress remain on the island. Today, it is popular as an island for leisure activities, but the tour took visitors to Sarushima at night, when access to the island is usually restricted, with their cell phones sealed off.
In the 100-meter long tunnel, Yuko Mohri presented a sound installation. Sspeakers placed at both ends of the tunnel emit disparate sounds, and as one moves forward, the indistinct sound becomes clear and at some point one hears “I canʼt hear you very well.” The words of the title are taken from a phrase repeated by Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki when he was on a TV program and tried to do international phone call, which was unsuccessful. D.T.Suzuki was a person who was at times pacifist and at other times approving of war, and whose attitude towards peace wavered. The artwork made me thought about that wavering on an island created for national defense.
At the site of a former circular turret, Miyu Hosoi has created a theater that brings out the viewer’s inner self. Bending down to enter an ammunition box with sound-absorbing panels, what my hearing was restricted and my field of vision was cut into squares. After a while, I was reminded of the solitary, stay-home life during the COVID-19 pandemic, and when I got out from it, I was relieved to hear human voices and the sounds of trees.
Major Art Festivals in 2022
The Setouchi Triennale and the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale, two of Japan’s major regional art festivals, have never been held in the same year, but due to the pandemic, the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale was postponed and both will be held in the same year. Aichi 2022, the predecessor of the relatively urban-type art festival Aichi Triennale, is also expected to be worth seeing in terms of both quality and quantity. Special events may be held at art-related facilities in the areas where the festival is held, so be sure to check the timing of events and plan your visit accordingly.