Nodai Trip (part 4): Niigata Art Triennial

Last 3 students, Echigo Tsumari Art Triennial

The Echigo Tsumari or Niigata Art Triennial was our last stop, and it, too, reflected the themes of history in landscape and rural revitalization. We visited a small portion of the 350 sites, mostly abandoned houses and schools, spread out in several hillside villages. This two month features world-class international art, much of it conceptual, and draws audiences from around Japan and the world.

The above sculpture, using local river-harvested drift wood and washed out neon colors, represents the last three students in an old school started in the Edo period. The oldest parts of the building have been opened to show the mud and bamboo walls below the plaster and paint. With only the very elderly still living in these towns, new and modern buildings that once provided education and shelter are now abandoned. These spaces provide an over-abundance of space for art, and much of it is haunting.

Modern school closed in Niigata

The school above was created only thirty years ago, and was closed nineteen years after opening. It seems to be on the verge of being reclaimed by the forest. For the Triennial, French artists Christian Boltanski and Jean Kalman turned the interior was turned into a theatrical, high art haunted house recalling the school and amplifying the gloom. Visitors enter a pitch black auditorium, covered in hay, with benches and fans. There are hallways with dark mirror windows, the sound of a heart beat, and a room full of what appear to be plexiglass coffins.

Niigata Triennial school recreated by Boltanski and Kalman

Juxtaposed with the gloom were many playful and surreal art works. Below is an outdoor grasshopper sculpture that moves as water fills the heads and cables connecting to indoor sculptures raise and shake dozens of wood puppets.

grasshopper sculpture

It was fun to experience the artwork and the environment with the young Nodai students. Many of them are from the countryside, and their interest and confusion in the art was palpable.

See below for more Niigata Art Triennial photos, including abandoned houses, fields, art and stories.

Our first stop was Marina Abramovic’s Dream House (for exterior photos, please see first Nodai Trip post). Self-described as the “grandmother of performance art,” since the 1970s Abramovic has been creating experiential art work. Her Niigata Triennial house was the first we entered: I was struck as we approached by the old wood architecture, its placement near a small irrigated rice field, the way the house was titled to one side, and its design for second floor egress due to heavy winter snow fall.

Niigata Dream House wall

Inside, Abramovic has turned the house into a stripped down environment for dreaming and recording. On the first floor is a minimal kitchen, grorgeous bath with two copper tubs and sparsely furnished rooms, including one with strange, apocalyptic incantations on the walls.

At first, I started translating the words to the shocked students, and fortunately discovered later that small signs bore translations in Japanese. Several students asked, what if the house’s grandmother returns and sees these phrases?

Niigata Dream House wall

The second floor has four bedrooms each with a different colored light (or perhaps tinted windows). Instead of a bed there is a coffin shaped structure for sleeping, with built-in notebook. Visitors must reserve sleeping time far ahead, and are instructed to write their dreams in the books. Mostly the dreamers wrote in Japanese. The artist will later publish the collected dreams.

Niigata Dream House bed with Prof Suzuki

With the austere rooms and unpadded sleeping chambers, visitors are expected to wear a padded suit to sleep. I wonder how hard it would be to fall asleep in this environment.

Niigata Dream House costumes

To give you a sense of the immense beauty of the countryside, here is a photo of terraced rice fields. Experiencing the verdant splendor of this traditional agriculture gave me a better understanding of satoyama and the central importance of rice in national culture.

Niigata satoyama

While some rural roads have all the charms of a US commercial road (with lots of chain restaurants, auto body part stores, liquor stores, and the addition of the convenience store and lavish pachinko parlor), some of the villages still have sublime sidewalk plantings such as the moss, selaginella, and rock wall below.

Niigata moss wall

We visited four other houses turned completely into art installations. One was sprayed with a silver-colored metal paste and all of its doors and windows removed. Its neighbor had every wood surface carved out into a simple pattern of cuts.

Niigata open, silver house

Clearly this house will need to be remodeled extensively if anyone were to live here again.

Niigata open, silver house

One house interior was full of threads, suggesting cobwebs overtaking abandoned property. Spooky.

Niigata cobweb house

Artwork included a giant outdoor sculpture by Yayoi Kusama, one of Japan’s preeminent conceptual artist with a 50+ year art career. Please visit the Triennial website for a list of all the participating artists from 38 countries who created 350 artworks. Much of the interactive art had a playful side, and my host Professor Suzuki got into the spirit of fun.

Suzuki sensei in Niigata school

One part of this school room was opened to the ground. It made me think about the process of these man-made structures returning to the earth. The vision of our impermanence, and how quickly nature can reclaim our structures, can be either a scary or uplifting idea.

Niigata school with dirt floor

And finally, as we rushed to keep to the busy school field trip schedule, we quickly met this furniture maker inside of the chic cafe in one of the schools. The cafe looked like a stylish cross between a school and a Muji store, and the man introduced himself as the creator of the tables and chairs. He basically added wooden pillows to the original chairs, and used wood to raise the height of the tables to make them suitable for adult visitors.

Niigata school cafe and furniture maker

It was great to see that the Art Triennial produces not just temporary service jobs for locals, but also a way for craftsmen to communicate with city visitors. I believe his business is called 田島撚 (Tashima Nen) and his email is tashima -at-

Niigata school wood chair

Some photos taken by the Nodai students are collected online.

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