At the Echigo-Tsumari Art Field in northern Japan, sculptures and installations find a revelatory home in the rural countryside. Charles Spreckley takes them in.

By Charles Spreckley
October 20, 2015
Tetsuya Miura

I was somewhere in the mountains of Niigata Prefecture and the light was starting to fade. I was lost, once again. Even the female voice in the car’s navigation system had become useless in telling me which way to go. But in this corner of rural Japan—home to the magnificent Echigo-Tsumari Art Field and its seven-week-long triennial festival, which I came to witness this past summer—lost is exactly where you want to be.

In fact, Echigo-Tsumari is intentionally inconvenient. The permanent collection of almost 400 works of art spans 10 zones in and around the city of Tokamachi, the location of the hub museum known as Kinare, and is spread across fields or alongside roads, outside shrines and temples, or even inside empty schools and homes. The entire site is roughly a third the size of metropolitan Tokyo. And it’s just a bullet-train-ride away from the Japanese capital.

Tetsuya Miura

But it’s completely unlike anything else in Japan. That’s because Fram Kitagawa, the Art Field’s general director since its inception in 2000, believes most art in urban settings has become just another commodity. Consumers choose artists and galleries much like they choose dresses and designers. Not in Niigata. “Cities are so homogenized and efficient that people have become exhausted, their humanity destroyed,” he told me. “But connecting with rural areas can liberate their bodies and senses. And you can measure how people relate to nature through art.”

And so it happened that, as I drove on, carefully navigating the road, which spiraled like a corkscrew through the jagged hills, there emerged four massive wood-paneled cylinders standing in a valley filled with dried mud and edged with a line of yellow poles. It was a puzzling sight. Art or industry?

It was both: Yukihisa Isobe’s A Monument of Mudslide was installed this year on a site where, in early 2011, a mountainside collapsed from an earthquake, sending a river of mud flowing over the road. Working hand in hand with engineers, the artist installed the yellow poles to mark the reach of the mudslide, while the cylinders act as a dam to prevent further slippage.

Tetsuya Miura

It’s not surprising that Japan would memorialize a mudslide. These islands have a relationship with Mother Nature that is both complex and respectful; earthquakes can destroy cities, tsunamis can devastate coasts. And it’s this dynamic, along with other themes of the difficulty of rural life, that the art here so poignantly explores.

You wouldn’t know it in the sweltering summer heat, but this is snow country. Aside from the neverending threat of natural disasters, the biggest obstacle people here face is winter, when Siberian winds bring snow night after night, month after endless month. “I can’t even get out of the house sometimes—the snow is four or five meters deep,” said one elderly lady I met. She was among a group of volunteers handing out free cups of iced barley tea to sweltering art-seekers. “You should come back and see us again then!” And they all shrieked with laughter.

But, for all its burdens, the snow soon turns to water, the water nourishes the rice, and together they make the sake for which Niigata is famous. The Rice Field, a work from 2000 by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov that depicts oversize blue and yellow farmers plowing and harvesting the Matsudai rice terraces, has become an emblem of the festival. The artists returned this year with a new work, The Arch of Life, a sculpture portraying existence from birth to death, set in the middle of a field, that touches on the struggle to survive in this rural landscape.

These days, however, young Niigatans have a choice their forebears didn’t—they can leave. The neon allure of Tokyo beckons. Depopulation is the biggest existential threat of all here. Several of the most powerful projects at the Art Field throw this fact into stark relief: some works, for example, occupy former schools. At the Soil Museum, most of the school has literally been returned to the earth.

Tetsuya Miura

But the festival looks forward, too, optimistic of what the changing of seasons can bring. Kayako Nakashima’s Golden Repair, farther northeast in the art field, makes use of a damaged family home; the cracks have been filled with lacquer mixed with gold, a technique borrowed from kintsugi, a method in Japanese pottery that honors the flaws in an object as part of its history. Normally only seen on a small scale with teacups, bowls, and vases, it was wondrous to behold with the walls and floors of an entire building. To the west, Shedding House, a project by Junichi Kurakake and students from Nihon University College of Art & Sculpture that took more than 160 days to complete, transformed an abandoned traditional 200-year-old house by notching its entire surface with feathery, grooved strokes. The wood looked as if it were quivering in the light— a textured universe at one’s fingertips.

After a while, everything began to look like art: an ancient shrine hidden in the woods; a scarecrow wearing a baseball sweater; neatly arranged shovels waiting for the snow; even the endless fields of rice, iridescent and shimmering in the evening light.

Tetsuya Miura

Boundaries among people fade, too. Local volunteers help run the exhibits, proud of the worldly happenings in their humble villages. As for the visitors, the urban art set is almost invisible, outnumbered by ordinary families and groups of friends, itinerant students, and the occasional backpacker.

Most visitors (this one included) start in a preparatory panic, creating a wish list of must-see artworks and experiences—overnights Turrell’s House of Light or in Marina Abramović’s Dream House, both created in 2000, are particularly hot tickets—and then frantically trying to work out the best route to squeeze in as much as possible before getting back to the city. But that approach is not only pointless, it also goes against the free-spirited ethos of the place. Here, art should be surprising. A better approach is to stay anywhere, set out for somewhere, and along the way stop pretty much everywhere. Wherever you end up, consider that your destination.