World’s largest outdoor arts festival in Japan gets a Hong Kong House to help city artists connect with nature

The triennial festival founded in Japan's rural Niigata region has become a showcase for how to revive ageing, rural communities and foster tourism, and this year's edition has more participants from Hong Kong than any other place outside Japan

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 August, 2018, 9:46am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 August, 2018, 1:43pm

It may not have the Venice Biennale’s sense of occasion or the gravitas of Germany’s Documenta art exhibitions, yet the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale, held deep in the mountains of a Japanese rice-growing area, has built quite a following in Hong Kong since 2006. This was when the city’s first batch of student volunteers took part in the then six-year-old event designed to rejuvenate rural communities through public art.

This year, the seventh edition of what has become the world’s biggest international outdoor art festival, there are more participants from Hong Kong than anywhere else outside Japan.

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This is in no small part down to the establishment of a permanent “Hong Kong House” in the small town of Tsunan (population 10,000), part of a cluster of six districts spread across 760 square kilometres (293 square miles) in Niigata prefecture that is home to the singular, multidisciplinary festival founded by Niigata native Fram Kitagawa in 2000.

Kitagawa, who also dreamed up the Setouchi Triennale on 12 islands in western Japan, is considered a pioneer in the use of art to promote tourism and revitalise depopulated, ageing communities. He is interested in art that connects urban residents with the natural world and local histories. Hence the name Echigo-Tsumari, which refers to two historic names for the area rather than places on today’s map.

The opening weekend of the festival coincided with the other noted cultural event in the area – the Fuji Rock Festival, headlined by Bob Dylan this year – so the dry weather was welcome.

Hundreds gathered on the lawn outside the Kamigo Clove Theatre in Tsunan on July 29 to join Hong Kong performance artist Kwok Mang-ho (better-known as Frog King) in a parade to mark the opening of Hong Kong House.

The king of “happenings” drew dozens of people into a noisy procession, and guests were buzzed on shots of sake and liquidised local carrots, while a restaurant owner looked on from her front door in amusement.

Michelle Li Mei-sheung, director of the Hong Kong government’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD), explains why its Art Promotion Office decided to build the house.

“We want ‘Hong Kong House’ to serve as a sustainable platform for Hong Kong talents and for their dialogue with Japan and the world, and to connect our artists to Mother Nature,” she says.

The bijou wooden structure was designed by a team from LAAB collective (Hong Kong architects who can pack a lot into small spaces). LAAB founder Yip Chun-hang points to subtle hints of its “Hongkongness”: an old-fashioned metal Chinese letter box, and the concertina security grille discreetly perforated with the name of the house.

We want ‘Hong Kong House’ to serve as a sustainable platform for Hong Kong talents and for their dialogue with Japan and the world
Michelle Li, director of Hong Kong’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department

“Our main approach was to blend in with the neighbourhood rather than make some loud pronouncement about us coming from somewhere else,” he says.

That is the guiding principle for all artists involved in the festival, who are asked to respond specifically to the local context. Some outstanding examples from previous editions have been kept as permanent tourist attractions. Crucially, they enhance the identity of the area rather than rely on the fame of the artists.

In 2000, American artist James Turrell built what he described as a “meditation house”, merging his magical light installations and traditional Japanese architecture. This glowing House of Light has since been operated as a guest house and a must-see for visitors to the area.

In 2006, French artists Christian Boltanski and Jean Kalman transformed a disused school into a macabre theatre of light and sound that filled the empty space with an almost palpable presence of souls from the past.

This year, it reopened with a new section, and perhaps a new ghost, which mischievously left a message for a Hong Kong tour group during the opening weekend. As visitors filed into a pitch black, former music room, a light flashed on briefly to illuminate a Chinese message scrawled on the blackboard: “Hong Kong independence” and, paraphrasing Mao Zedong, “to rebel is justified”.

One of many highlights among the newly commissioned pieces this year is MAD Architects’ embellishment of the 750-metre-long (2,460-feet-long) Kiyotsu Gorge tunnel – a dark passage built in 1996 for tourists to reach viewpoints along the gorge without being hit by falling rocks. At the end of the tunnel, Ma Yansong and his team from Beijing installed a shallow pool surrounded by reflective metal that dramatically enhances the spectacular view. The toilets with a view, encased with two-way mirrors, simply have to be experienced.

