Creating Artwork on Someone Else’s Land

Every three years, three hundred square miles of land in northwestern Japan are transformed into the most ambitious and largest-scale art installation in the world: the Echigo-Tsumari Art Field. In the following essay, Fram Kitigawa describes artist Ilya Kabakov’s journey in obtaining access to land to create The Rice Field. This is one of many projects featured in Fram Kitigawa’s book Art Place Japan: The Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale and the Vision to Reconnect Art and Nature.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, The Rice Field, 2000-ongoing, photo Anzai

There are no conventional gallery spaces or art museums in Echigo-Tsumari. When an artist takes on a project, permission to carry it out must be obtained from the landowner and/or the staff, and the artist must cooperate with the local residents. Initially, many of the residents strongly opposed the idea of inviting artists from outside the region to come and alter sites that they had inherited from their ancestors. But the artists are encouraged to develop projects that engage the sites, deeply consider them, and establish positive relationships with the local residents by building trust in their creative visions. The nurturing of artists’ ideas in these communities grew out of a mutual willingness to see beyond the private and individual, which necessitates the stripping of hierarchies to maintain a sharp focus on fostering and communicating ideas among varied individuals.

The Russian artist Ilya Kabakov arrived in Echigo-Tsumari, at my invitation, in the spring of 1999. I trusted his vision and had resolved to support him logistically in any way possible. As we inspected sites, he could not seem to find a suitable location for a project. When we finally decided to quit for the day, we found ourselves at the station for the Hokuhoku train line. Kabakov suddenly stopped moving and stared at the draw enveloping the Shibumigawa River and the sprawling rice fields visible from the station. Long ago, he had envisioned a particular sculptural concept — something like a three-dimensional picture book — and stored it away in his mind. It came back and rapidly took shape when he saw the terraced rice fields. Kabakov said at that moment that he was inspired, and we were taken with his idea.

There are narrative and sculptural elements to the process of rice production: the tilling, seeding, planting, mowing, harvesting, and, finally, sales in a nearby town. Kabakov conceived of sculptural elements that would be planar, profiled cutouts of farmers working in the rice terraces. These elements, when viewed from the vantage point of the train station observation deck, would overlap to relate a narrative.

Through this work, Kabokov expressed a deep and profound respect for the overwhelming labor of the farmers, who exhaust themselves working in the snow country, enduring the challenges and inefficiencies that come with this dramatic landscape. He understood the hardship that was required for the rice production this region is now known for and that the population of the farming community is declining. He sensed the urgency for people to visit this site and understand the complexities of the region.

The landowner, Tomoki Fukushima, had recently suffered a broken femur and had resolved to retire. But even though he knew the land would no longer be used for rice farming, he was reluctant to collaborate with the artist, because the land was sacred to him, symbolizing his ancestors’ perseverance and endurance of adversity. Fukushima initially rejected Kabokov’s plans but was finally won over by the respect that the artist had for both his particular history and the plight of the farming community. Thus, a connection between Russian and Japanese farming communities was established through mutual respect and empathy.

Despite his physical decline, Fukushima ultimately continued farming this field until the third edition of the triennial, when he retired and devoted himself to caring for his wife. Today we have been entrusted with this terraced land and care for it along with Mr Fukushima’s nephew. We call this taking over of abandoned rice terraces the Tanada Rice Terrace Ownership System. When we established the Matsudai Snow-Land Agrarian Culture Center in 2003, we wanted the architecture to incorporate an observation deck for viewing these rice fields. This surrounding area became the Field Museum, and Kabakov’s work has become a symbol of agricultural history and culture and the future of agriculture in Japan. It continues to have an impact on viewers and is representative of the Echigo-Tsumari Arts Triennale.

The owner of the rice field hosting the Kabakovs’ work, photo Anzai

Art Place Japan: The Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale and the Vision to Reconnect Art and Nature is available from:
Barnes & Noble
Your local bookshop

Fram Kitagawa is the director of the 2015 Echigo-Tsumari Triennial. He has conceived of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Fields project, which opened in 2000. He is now the director of the Setouchi Art Triennial (Benesse Naoshima ) — the art islands in the inland sea.

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