Tapping into Art’s Power in Post-3/11 Japan

Politics Society Culture

The Aichi Triennale, which debuted in 2010, is wide-ranging art exhibition held in Nagoya. The theme of the event to be held in 2013 is “Awakening.” We sat down with the artistic director of the exhibition, Igarashi Tarō, to find out more about this theme and discuss the potential of art in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami of 2011.

Igarashi Tarō

Born in 1967 in Paris. After graduating from the University of Tokyo’s Department of Architecture, he earned an MA and PhD from the same university. Served as a member of the Agency for Cultural Affairs’ Advisory Committee on the Promotion of Culture and Arts (2007–9) and was commissioner of the Japanese Pavilion at the 2008 Venice Biennale of Architecture. Currently is a professor at Tōhoku University, a position he has held since 2009. Published works include Bokura ga yume mita mirai toshi (The Futuristic Cities of Our Dreams ), Kūsō kōkyo bijutsukan (A Vision for Creating an Imperial Art Museum), and 3.11/After: Kioku to saisei e no purosesu (After 3/11: Memory and the Process of Revival).

A Timely Theme

INTERVIEWER What was the idea behind “Awakening: Where Are We Standing?” as the theme for the Aichi Triennale 2013?

IGARASHI TARŌ  Modern art is about more than pure art; it also reflects its own time and society. Looking back at the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, as well as the territorial disputes over Takeshima and the Senkakus that flared up in the summer of 2012, one gets the sense that the ground underneath Japan is stirring, in both the literal and figurative sense. Landscapes, daily routines, and personal identifies taken for granted have all been shaken.

Japan’s large-scale international art festivals, such as the Yokohama Triennale or the Setouchi Triennale, are well known, but they often lack a specific unifying theme. In the case of the Setouchi or Echigo-Tsumari art festivals, their scenic rural locations are enough of an attraction on their own, so there’s little need to articulate a theme. But for a festival held at a major urban art museum, like the Aichi Triennale in Nagoya, I felt it was important to place a strong emphasis on the underlying concept.  

I think that our festival is unique, even globally speaking, in terms of bringing together works from a broad range of genres under a single theme—including everything from painting and sculpture to dance and the performing arts as well as architecture. And we are probably the only arts festival to also include opera.

Art’s Power to Transmit Memories

INTERVIEWER  What is the meaning of the theme’s subtitle: “Earth, Memory, and Resurrection”?

IGARASHI  The keywords “earth” and “memory” came to me after the March 11 disaster when I was trying to see as much of the devastated region as possible by walking from Aomori to Chiba. On my journey, I noticed how unique each place is. I could see how the differences in topography and slight variations in elevation determined how far the tsunami had reached. The natural topography, combined with the human-built environment, resulted in a level of damage that differed starkly from town to town. The damage caused from the tsunami or from liquefaction made me aware of the history and unique characteristics of each place.

Igarashi lecturing in Seoul as curator of the international traveling exhibition, “How Did Architects Respond Immediately after 3/11—The Great East Japan Earthquake?”

Even before the disaster, I had visited towns like Kesennuma, Rikuzentakata, and Ōfunato to look at buildings there. The sort of houses I saw were built by the same companies that put up homes in the suburbs of Tokyo. It seems to me that in rebuilding such regions, where earthquakes occur periodically and tsunami damage can be expected, it’s necessary to come up with shapes for buildings and for towns that reflect a strong awareness of the particularities of a place—rather than just following the dictates of civil engineering.

I feel that these devastated areas were lacking in the “memory” that large quakes and tsunami damage are reoccurring phenomena. While local elementary schools may explain what a tsunami is to students, there is no memory residing in the form of the town itself. In Iwate Prefecture they pretty much had nothing but a sign telling residents: “In case of a tsunami, run to higher ground.” There was nothing about the actual shapes of a town itself to convey to a tourist that it has a history of suffering tsunami damage.

