Biwako Biennale – Art Festival in the Historical Cit

Yoko Nakata
(Biwako Biennale, Japan)

The BIWAKO Biennale, who has raised its voice on the shores of Japan's mother lake with the dawn of the 21st century, is about to reach 20 years. The event was initially, until its fourth edition, organised once in every three years. Since 2010, it has become a real biennial and appears once in every two years, until this day.

In 2000 I launched a voluntary group called Energy Field, prepared the BIWAKO Biennale, and held the first event in 2001 in Otsu City.

After that, from the second edition I moved the base to Omi Hachiman city, and since then I have been doing various activities mainly in Omi Hachiman city.

At the beginning, there were very few art festivals organised in the region (Yokohama Triennale in urban areas and Niigata art festivals in rural areas have started at the same time apart from BIWAKO Biennale). Although the awareness of the residents is low and they have had a hard time getting understanding, the art events became pervasive with each passing, and BIWAKO Biennale is now carried out every two years.

The reason I started was that I, who in 2000 had already reached 20 years of living overseas, had doubts about the state of "development" in Japan. Post-war Japan's development is remarkable, and the country has become an economic powerhouse, but is its spirituality so rich? Everywhere in Japan, every station has a similar face. There is always a big supermarket, which is filled with the same mass-produced products everywhere. The station is the first place for travellers to get out. Instead of being a place that should be the town's face and that should show the country’s entire atmosphere, each and every one of them is similar. In the name of development, not only the station, but also the culture and buildings unique to the area have been lost, and I felt nothing less than a sense of crisis in the situation of these places transforming into dumb, atrocious towns.

It is the BIWAKO Biennale that started to say that old history and culture are being neglected in Japan.

Fortunately in Omi Hachiman, where I base my work, there are still many historical buildings, and by performing art festivals in them, I admire the greatness of the buildings themselves and have their right to existence and value recognised. In the end it turned out to be possible. When I first started, the buildings that were valuable to me were nothing but old and dirty relics of the past, many of which had been left for many years without living things.

It is a great task to rent buildings that are as daunting as haunted houses, to clean them up and display works there, but once you have done that and the works are placed in the building, the building, which had been so desolate and dead, has a lively revival as if a new life had been infused. I always aim to be integrated with the work that I do and the space itself is also an art work – something that carefully builds up the BIWAKO Biennale. It is a joy to feel that the building itself, which has a long history, regains its original dignity. Every single piece is filled with greatness and with inspiring joy and nonverbal impression.

Omi Hachiman City is located in the eastern part of Shiga Prefecture, next to Kyoto, and is a castle town built in the 16th century by Hidetoshi Toyotomi (Toyomi Hideyoshi's nephew). Utilizing the water transport of Lake Biwa, it prospered as the birthplace of the Omi merchant, and there are still scattered townhouses with its remnants. In a sense, I was lucky that I was spared great development because I was located a little away from the station.

However, many of them the buildings are left to be rough, and are changing into parking lots and modern buildings. In other words, the problem of many local cities is the outflow of young people and the aging of the population.

Population is concentrated in cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, and local cities are suffering from population decline and depopulation. Art is now in the limelight as a breakthrough.

In recent years, art festivals such as the Biennale and the Triennale, which were not noticed by anyone at the beginning of the 21st century, are being held in local cities.

As art intervenes in the town, young people flow in and revitalize it. At the beginning of Omi Hachiman, there was nothing there to visit, but gradually, the migration of young people has been increasing, and along with that, one could see more cafes, boutiques etc.

Plans are also underway to launch a new art centre and artist in residence in 2020, the year which marks the 20th anniversary of BIWAKO Biennale.