Tuesday, July 27, 2010

rural towns + contemporary art in Japan

I was in the midst of another post about beating the heat in Yokohama when our friend Stanley Murashige passed along this New York Times article about a small Japanese village's attempts to attract tourism by combining its rice paddies with a little genetic modification. The story's quite bittersweet, though the end result is pretty arresting.

Inakadate's plight is part of a larger national trend of rural depopulation as birthrates decline and young people flock to bigger cities for job opportunities. The interesting side of this otherwise unfortunate situation is that small towns have become the new alternative spaces for contemporary art, with residency programs and site-specific projects popping up all over the place. Japan's commercial gallery system - which usually requires artists to pay gallery rent and watch over the space during visiting hours - is too expensive for many artists here, and many are heading for the hills (literally) to make art where space is more plentiful, cost of living is cheap, and the towns are rich in local tradition and ancient history. Arts tourism has become the new hope for many small towns, even if terms like "sound art" or "social engagement" aren't part of the local vocabulary. One great example of this phenomenon is the Echigo-Tsumari Triennial, which features installation by a host of internationally-acclaimed artists every three years, accompanied by experiential art hotels and innovative eateries that incorporate the talents and tastes of local residents. I really hope to get to visit one of these years. It's also the idea behind the Setouchi Art Festival I just returned from, which launched this year to much fanfare, and rightly so.

Will contemporary art help preserve rural Japan? Only time will tell. Either way, here's hoping that the village of Inakada manages to continue supporting its residents, with or without the rice-paddy graphics.

Inakadate image (above) borrowed from the NY Times; photo of Sue Pedley installation at Setouchi Festival (at right) taken by me.

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