A Journey to Nowhere

By Alex Ehrenreich

Kyoko Fujiwara is coming back to Gunma. This mostly overlooked prefecture of Japan, smack in the middle of the main island of Honshu, is probably more known for growing cabbage and silk production than the glittering skyscrapers, technological prowess, and party scene of Tokyo or Osaka, but for Fujiwara, it is something of a home away from home. “Separated from everyday life in Tokyo,” she says, “I can enter into the world of my art. This month, at the cozy Viento Gallery in Takasaki – Gunma’s largest city at approximately 375,000 people – we can see her latest exhibition “Nowhere.” There is something of a celebratory atmosphere in the air, and this collection matches that; a best-of retrospective of Fujiwara’s entire career up to this point. The main attractions, front and center, are two of her most recent works respectively named “Sanctuary” and “Pandora.” The former is a striking chandelier made of 3 layers of concentric steel rings draped on the outside with numerous small pieces of expertly cut glass, while Pandora – named after the Greek myth – is a metal table on which stands the aforementioned mystery box, which also contains semi-opaque glass “windows” that suggest the entire thing is filled with water. These two pieces are somewhat indicative of Fujiwara’s repertoire while at the same time the most convenient to transport. Many of Fujiwara’s pieces are rather large steel and glass structures that are as much works of architecture as art, and half of the difficulty in exhibiting them is in the transportation and assembly (and re-assembly). These two disparate materials, one hard, and one brittle, are for Kyoko Fujiwara as bread and butter: with them she makes both a canvas to tell a story, and a backdrop from which it is told: essentially, an entire world. Equally significant to her world is the real world outside the constructed world: where the art takes place and where it is experienced. For that reason, even for the well-traveled Fujiwara, her story both begins and ends with a small town in rural Gunma.

Movie/editor: Kaoru Nnishigaki / camera Toshiyuki Oshima

To those unfamiliar with rural Japan, the town of Nakanojo may seem like the actual middle of nowhere: this small hamlet in mountainous Northwestern Gunma is for many just a stopover from nearby hot springs mecca Kusatsu. Though it does have its own more modest hot springs area at Shima Onsen (which brings in some tourists seasonally) the town of Nakanjo itself is facing a much different situation. Nakanojo, like many other rural towns all around the country, is feeling the effects of “koreika” hardest. That is, due to Japan’s aging society and urban expansion, many rural communities are left increasingly desolate, with rows of shuttered shops, abandoned houses and buildings with overgrown lawns and smashed in windows. At the extreme end of the spectrum you have places like Yubari – once known for the International Fantastic Film Festival that attracted the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Steve Martin – now in such dire straits financially that many city services were cut dramatically or completely – water, snow removal, trash collection, public transportation, even public toilets. However, other more forward-thinking villages have sought to modernize and re-invent themselves: where a school once stood in the years of higher birthrates now exist group homes for the more numerous aged. Other towns have given financial incentives for those sick of city life to move, or set aside land for start-up companies. Nakanajo, meanwhile, has gained the reputation as something of an artist community. This is thanks to the Nakanojo Biennale, an artist’s village that pretty much takes over life in the sleepy town every two years, and has tourists surprisingly crowding the infrequent local trains to come to this part of Japan.

Photo by Kyoko Fujiwara

Kyoko Fujiwara began exhibiting at the Biennale back in 2013 with a piece entitled “Bifrost.” Similar to the story in Norse mythology, it is a massive bridge that connects land to the heavens. However, being made of glass, it is impossible to cross it- perhaps as a nod to the Japanese concept of “Aware no mono” or “the impermanence of all things.” The bridge, as it was constructed in Nakanojo, was made so that light from a specifically placed window would make the glass seem like a stream of light – but only for five minutes each day. All this for a giant sculpture that took half a year to make! “The bridge is a single ray of light that can’t be crossed, like a rainbow.” The scenic beauty of her workspace became essential to Fujiwara’s art, wherever it might be, over the course of her career. This includes her work “Dream,” a glass alter constructed at a lighthouse in Grader, Iceland, or “Pray,” an installation reminiscent of a religious cloister, in Sophia, Bulgaria. In many of these works, one particular aspect to working with glass that Fujiwara accentuates is the play between light and dark, with an emphasis on the nearly imperceptible space in-between. Things such as the intermingling of “inside” versus “outside,” good and evil, light, and dark, are both contrasted and melded with steel and glass. These pieces, as one could well imagine, are not simply to be admired as a structure, but also within a specific context: to that end the exhibitions are often accompanied by performances, whether they be interpretive dance or a piano recital. Oftentimes, these performers will be Biennale alums, who have morphed into an international family always eager to support and collaborate with one another. The original exhibition of the aforementioned “Sanctuary” in Venice featured dancer Chiaki Tanaka performing within a glass circle directly below the chandelier. According to Fujiwara: “There is a great contrast between the materials I use and the human body, which is really interesting to see in motion; the performer is a messenger delivering the message of the piece to the audience.” Today at “Nowhere”, we instead have (in addition to the aforementioned two pieces) a gallery of pictures commemorating each and every exhibit, as well as a televised presentation narrated by Fujiwara herself, followed by a festive reception and meet-and-greet.