Over at Hong Kong House, visitors are piling in to see the first of a three-year line-up of exhibitions, artist residencies, performances and workshops that the LCSD is sponsoring in collaboration with the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (it is committed to supporting the project for three more years after 2020).

Tsunan Museum of the Lost, by husband and wife team Leung Chi-wo and Sara Wong, is the latest chapter of their long-running “Museum of the Lost” project and is based on stories gleaned from Tsunan villagers’ old photo albums.

The duo first visited Tsunan in the middle of the area’s notoriously bitter winter, when the snow build-up brought such a sense of profound isolation it led Nobel Prize in Literature winner Yasunari Kawabata to write his Snow Country in the 1930s.

Speaking to the villagers, the two pieced together a history of the place and made portraits of themselves dressed and posing as some of the anonymous, unidentifiable side characters who had looked away from the camera in the original photographs.

“We do not talk about the grand historical narratives. We dig down to the personal and discover a more nuanced history,” Wong says.

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The exhibition is accompanied by projects from soundpocket, Fleurs des Lettres, the Art Appraisal Club and Hong Kong Open Printshop. Next year, artist Annie Wan Lai-kuen will take over the residency and in 2020, a group of three artists calling themselves L sub (Pak Sheung-chuen, Wendy Wo Man-yee and Yim Sui-fong) will be passed the baton.

The 2018 edition features many other Hong Kong artists. Kingsley Ng has brought his Twenty five Minutes Older (2016) to the festival, installing it on a bus instead of the Hong Kong trams that he first used as roving camera obscuras.

St. James’ Creation, which runs art classes for people with disabilities, has sent its artists and more than 1,000 of their ceramic creations. Meanwhile, Hong Kong young farmers and their apprentices are still toiling on land that they first leased in 2015 and dozens of volunteers are here as “Kohebis”, festival volunteers who scrub floors, help artists with installations and be a general dogsbody, albeit in a beautiful, rural setting.

We do not talk about the grand historical narratives. We dig down to the personal and discover a more nuanced history
Sara Wong on her long-running ‘Museum of the Lost’ project

Alexander Hui, the head of liberal arts studies at the Academy for Performing Arts, who first took student volunteers to the triennale in 2006, believes there are broad lessons to be learned from what he calls the Japanese model of art festivals. He even teaches a course specific to that at the academy.

“The Japan model is extremely important because they are dealing with issues that Hong Kong and mainland China will have to go through: an ageing population, a disconnect between farming communities and urban areas, and so on. Also, Mr Kitagawa has managed to retain a distinct Japanese identity in his festivals despite importing artists from the rest of the world,” he says.

It’s not the perfect model. An international festival thrust onto insular, rural communities would naturally tread on some local sensitivities.

Early participants from Hong Kong recall how local shopkeepers would refuse to open for business because they felt they could not deal with non-Japanese-speaking customers. One Tsunan district councillor said some locals objected to selling land to Hong Kong because of broader concerns about the growing role of Chinese investors in Japan. Better communication from the mayor’s office helped resolve those differences, he adds.

The Echigo-Tsumari model has indeed been exported elsewhere, not least Hong Kong. In March, the Art Promotion Office launched a public art project called “Hi! Hill” in the three-century-old Hakka village of Chuen Lung.

“Using art to bring about an appreciation of the connections between land, man and history is something that ‘Hi! Hill’ shares with Echigo-Tsumari,” said Lesley Lau Fung-ha, head of the office.

But it is in mainland China that the model may see broader adoption. Sun Qian, founder of Beijing’s Hanhe Culture and chief promoter of the Japanese triennale in the country, has said the Japanese model is proving useful in China, where the government announced in 2016 a plan to promote the local economy of rural areas by establishing about 1,000 so-called unique towns.

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The kind of “unique” attractions that officials are thinking about? Culture, tradition, nature. The Echigo-Tsumari model certainly sounds like a good fit for them.

Trains for Echigo Yuzawa station depart regularly from JR Tokyo Station and the journey takes about an hour and a half. From the station, a number of bus tours are operated by the festival every day until September 17, 2018. Hong Kong Express and All Nippon Airways fly from Hong Kong to Niigata via Tokyo’s Narita airport