Echigo-Tsumari and Setouchi triennials: Building communities in a time of upheaval

This article was originally published in the Japan Times newspaper on April 15 2022.

In a time of interlinked global emergencies, from climate change and the pandemic to wars and resource insecurity, the arts play an important role in providing spaces for people to reflect on these crises and envision alternative futures.

However, do large-scale in-person art events still have a place in our modern reality, considering that the question of sustainable living is at the forefront of public discourse and many modes of artistic expression and communication have gone online during the pandemic?

This question is central to two contemporary art triennials taking place in Japan this year. One is Echigo-Tsumari Art Field (ETAT), which runs from April 29 to Nov. 13 and is spread across six areas in southern Niigata Prefecture. The other is the Setouchi Triennale, whose spring edition will wrap on May 18, after which its summer and fall editions will take place Aug. 5 to Sept. 4 and Sept. 29 to Nov. 6, respectively. Artworks will be displayed throughout 12 islands in the Seto Inland Sea in southeast Japan.

Although distant in terms of geography, climate and regional cultures, the two events share common ground in their aims and outcomes. Both propose to rethink the relationship between humans and the natural world; both are part of local and regional government initiatives to “revitalize” the depopulated and aging rural communities in which the festivals take place; both promote site-specific art with a clear emphasis on collaboration between artists, residents, volunteer staff, visitors and environment; and both are led by veteran art director Fram Kitagawa and his Tokyo-based company Art Front Gallery.

Kitagawa is very clear about the purpose of holding in-person festivals. The key for him is community.

“First and foremost, it is crucial to maintain platforms for artists to create and showcase their work because that is never a given,” he says, adding that another important aspect of site-specific art festivals is the network of individuals involved in holding the event and the communication their cooperation entails. “By nurturing that communication and those communities, the festivals take on a life and synergy of their own, which can lead to other benefits, such as ecological awareness, economic stimulus, job opportunities, an influx of new residents and so on.”

Both triennials were not easy to establish. There was a noted lack of support from local residents for ETAT’s inaugural edition in 2000, but as its structure and goals became clearer over time — particularly its emphasis on collaboration between artists and locals through dialogue and workshops and having the community take ownership of the art and the festival — the event began to take root.

Encouraging visitors to interact with local people and their cultures while also allowing local people to rediscover their own cultures and traditions plays an important role in both triennials.

“One of the main reactions we get from visitor feedback is the pleasure of talking to local people, eating local food or sometimes attending local festivals,” Kitagawa says. “For many visitors, encountering different lifestyles is very important.”

He notes, though, that the pandemic brought a sense of unease within these communities. In the case of ETAT, which was supposed to take place in 2021 but was postponed for a year, local residents were against having visitors from the cities at first. “It was a pity because people around Tsumari were so influenced by TV images of the effects of coronavirus in big cities that they could only say no to outsiders,” he says.

Attitudes toward visitors have since changed and both events are now able to welcome domestic tourists, due to the Japanese government lifting the country’s COVID-19 emergency status and organizers putting strict safety protocols in place. However, at the time of writing, overseas tourists are still not allowed to enter Japan, leaving the international aspect of the triennials on hold.

Nevertheless, each festival still promises a unique experience. At ETAT, many of the artworks appear outdoors as installations in the satoyama landscapes seen throughout Niigata Prefecture. Satoyama are agricultural sites in Japan that lie between mountain foothills and flat arable land, and have been developed over centuries of small-scale farming and forestry practices.

Among the highlights at this year’s ETAT are nine different works by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, two artists from the then Ukrainian SSR who live and work in the United States. “The Rice Field” (2000), which mixes visual poetry and agricultural tradition, and “The Arch of Life” (2015), which reflects on human existence, were created for previous editions of ETAT and are part of the festival’s permanent collection.

From the Kabakovs’ seven other pieces, the “The Monument of Tolerance” (2021) and “The Ship of Tolerance” (2021) resonate with the current geopolitical context. The former work takes the form of a cylindrical concrete tower inlaid with glass panels. On top of this plinth is a sculpture whose form symbolizes human connections that go beyond ethnic, religious or cultural divisions. The sculpture changes color depending on the current negative or positive state of global affairs.

The latter piece is a model ship with sails made in a patchwork of hundreds of drawings submitted by children worldwide. Like the tower, its message is one of tolerance and hope. It is also an educational project that invites young participants to learn about different cultures.

For the Setouchi Triennale, visitors can hop from island to island, taking in the windswept landscapes, pristine beaches, maze-like villages and deep blue hues of the surrounding waters.

The triennale began in 2010, and for this fifth edition continues to explore the original vision of “exploring the Setouchi region through art while bringing joy and energy to the islanders.”

One of the unanticipated outcomes of the art festival is that two of the participating islands, Ogi and Shodo, have had an influx of new residents that now exceeds the rate of depopulation, showing that the community-building aspect of the event has started to bear fruit. There are multiple reasons for this, including outreach programs that run throughout the festival to engage participants of all generations, partnerships with local and mainland businesses, and the desire for a more self-sufficient and carbon neutral lifestyle.

As such, Kitagawa is convinced that making the local community and natural environment a focal point of the two triennials is essential to both the survival of in-person art events and fostering human interaction.

“The places that matter are the ones that are deeply connected to land, climate, fauna and flora, ritual cultures, agriculture, food and so on,” he says. “By focusing on site-specificity, art becomes universal.”

Echigo-Tsumari Art Field runs from April 29 to Nov. 13. For more information, visit The Setouchi Triennale 2022 is split into three seasons: spring (April 4-May 18), summer (Aug. 5-Sept. 4) and fall (Sept. 29-Nov. 6). For more information, visit and Setouchi triennials: Building communities in a time of upheaval

Cover photo: Artwork SD44 by Wang Wen Chih. Photo by antjeverena, creative commons license.

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