Photo by Kyoko Fujiwara

 For Kyoko Fujiwara, the day’s celebration is well-earned; the artist is coming off of something of a world-tour, including stays in Germany, Italy, and Los Angeles. For the latter two, it was to collect some well-deserved recognition; a finalist for the Arte Laguna Prize in Venice and then as a winner of the Top 40 International Juried Competition in LA. In the past, Fujiwara has also received awards and support from the Vermont Studio Center, the Nomura Foundation, and has been an artist in residence across the globe, from Thailand to China. Still, she keeps on coming back to Biennale and Nakanojo.         

In attendance for this event was Mr. Tetsuo Yamashige, director of Nakanojo Biennale as well as the Viento itself. He gave me a quick primer on the history of Biennale as well as its relationship with the 17,000 strong population of Nakanojo – spread out over the downtown area, the hot springs village at Shima, and the mountainous and even more remote Kuni, which had previously been a separate town before it merged with Nakanojo. The Biennale began in 2006 with a group of artists, including Yamashige himself, who –needing a space where his group could work in peace -came to the town to rent a studio to make some art pieces they would transport and exhibit in Tokyo. “After seeing Nakanojo, we thought it would be great to use the space to make more art, but this time keep it in Nakanojo and make it something everyone there could be a part of,” Yamashige said. What began as one small building turned into a sprawling arts village utilizing everything from abandoned schools, unused factories, and farmhouses.  During this year’s Biennale, over 150 artists from all over the world have set up shop, working for months to perfect their art in time for the visitors. This is because they need exactly what Nakanjo has: peace, plenty of room, and plenty of like-minded company.      

So what has been the actual effect of Biennale on Nakanojo? One cannot talk about that without also mentioning the profound effect the town has had on the artists themselves, some of whom have moved to Nakanojo permanently. “The artists find that they can meet like-minded people in the community, and are able to talk about art with people who will understand them,” Yamashige says. This new reality of Nakanojo hasn’t been lost on the locals, including the younger generations. Due to successive budget cuts, many children lacked art programs in their schools, but there has been a significant shift, to the effect of students joining art programs in greater numbers, and even being able to put their art on display during the Biennale. In terms of raw numbers, it is clear that Nakanojo Biennale is no simple crafts fair; the last time the Biennale was held, in 2017, it was visited by approximately 420,000 people in the space of a month. By way of comparison, the point of entry for the tourists, Nakanojo station, is otherwise used by less than 1,000 people on a daily basis. For a rural arts festival, you can’t hope for a better reception than that. But what does the future hold for the artists of Nakanojo? “In the off-years when we don’t do the Biennale in Nakanojo, the artists go abroad, and we have international partnerships with other events and universities to give our artists the opportunity to work in other countries. The trend (koreika) may be inevitable, but the countryside has its own uniqueness that people should see and experience, including the Biennale. It’s a new kind of trip and a one of a kind experience. Locals are gratified by the fact that many people have visited and indicated that they’d like to come back again.” As goes the future of Biennale, we also hope the future of its progeny, such as Fujiwara, will continue to head in a similar trajectory.

At the end of a long line of Kyoko Fujiwara’s framed artwork, we have the titular “Nowhere.” It is a familiar, homey looking place: a comfortable booth for two in a quiet atmosphere overlooking the ocean. For me personally, it was a mental image, a sort of mental temple; it matched what was in my heart. For others, it may mean something different. During the exhibition (in LA.) I heard from a few people that said it reminded them of a nostalgic sort of diner.” Though this location (actually a boat in the Seto Inland Sea by the island of Shikoku) is a world apart from Nakanojo, these two “Nowhere’s” may as well be one and the same: a place that may not always exist, and may not be accessible to many, but can offer peace and fulfillment to those who do experience it.

Cover photo by K.Hayashi