AAS Annual Meeting

Japan Session 323

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Session 323: Post-Bubble Aesthetics in Japan: Counter-Urbanist and Slow Life Philosophies in Japanese Contemporary Art and Architecture

Organizer and Chair: Adrian C. Favell, Sciences Po, France

Discussant: Thomas C. Daniell, Kyoto Seika University, Japan

The global era of the last two decades saw arts in Asia dominated by ideas of culture and development in fast urbanising global cities, with assumptions of consistent economic growth and convergence with the West. Yet in post 1990s Japan, and even more so in the post Lehman epoch, an alternative and contrary set of aesthetics in the creative fields of contemporary art and architecture has emerged. Our panel invites an interdisciplinary grouping of scholars and practitioners – working between social science and the arts – to question the notions of “sustainable” art and architecture, variously seen in a return to craft and tradition as part of regional and urban revitalisation initiatives, and ideas of the “slow life” and rural “origins” in festivals bringing the best of contemporary art and architecture to the countryside. Some of these ideas resonate well with soft globalist ecology around the planet, as well as notions of critical regionalism, but there is also a distinct undercurrent of inward-turning nationalism, or exceptionalism in Japanese regional traditions, that point potentially towards a new era of “sakoku” in the depressed post-90s Japan. With the global growth model now fixated on China and elsewhere in Asia, it might be thought Japan has become a cultural backwater. Yet these new (or revived) aesthetic sensibilities, and the concurrent exploration of creative possibilities under economic and environmental constraint, may prove interesting future guides for similarly positioned western countries facing their own regional and urban decline. Format is short presentations, comments and an open debate.

Rise of the Northern River: Art and Regional Urban Development in the Festival Curatorship of Fram Kitagawa
Adrian C. Favell, Sciences Po, France

While contemporary art in Japan has been driven, as elsewhere, by global financial currents linking high culture with upscale urban development – seen most obviously in the temple of Mori Museum atop Roppingi Hills in central Tokyo – the 2000s has also seen the rise of an alternative vision in the rural Echigo Tsumari “Big Field” triennial, the brainchild of promoter and developer Fram Kitagawa. He is also Art Director of the Setouchi Festival. Kitagawa is a man of the world of finance, a Buddhist scholar who made his career brokering corporate public art monuments during Japan’s bubble years. Yet, on a mission to transform the Japanese art world, Echigo Tsumari puts into action a philosophy offering a cogent response to Japan’s rural decline and post-bubble malaise, bringing art, artists and alienated urban intellectual populations back to some of the most stunning landscapes of Northern Japan (Kitagawa’s home region of Niigata). There, they experience art installations in the severest of locations, abandoned houses and school buildings renovated by community art projects, and rediscover the disappearing virtues and qualities of a disappearing “old” Japan. Drawing on interviews, participant observation and documentary work, I consider the paradoxes of this soft globalist vision, that offers genuine rural revitalisation, and a sensibility far from the gaudy commercial art of the global art market, but which nevertheless converges with a questionable backwards and inwards turning of the Japanese nation. There is also the rather less savoury business of politics, finance and logistics that lies behind Echigo’s rise.

The Possibilities of an Island: Rebuilding Culture in the Inland Sea
Julian D. Worrall, University of Adelaide, Australia

The Setouchi Art Festival 2010 is the latest initiative in a two-decade-long experiment in regional development and cultural patronage under the direction of publishing magnate Soichiro Fukutake. Incubated on the island of Naoshima (pop. 3500) in Japan’s Inland Sea and now extending to neighboring islands, Fukutake has engaged contemporary artists, architects, and curators of global stature to build museums and visitor facilities, install site-specific artworks amongst existing buildings and landscapes, and program cultural events and festivals. These initiatives have transformed the island’s economy, attracting over 400,000 visitors annually, a fifth of whom are foreigners. Fukutake’s endeavor presents an exemplary case of privately-funded culture-led regional revitalisation in post-bubble Japan. Explicitly place-based and culture-oriented, devoted to the rural communities and landscapes it supports, it nonetheless depends on globally mobile cultural producers and consumers. While offering a model of conscientious development emphasizing depth and authenticity, it also poses questions about the relations between local traditions and metropolitan cultures, existing landscapes and new interventions, and bottom-up to top-down approaches in the rebuilding of sustainable local communities – questions with social, political, and artistic relevance. This paper examines these questions through the lens of architecture. The work of Tadao Ando, Hiroshi Sambuichi, and SANAA has been central to Fukutake’s project, providing at once destination, frame, model, and method. By exploring how contemporary Japanese architecture has been involved in the redefinition of place, this paper considers the possibilities of an island held to be in decline.

Unpacking a “post-digital” sensibility in recent Japanese art
Olivier Krischer, Australian National University, Australia

From at least the 1970 Osaka world expo, Japan has promoted itself domestically and internationally as a leader in technological development, seamlessly integrating electronic and now digital convenience into the heart of society. Constant innovation and accessory has rendered cycles of “new” media normal rather than novel, as ubiquitous gadgetry punctuates the interface of most social and economic interactions in urban Japanese life. Everyday life has become inescapably convenient.This paper considers the work of several artists whose practice has formed through the 1990s to the present, employing do-it-yourself, hand-crafted approaches to art making that disrupt the seamless spectacle of kitsch, circa Murakami. Displaying sometimes obsessive attention to materials, these recent works tend to be visibly time-consuming, aiming at visual stimulation, visceral and immersive rather than overtly concept-driven. However, beyond decorative craft aesthetics, similar hand-made or back-to-basics approaches are appearing in media once considered “new”—such as video, computer electronics and interactive hard/soft-wares—compelling us to broaden our understanding of the scope of such trends. Do such artworks reflect a nostalgic, essentialist “return” to an allegedly pre- or non-Western Japanese aesthetics that is decorative and craft-orientated, as supportive local institutions and critics wish to claim? Or, do such approaches express a critical distance from digital technologies at the level of artistic expression, beyond medium; a “post digital” perspective, not Luddite but self-reflexive, that resonates with broader critical approaches to the future of urban society worldwide?

The Spirit of Place: An Artist’s Perspective on New Exhibition Formats in Japan
James Jack, University of Hawaii, Manoa, USA

This presentation will present a first-hand perspective on regional art exhibition formats based on the artists’ experiences while participating in recent Japanese art festivals. Drawing upon examples from the Echigo-Tsumari Triennial (2000-Present), Ueno Town art Museum (2007-2010), and Setouchi International Art Festival (2010) Jack will present the social and historical context for the art projects that he realized in each locale. The movement of artists and viewers from urban centers into the countryside during these exhibitions could be seen as a revitalization of social landscapes plagued with the reality of declining birth rates and widespread urban migration. This presentation will discuss projects by Jack, beginning with a discussion of the work, Mini-Landscape for Senda (2009), a permanent installation work created in Niigata utilizing local soil samples. Next the exhibition Sustainable Art that was held in decrepit neighborhoods around Tokyo’s Taito-ku will be analyzed for its approach literally, “turning the streets into a museum” by transforming unused school buildings, abandoned storefronts, and empty houses as exhibition sites. Finally the site-specific work created on Shōdo Island in the Setouchi Inland Sea, Language As the House of Being (2010), will show the renewal of a historic fishing structure utilizing local materials in collaboration with members of the local community.