The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Fram Kitagawa
Photo: Tadashi Okouchi
Fram Kitagawa

Born in 1946 in Niigata Prefecture, Fram Kitagawa is the representative of Art Front Gallery, general director of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennal, general director of Chichu Art Museum, professor of Joshibi University of Art and Design, director of Niigata City Art Museum, among other roles. A graduate of the Fine Arts Dept. of the Tokyo University of the Arts, he became involved in the serious confrontations of the student movement of the 1960s. While at university, he joined with fellow students in establishing a studio in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. After graduation he made a living on carpentry works and poster creation with fellow artists while continuing comprehensive social involvement through journals in the fields of art, publication, music and architecture as well as other arts.

In 1979, he opened Art Front Gallery as an exhibition gallery specializing in print art (moved to present location in Daikanyama Hillside Terrace in 1984 as an art shop and exhibition gallery). In 1980 he became head of the publisher Gendai Kikakushitsu, publishing over 300 books in the fields of art, architecture and the social sciences that contribute to active social debate.

He has also been active organizing exhibitions, including the first exhibition to introduce the works of Antonio Gaudi in Japan in 1978, which toured to 11 venues, a “Print Exhibition for Children” that traveled elementary and middle schools around Japan (1980), and he produced the “Apartheid NON! (No to Apartheid!) International Art Exhibition” (1988) that toured to 194 venues around Japan. In these ways he has taken social involvement through art beyond the confines of the conventional museum venue.

Kitagawa has also initiated numerous art projects related to urban, architectural and regional community development. These include the “Faret Tachikawa Art Project” (winner of the 1994 City Planning Institute of Japan (CPIJ) Award) placing public art in urban renewal projects, the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennal (2001 festival won the Furusato Event Grand Prix – Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Award) that deals with the problem of depopulating communities. By initiating such programs one after another, he has continued to pioneer the field of regional community art projects. Among Kitagawa’s numerous awards and publications is his recent book Kibo no Bijutsu – Kyodo no Yume (Art as Hope – The Dream of Collaboration; publisher: Kadokawa Art Publications) is an important resource for recording 40 years of contemporary art movements. In 2007 he won The Japan Foundation Special Prizes for Arts and Culture.
Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennal
The evolution and essence of art projects as realize in Echigo-Tsumari
Echigo-Tsumari is a hilly rural farm area in the southern corner of Niigata Pref. about 2 hours by train from Tokyo. It consists of the two townships of Tokamachi (created by a merger of six towns in 2005) and Tsunan and covers an area larger than the 23 wards of Tokyo at 760 sq. km. It is also a highly depopulated area with a total population of just 73,000. In line with Niigata Prefecture’s New Niigata Riso (town development) Plan, an Echigo-Tsumari Art Necklace Seibi Koso (Renewal Plan) was launched as a ten-year project in 1998 with the aim of using art as a medium for bringing out the appeal of the region and increasing the numbers of visitors and exchanges with people and groups from outside the region. As one of the central activities of this plan, the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennal was launched, with its first holding in 2000. In conjunction with this, a number of innovative exchange facilities were developed, including the Matsudai Snow Country Agriculture Cultural Center Nobutai (Farm Theater), the Mori no Gakko (School in the Woods) Kyororo and the Echigo-Tsumari Exchange Hall Kinare.

The most distinctive aspect of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennal is that it brings artists from around Japan and overseas for mid- and long-term periods of residence in Echigo-Tsumari to collaborate with the local residents and others in the creation of site-specific art works that could only be created there in the locality, and also the cooperation of large numbers of people, including a “Kohebi-Tai” group of art university students and socially motivated citizens, in the creation of works and running of the art festival. As of the 3rd holding of the festival (2006), some 520 applicant and invited artists and groups have participated in the Echigo-Tsumari festival and have left approximately 165 lasting works in the area. Another important feature of the festival’s programs is the efforts to make use of old vacated homes and closed-down schools. There is a Marina Abramovic renovated Dream House that serves as an inn for guests as well, the Christian Boltanski and Jean Kalman creation The Last Class that turned the old Higashikawa Elementary School into one large work of art, the Dappi-suru Ie (Shedding House) in which leading students of the Nihon University Sculpture Dept. shaved away the surfaces of walls and pillars in an entire old home and numerous other works using old homes, as art spaces and lodging facilities. After the end of the prefecture’s original ten-year project, an NPO named the Echigo-Tsumari Satoyama Collaborative Organization was established to continue running the Echigo-Tsumari programs.

