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Reviving a region with art

FRAM Kitagawa is the kind of person who becomes more energetic with age. Kitagawa is the general director of Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial, the largest art festival in the world based on the number of participants and the space it takes up. It is held every three years in Japan's Niigata Prefecture. Kitagawa popped into Shanghai recently for a seminar as a part of events under the theme "Exploring Modern Japan."

Born in 1946 in Takada City, Kitagawa graduated from Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. His work covers a wide range from music production, curation, public art direction for cities, architecture and town building to art criticism. He was awarded the Minister of General Affair Prize for Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial 2000, and the Education, Science and Technology Minister's Art Encouragement Prize for Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial 2006.

Q: As the biggest art festival in the world, what is the idea behind the triennial?

A: Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial is not an art-oriented festival. It is actually designed to revitalize the region through art. The venue is a 750-square-kilometer rural area suffering from depopulation, aging, collapse of community and a decline in industry (agriculture). This has been brought about by modernization, centralization and urbanization.

Q: How many artists usually participate in the festival and how many visitors does it attract?

A: Over 150 artists participated in each edition of the triennial. There are already more than 200 permanent works in place. For the next one in 2012, less artists than before will participate. The last edition in 2009 attracted more than 350,000 visitors, so the next one is expected to receive more visitors.

Q: The venues are not familiar to Chinese people, why were they chosen by the organizer?

A: Even Japanese were not familiar with the venues. They were not chosen by the organizer, but as explained in the answer to the first question, the "art festival" was chosen to revitalize the region, which sought a way to activate itself.

Q: As general art director, what do you think is the most difficult part in working with this festival?

A: The most difficult part is to persuade the inhabitants (including politicians) to accept the idea of revitalizing the region by means of "contemporary art." When we started the project, 99 percent of the local parliamentarians were opposed to it. The artworks for the festival are not created and installed in museums nor galleries, but in someone else's land or homes. That leads to a lot of conflicts, negotiations, communication and collaboration. We have already spent 15 years and more local people have become involved in the project. They enjoyed collaborating with artists and supporters from outside.

Q: What's the fun of being a curator of the world's largest art festival?

A: It is my great pleasure to be involved in revitalizing the region.

Q: What's the most important trait needed to be a curator?

A: To be tough.

Q: Who is your favorite Chinese artist?

A: Cai Guoqiang is the artist that I have been working with for the longest time.

Q: Do you communicate with Chinese artists often? What's your view of the Chinese contemporary art scene?

A: Yes. I think that Chinese artists are very nice and active. It seems to me that they are struggling with the conflicts between globalization and Chinese proper problems. But if they can overcome them, a new possibility will be opened up.

Q: Do you plan to have other interactive events with the triennial in other cities in Japan?

A: Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial has influenced a number of municipalities in Japan and has been considered a new model. The Setouchi International Art Festival started last year and will take place every three years. They have contacted us and learned the "Tsumari method," which they will adapt to their context. Interaction with different cities and regions is being built by means of art.


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