Since the disaster we are hearing about how important it is to preserve the memory of past disasters, and I think art has a role to play in this respect as a medium for transmiting memories.

For instance, the cave paintings in Lascaux and Altamira can show us what human life was like before the development of language. We can also learn how people lived five hundred or a thousand years ago by looking at works of art—or even tableware—displayed at museums. I think that art has this power to transmit memories. I want to collect works with that power for the Aichi Triennale.

Architects’ Widening Vision

INTERVIEWER Did you feel a change in Japanese art, especially in architecture, after the March 11 earthquake?

IGARASHI  It was a shock that nobody in the architecture world got any offers in the aftermath of the disaster. Japanese architects were left out of the loop even though many of them have won international acclaim and contracts for work overseas in fields related to city planning. The social position of the architect as a cultural figure has improved, but the sad truth is that architects in Japan are never mobilized at places where they can best display their talents.

Aside from the brief 2007 campaign for governor of Tokyo by Kurokawa Kishō, who had been an important member of the Metabolism movement(*1) and had positioned his campaign around the Metabolist question of what form cities should take, Japanese architects have kept their distance from urban or national land planning since the 1970s, when that movement began to decline. Public facilities have been built as individual units, out of touch with the city itself.

But I have been feeling that the recent disaster has spurred architects to begin pondering what connects people to a city. They have started off by working on community planning in towns small enough to offer them a role to play, because in the urban areas afflicted by the disaster the tight alliances between public officials and general contractors have left no space for architects to get involved. But there is a growing trend toward widening the scope of the architect’s role beyond the limited radius of an individual structure. 

INTERVIEWER  With that change becoming visible, are there any young architects in particular we should be keeping an eye on?

Ishigami Jun’ya’s piece “Balloon” from the 2007 “Space for Your Future” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo. (Photo: Ichikawa Yasushi; courtesy of Gallery Koyanagi)

INAGARASHI   Itō Toyoo, SANAA, Shinohara Kazuo, Ishigami Jun’ya, and Miyamoto Katsuhiro have each won the “Golden Lion” award from the Venice Biennale of Architecture, which could be described as the Olympics of the architectural world; and, in 2012, the Japanese pavilion won a Golden Lion for the second time in 2012. So this gives you some idea of how highly regarded Japanese architecture is around the world.

Another architect of note is Fujimoto Sōsuke, who was a member of the Japanese team that won that Golden Lion in 2012. One of his famous creations is “Tokyo Apartment,” which looks like a house built from toy wooden blocks.  This structure, although new and unprecedented, has a concept that is clear to anyone at a glance. Fujimoto was already famous before the Venice exhibition, and the event has made him even more well-known.

Ishigami Jun’ya, meanwhile, is an architect whose works display a detailed craftsmanship. His creations have a typically Japanese refinement and require a level of technical precision that is not often matched overseas. He is scheduled to exhibit again at the Aichi Triennale, so I urge everyone to have a look at what he comes up with.

Finally, there’s Miyamoto Katsuhiro, who earned a Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale for an exhibit related to the Great Hanshin Earthquake that devastated parts of Kobe in 1995. He is another architect who will be participating in the Aichi Triennale.

(Translated from a September 28, 2012, interview in Japanese. Interviewer Harano Jōji is representative director of the Nippon Communications Foundation.)

(*1) ^ The architectural movement called Metabolism emerged in Japan in the 1960s. Its aims were outlined in the manifesto “Metabolism 1960—Proposal for a New Urbanism,” presented at the World Design Conference held that year in Tokyo. The movement advocated architectural design that can change organically, in the same way that living organisms continually metabolize and grow. The leading figures of the movement were the architects Kurokawa Kishō, Kikutake Kiyonori, Maki Fumihiko, and Ōtaka Masato; the designers Ekuan Kenji and Awazu Kiyoshi; and the architectural critic Kawazoe Noboru.

Great East Japan Earthquake art politics culture architecture Society Igarashi Taro Aichi Triennale Venice Biennale Golden Lion