The Possibility of Art to Revitalize a Community: Visiting Reborn Art Festival
The night before traveling to Reborn-Art Festival, a festival that took place in Ishinomaki, Japan, from July 22 to September 10, 2017, I randomly met the artist collective, ME (for the Japanese word, “eye”), in Tokyo.
“The work only happens at set times, there’s a maximum number of people who can see it daily, and you have to sign up the day of at the visitor center,” they secretively mentioned.
Suffice to say that ME’s cryptic description did not even begin to prepare me for the experience that was the Reborn-Art Festival. The fine art component of this festival is the brainchild of Koichi and Etsuko Watari, the brother and sister pair who curate cutting-edge programming at Watari-Um Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo. In its inaugural year, the Wataris managed to bring together thirty-eight domestic and international artists to create site-specific works in Ishinomaki, a city in Miyagi prefecture known for its commercial fishing and surrounded by abundant nature—bays to the north and south, and mountains to the west.
An important point of note is that Ishinomaki was heavily affected by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. According to documentation published by Ishinomaki City as of March 2017, the area experienced several tsunamis over 8.6 meters (twenty-eight feet) high, leveling neighborhoods throughout the city. With a current population of approximately 147,000, over 3,500 deaths have been confirmed as a direct or indirect result of the incident, with 400 individuals still unaccounted for. Over 56,000 households experienced some level of damage to their homes.
In an area that suffered such catastrophic loss, and with over 100 global art biennials already in existence, what is the value of Reborn-Art Festival, and could it help Ishinomaki’s economic recovery? Would the hope that art serves as a catalyst for change be an empty platitude by outsiders who did not themselves live through the event and the ongoing reconstructive efforts necessary in its aftermath? These questions remained as I arrived at the meeting spot to experience ME’s repetition window (2017), a space that appeared to be a living room in a traditional Japanese home with windows on both sides overlooking a backyard garden. Just as I got seated, the entire space started to move; ME had ingeniously recreated a living room-like space in a truck with glass walls that took an hour-long drive throughout parts of Ishinomaki. repetition window passed viscerally shocking views of the city: areas by the sea with foundations that identified where houses used to stand, but were now razed flat and void; the seemingly futile levees being built to protect the city from further tsunamis, but that also violently intercepted views to the sea; and the occasional lone tree that had managed to survive the aggressive onslaught. But as the moving living room passed by others that shared the road, Ishinomaki residents in their cars, on their bicycles, or on foot stared, and often smiled and waved. Their expressions seemed to message the spectrum of life—from the spark of connection between strangers who find themselves sharing the same time and space, and the element of surprise that site-specific installation can sometimes evoke, to the quotidian rhythms of residents carrying out their daily lives.
ME’s artwork, and the entire experience of exploring the various neighbor- hoods throughout Ishinomaki where other artists’ site-specific works were installed, compels visitors to see and be seen in the Ishinomaki scenery, and experience the liminal moments where art and life intersect. Reborn-Art Festival is unique not only because it takes place in a community that had no choice but to experience a hard reset in 2011. It is a non-traditional art festival in spite, and perhaps because of its recent past, with its specific location availing artists the opportunity to make connections with the environs and its residents. While it is yet unclear whether Reborn-Art Festival will succeed in bringing long-term tourism to the region, it reminded me of the powerful importance of seeing and experiencing contemporary art in real life. In those viewing moments, there is both infinite time for past reflection and only constant motion forward.