The 4th holding of the festival (2009) has a program featuring 200 new artists and groups involved in approximately 370 new and existing works. There is the initiation of a new project in cooperation with universities and other groups to renovate the remaining 13 closed schools in the Echigo-Tsumari region, and empty house project with international artists lie Antony Gormley, site-specific outdoor art projects set in the rural hills of the area, showings of new movies made in the Echigo-Tsumari area and stage performances. There are also projects to prepare artist-in-residence facilities including an Australia House and Northeast Asia Artist Village as part of the festival’s efforts to strengthen its overseas ties.

Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennal 2009
Dates: July 26 – Sept. 13, 2009
Venue: Niigata Pref. Echigo-Tsumari region (Tokamachi and Tsunan)
Organizer: Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial Executive Committee (Chairman: Yoshifumi Sekiguchi (Mayor of Tokamachi)
Co-organizer: Echigo-Tsumari Satoyama Collaborative Organization (NPO)
General producer: Soichiro Fukutake
General director: Fram Kitagawa
Art advisors: Tony Bond, Tom Finkelpearl, Ulrich Shneider, Yuka Irisawa, Yusuke Nakahara
Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennal
Presenter Interview
Art bringing hope to Echigo-Tsumari  The ongoing journey of Fram Kitagawa 
Art bringing hope to Echigo-Tsumari  The ongoing journey of Fram Kitagawa 
Projects aimed at using contemporary art as a vehicle to stimulate local community and economic development in regions around Japan are appearing one after another, and a situation that is certainly rare anywhere in the world is developing in the process. One of the forerunners of this trend is the “Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial” launched in 2000 in the Echigo-Tsumari region of Niigata Prefecture, an area struggling with the effects of an excessively high rate of depopulation and percentage of elderly citizens. In two townships with a large area of farm and mountain land covering some 760 square kilometers, artists, local residents and supporters have created about 360 large works of outdoor art, and uninhabited houses and closed school buildings have been made available as art spaces in hopes of revitalize the local community through art. With the increasing involvement of art NPOs around the country, active fieldwork by students of art universities and the start of financial support for regional community renewal through art by local governments and corporations, this movement has spread throughout Japan over the last ten years. A wide variety of art projects of all types are now being pursued everywhere from remote islands and depopulated regions to the major metropolises. The pioneer of these art-based community renewal programs is Fram Kitagawa, the general director of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial and initiator of numerous different art projects around Japan.
  The art movements in Japan after World War II have been led by people who were student artists of the Zengakuren and Zenkyoto student organizations in the 1950s to the early ’70s and intellectuals of the literati. Today, these people are in positions of responsibility, teaching at universities, serving as directors of public cultural facilities or directing corporate philanthropic efforts related to the arts, and in these capacities they are continuing to promote new social movements through the arts. Kitagawa is one of the key persons among these. Just before his Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial opened for its 4th holding on July 26, we spoke with Kitagawa concerning the current state of this festival and other main regional festivals like the newly launched “Niigata Water and Land Arts Festival” and the “Aqua Metropolis in Osaka 2009” festival, where he works with local volunteers and artists in a directorial capacity in the movement to bring hope to localities through art.

(Interview: Eiko Tsuboike)

Thoughts about Echigo-Tsumari and its Meaning

At last the 4th holding of your festival, Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennal 2009, is about to begin. I have been covering the festival each time from its first holding and I am amazed to see the changes the Echigo-Tsumari area has undergone during this time. For the first festival you had the young supporters of the “Kohebi-Tai” group coming into the area suddenly and having to begin by explaining to the elderly men and women in the community asking what contemporary art is. It was before the main facilities were ready, so they had to pitch tents on the planned construction site and begin creating their installations, while other supporters laid out rented futon bedding to stay in the gymnasiums of closed schools.
 By the second holding (2003) the main facilities and the local people were joining in with the artists in the work and sweat of creating art works and it thrilled me to see what felt like the reawakening of deep-seated, primal strength. In the meantime this area was struck by a devastating earthquake and torrential rains that damaged the land seriously. When that happened, the people who had build relationships with the community here through their involvement in the festival came to help in the recovery and continue participating in the community events throughout the year.
 Then by the time of the third holding began the full-fledged efforts to turn the deserted homes and closed schools of the area that are now the festival’s symbols into art spaces and artworks in themselves. Now Echigo-Tsumari has entered a new stage as a veritable art village. In just ten years time so many people have become involved in this depopulated region and its aging population. I think that is a truly amazing achievement. (Refer to the notes for a history of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennal).

