Kyoto Experiment Marks the End of an Era

This article was published in the Japan Times on 24th of September 2019.

The 10th edition of the Kyoto Experiment (KEX) performing arts festival, will take place at multiple venues across the city throughout October, marking the end of a decade-long labor of love for Yusuke Hashimoto, who will step down from his role as program director for the festival and pass the baton on to three new co-directors.

“When we first started to plan for the festival, I thought we’d do it for five years at most. I couldn’t think beyond that,” Hashimoto says, adding that the first year was particularly challenging. “It was a financial disaster and we even thought about stopping it.”

But, rather than write it off as a failure, Hashimoto saw it as “a wakeup call” and quickly got to work on restructuring the festival.

Based at the Kyoto Art Center, a former primary school turned community arts hub, Hashimoto worked around the festival’s small budget by placing greater emphasis on the human resources and facilities of partner venues in Kyoto, including the Kyoto Performing Arts Center at Kyoto University of Art and Design.

In parallel with the internal changes of the festival, Hashimoto’s curatorial vision also changed in relation to major national geo-political events such as the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster and Japan’s successful bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, and also to international trends such as the rise of eco-political awareness to climate change, the global migrant crisis and the spread of right-wing populism.

On an artistic level, Hashimoto’s challenge was finding a way to produce radical performance works with both local and overseas artists on an ongoing collaborative basis, while at the same time catering to the local Kyoto community and fulfilling the criteria of the festival’s various funding bodies, including Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs.

Against a backdrop of rapid change, Hashimoto’s problem was how to maintain the “experimental” core of Kyoto Experiment without burning bridges with the festival’s supporters. One of the key aspects that differentiates KEX from other performing arts festivals is the emphasis on long-term relationships with featured artists. The difficulty with this model, Hashimoto says, is that funding bodies always want something new. For KEX however, longevity in artistic relationships was precisely part of the experiment.

Hashimoto is not afraid to address controversial topics, such as last year’s focus on female artists whose work deals with questions of sexuality and gender. Challenging political issues can come at a high price in Japan as the recent withdrawal of the exhibition “After Freedom of Expression?” including the statues of Korean comfort women at the Aichi Triennale festival in the city of Nagoya demonstrated. The triennale festival organizers received threats and decided to close the exhibit.

So far KEX has not faced this kind of backlash. Hashimoto says this is because Kyoto is much smaller than Tokyo and Aichi is much bigger in terms of budget, so KEX’s smaller footprint is more manageable.

“In Kyoto, when you do something, you can see people, meet people, even though it’s open to the world, it’s more localized,” he says.

The theme for this year’s Kyoto Experiment — “Echos-monde: The Age of Ecology” — cuts across the fault line of current socio-political concerns through a main lineup of 11 works by pioneering artists from different non-Western contexts.

The term “Echos-monde” is a reference to the work of Edouard Glissant (1928-2011), a celebrated poet and philosopher from Martinique who saw culture as a fundamentally relational, plural, non-hierarchical, but chaotic practice. Glissant’s relational worldview approaches the world across boundaries and challenges the legacy of Western imperialism and its historical negation of cultural difference.

Borrowing from his view on “echos-monde,” or the resonance between elements in the world, this year’s Kyoto Festival questions the role of the human within ecology, searching for ideas beyond the traditional nature-culture binary, and doing so through non-Western cultural discourses.

Among the artists in this edition of KEX is Moroccan choreographer Bouchra Ouizguen, who established her career in France but decided to return to Morocco and create her own theater company. Ouizguen will present a dance piece called “Corbeaux” (“Crows”), in which a group of women dressed in black with white headscarves will swirl, trance-like, around the ancient grounds of Nijo Castle and the Heian Shrine bringing Moroccan tradition to contemporary Kyoto.

From South Africa, William Kentridge will present an adaptation of Franz Shubert’s song cycle, “Winterreise” (“Winter Journey”), using an animated film that explores the history of black laborers during Apartheid. Choreographer Nelisiwe Xaba will showcase “Bang Bang Wo / Plasticization,” a lecture performance on the human relationship with plastic.

Meanwhile, the Iranian cinematographer turned playwright, Amir Reza Koohestani, in collaboration with the Mehr Theatre Group, offers “Hearing,” a play about a group of girls who interrogate a fellow student suspected of bringing a man into their dormitory. The production uses surveillance cameras to relay events as they unfold on and off stage.

Berlin-based Singaporean artist, Choy Ka Fai, returns to KEX for the third time with a new work called “Unbearable Darkness.” Using computers, he brings the spirit of legendary butoh dancer Tastumi Hijikata (1928-1986) back to the stage through a mix of spiritual invocation and a computer generated avatar to perform a dance of darkness.

The Korean artist, Siren Eun Young Jung will present “Anomalous Fantasy,” a piece that follows a woman in her 30s who decides to become a performer of male roles in the increasingly rare art of Yeoseong Gukgeuk.

Bringing proceedings closer to home, KEX will showcase four productions by Japanese artists, including “Eraser Mountain” by Toshiki Okada’s Chelfitsch in collaboration with Teppei Kaneuji. The piece tells the story of the problematic land reconstruction in the city of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, following 2011’s Great East Japan Earthquake.

Another long-term KEX participant is Kuro Tanino, who, with his company Niwa Gekidan Penino, will present “Octopus Monks: Ritual of Forgetting.” The play painstakingly recreates a Buddhist temple in which the audience encounters an alien octopus accompanied by chants and music that lulls them into a trance-like state.

Finally, Tsuyoshi Hisakado’s “Practice of Spiral” is an immersive sound installation that shows the social power structures at play in our attempt to maintain balance in a world increasingly out of sync with its environment

This edition of KEX is set to send Yusuke Hashimoto out with a bang and is both a critical meditation on the ecological problems of our time and a celebration of Hashimoto’s formidable contribution to the performing arts in Kyoto, Japan and beyond.

His successors have got a lot to live up to.

Cover photo: A scene from Bouchra Ouizguen’s “Corbeaux” to be staged at Kyoto Experiment. | © HASNAE EL OUARGA_COMPAGNIE O

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