Last Updated:Dec 21, 2017

Oku-Noto Triennale: Contemporary Art at the Far Edge of Japan

An art festival reconnects a remote peninsula with its roots.

Jianghua Liu, 'Drifting Landscape'
Jianghua Liu, 'Drifting Landscape'
Keyboards, teddy bears, and other ceramic flotsam on the shore in front of Noto’s Mitsukejima island.

Suzu 2017: Oku-Noto Triennale the inaugural edition of art festival to be held every three years on a peninsular tip of western Japan. Centered around the small Ishikawa Prefecture city of Suzu and its surrounding coastal towns, the event is an hour by plane and a world away from Tokyo. Boasting idyllic scenes of farmers harvesting rice on satoyama terraced mountain paddies with breathtaking satoumi ocean vistas, this is both a prime and somewhat surprising location for a contemporary art festival.

It is not without precedent, however. Its organizer is Fram Kitagawa, an art director known for festivals like the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale, which will mark its seventh session next year with artworks dotting the mountains of Niigata Prefecture. Kitagawa’s vision for these rural, site-specific events is a shift away from urban and profit-driven art towards creativity that reconnects locals and introduces outsiders to the natural environments and cultural histories of areas that have fallen by the wayside.

Oku-Noto Triennale is no different. Like Kitagawa’s other projects, it is a star-artist studded festival closely planned with and largely run by long-time residents. The Noto natives who lead its bus tours and stamp the “passports” at the sites its installations have personally ridden the waves of industrialization and depopulation, experiencing their hometowns’ rises and declines along with it. They attended the now-shuttered elementary schools and cheered at the openings of now-defunct train stations on tracks overrun with grass. Here are a few of the works they can show you at this year’s Oku-Noto Triennale, running through October 22.

Adel Abdessemed, 'Ma-mo-naku'
Adel Abdessemed, 'Ma-mo-naku'
Adel Abdessemed inserted a florescent pole inside a train car at Ukai Station, which operated from 1964 until 2005.

Naoki Ishikawa, 'Mixed Bathing Universe'
Naoki Ishikawa, 'Mixed Bathing Universe'
Located at Takarayu, a public bathhouse and former inn, photographer Naoki Ishikawa’s installation pays homage to Noto’s landscape and community traditions.

Shoko Aso, 'Shape of Faith'
Shoko Aso, 'Shape of Faith'
Shoko Aso’s installation overflows with bubbles at Ebisu Bath, a 97 year-old bathhouse where locals soaked until last year.

Takahiro Iwasaki, 'A Large Sea of an Old House of the Peninsula of the Small Sea'
Takahiro Iwasaki, 'A Large Sea of an Old House of the Peninsula of the Small Sea'
Noto’s salt fields date back 400 years. Takahiro Iwasaki, Japan’s representative at Venice Biennale 2017, presents a room-sized diorama filled with ships, dolls, and antiques floating in an ocean of salt.

Chiharu Shiota, 'The Boat Which Carries Time'
Chiharu Shiota, 'The Boat Which Carries Time'
At a former daycare center, red strings representing blood and lifelines form webs above a boat once used in salt cultivation.

Takafumi Fukasawa, 'Continuation of Myth'
Takafumi Fukasawa, 'Continuation of Myth'
Torii gates are entryways to Shinto shrines and other sacred spots. This one is built from plastic containers, which often wash up on beaches on Japan’s western coasts. In local lore items that drift ashore are a kind of god called ‘yorigami.’

Koji Nakase, 'Moon-Reflecting Flower Stage'
Koji Nakase, 'Moon-Reflecting Flower Stage'
Kimonos hang in the gymnasium of a closed school in Kamikuromaru village. Strips of cloth are cut from the kimonos and tied to ladders outside the school, realizing the artist’s vision of a field of fabric flowers.

Tomoko Konoike, 'Table Runner – Suzu'
Tomoko Konoike, 'Table Runner – Suzu'
Tomoko Konoike spent three years interviewing and sketching stories and memories from the lives of local women, who then sewed placemat-sized quilts based on these drawings. Here a woman Skypes with family overseas.

Tomoko Konoike, 'Go Ashore'
Tomoko Konoike, 'Go Ashore'
Konoike also installed this giant statue with a human body and deer antlers perched on a cliff overlooking Shaku Cape.

Tobias Rehberger, 'Something Else is Possible'
Tobias Rehberger, 'Something Else is Possible'
A railroad track stretches out in front of a multicolor platform with a telescope inside, inviting viewers to gaze through it out onto a message from the artist.

Tobias Rehberger, 'Something Else is Possible'
Tobias Rehberger, 'Something Else is Possible'

Tobias Rehberger, 'Something Else is Possible'
Tobias Rehberger, 'Something Else is Possible'

Maybe the most symbolic work of this entire sprawling metaphor of a festival is Tobias Rehberger’s “Something Else is Possible.” It also uses Noto’s abandoned railroad tracks in a nod to where we’ve arrived as a late-capitalist society. Yet its titular punchline dares to offer a suggestion of redemption, however ambiguous. This work could also be interpreted cynically, of course, as a harbinger of futility and false hope. But walking along the tracks – literally to the end of the line – and seeing the writing in lights, it’s hard not to feel at least a little lifted. Even in a land and an age of deep disillusionment.

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Jennifer Pastore

Jennifer Pastore

Jennifer Pastore is a writer, editor, and translator for Tokyo Art Beat. Her thoughts on the Japanese art scene can also be found at artscape Japan and in other publications.

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