Echigo-Tsumari is a region that is buried in deep snows in the winter and hot in the summer. There is no flat land at all, so its people have long had to use their ingenuity and make tremendous efforts to build terraced rice paddies on the slopes and straiten the streams in the hills in order to get narrow strips of land along their banks where they could make rice paddies in order to seek out a living as farmers. But from about 30 years ago, Japan became possessed with an extreme mentality of “efficiency first.” And they began to say that farming up their in the hills is inefficient and living in a place where you have to dig yourself out of the snow all winter is inefficient and encouraging people to leave that life. The government essentially told them that they would pay these people to give up growing rice in the hills and that they would give them money to move to the cities.
 The villages you have there today inherit a unique way of life that their ancestors carried on for generations and the way they have spent their time is also unique, so who has the right to decide that their lives are inefficient? It is natural and necessary that they live there and it is unthinkable that anyone should assume to tell them that they shouldn’t live there. That’s why I wanted to find a way to tell them that the lives they had lived there were a part of an important heritage. Art has the ability to show history and lives in ways that are very clear and understandable, so I believed that it could be useful in helping people rediscover the vale of their region.
 However, I have never had any intention of trying to do anything about the agriculture of the problems of the natural environment there. Getting involved in political matters can only put you on tenuous footing, and art doesn’t have that kind of power in the first place. What I was thinking is that if the elderly men and women there want to die in the place where they have lived their lives, I would like to support that desire and help make their days as enjoyable as possible until that day comes if I can. And I also thought that this is important for the region to be revitalized. I thought that I would like to take the outlook of considering what kind of give-and-take between the region and the urban centers could help this region survive.
 Art is close to the body, the senses and our sensitivities and it has been effective in giving us an intuitive sense of the distance between the human being and nature and between one human being and another. And it is also a true manifestation of the fact that all human beings are unique individuals. If we can’t make that power of art effective there in Echigo-Tsumari, we would have to ask ourselves once again what art really is and should be. As someone who has been involved in art, I thought that returning to those basics of the human body and human nature and see what we could discover there in Echigo-Tsumari could also bring new hope to art and its role in society. That is the point of departure of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennal.
 After the Meiji Restoration (1867) the Japanese government began removing from the framework of art all the things we had enjoyed as part of our lives that could not be controlled, displayed or catalogued, such as festivals, culinary culture, gardens and the tokonoma alcove of the home where we displayed things seasonally. That is something that has led to an impoverishment of contemporary art. At Echigo-Tsumari we put all of those things to work as spreading wings of motion. I wanted to use them to delve into the questions of how human beings interacted with water, how they became familiar with the soil, learned hand skills, built awareness, culture and art. I thought that if we could retrace that route humankind has come once again, it could provide important clues [to how we should live now in these times].

There was a lot of opposition at first.
The opposition was daunting. They said using public funds for art was unthinkable. They asked what use art could possibly be in such a rural area. In the space of four and a half years we held 2,000 meetings to explain our purposes to different groups. Despite those efforts it wasn’t until June 15th that authorization was finally received for the July 25th opening of the first festival. We had gone on with the preparations determined to go ahead even if public funding was not received, but it was indeed a hard fight.
 Since we are basically setting out to build things on other people’s land, it is natural that there would be aversion. In the dialogue to try to overcome that, the artists were able to communicate their feelings of respect for the elderly of the community, telling them that their lives and all the hard work they had done to live on this land were proud accomplishments. In response, when the local elderly saw the supporters and the artists struggling in their tasks, they began to join in and lend a hand. They are farmers with a variety of useful skills, so they are good at working with their hands. And if they help out, it gradually becomes their project too. They were glad to have outsiders come to their village and they began to talk about the art works, and then about their land and about their families.
 You could say that art is like a baby, it doesn’t do any work and it takes a lot of care. But in the process of nurturing and protecting it, communication becomes established. It’s like people from outside coming in to help re-create the festivals that depopulation had caused to die out. It took a lot of energy to overcome the initial aversions, but I believe that energy has eventually invigorated the region.
 Looking back, I believe it is extremely important that, rather than working with people who understood and agreed with us from the beginning, the process of overcoming barriers built true “cooperation” between the artists, the local villagers and the supporters. And I believe that the preconceptions about the role of the public sector have begun to change in Echigo-Tsumari.
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