A grassroots art movement is breathing new life into abandoned houses in Onomichi, Japan
Still Alive. Those are the words spray-painted in English and Japanese across the side of an abandoned house in an old, somewhat forgotten, district of Onomichi, Japan. Not a house victim to graffiti, but rather a place used as a studio by French artist Laurent Faulon for his installation Still Alive during AIR Onomichi 2011, part of a larger art project which is breathing new life into a neglected part of the burgeoning seaside city. Resurrecting old houses to be used as canvases for visiting artists, AIR Onomichi is helping to introduce an art movement in Japan as the old gives way to the new.
Onomichi is a port city known for its ramen, its army of cats lounging in the alleys, and a few cameos in Japanese film and television. It has a unique feel often passed off as “nostalgic” or “quaint”. Houses of dark wood packed into a tight area up on slopes overlooking the sea, cut into by veins of cramped alleyways describes the old part of Onomichi, the Yamate District.
“It’s hard for some people to connect that kind of area with the reality of Japan today,” says Yutaka Inagawa, an artist from Tokyo and currently art lecturer at Onomichi City University. “It looks like old Japan, a kind of time travel fantasy that doesn’t fit.” Charming as this scene may be to the tourist passing through, it presents a real problem for preservation and growth.
Time and neglect have left most of these houses in the Yamate district unlivable, unusable and in ruin. “Abandoned housing is a very common countryside problem,” says Tamaki Ono, associate professor of art at Onomichi City University and co-founder of AIR (Artists In Residence) Onomichi. “But the community is also very important.” In Ono’s eyes, depopulation and empty housing really isn’t a problem at all. It’s an opportunity. A wonderland even. “The location (of Onomichi) between mountain and sea, with architecture left untouched from war provides old, unique spaces to work with.”
Enter AIR Onomichi. Ample, inexpensive, and old housing provides perfect ground for creative installation and a use for otherwise worthless buildings and houses, once left for dead now reclaimed by the hands of tireless volunteers and reborn from the minds of artists. The credit is due to AIR Onomichi, which, since 2007, has worked in conjunction with Onomichi City University and a local NPO housing reclamation project.
The reclaimed buildings offer a unique canvas and a studio in addition to room and board for established foreign artists to come in and contribute to the project. Also these facilities provide a greener arty pasture than some more popular locations in Japan and an opportunity to nurture homegrown talent. “Many young artists in Japan choose to go to Kyoto or up to Tokyo but at great cost,” says Ono. As a result of expense and lack of opportunity recently some artists are heading to countryside locales, like Onomichi, and forming art communities with some impressive results.
August 2012 saw the opening of the art exhibition Expression, the latest phase of AIR Onomichi. Held in a restored building turned public art space overlooking the Seto Inland Sea, in this exhibition resident artists in Onomichi explore the theme of omomochi or what can be interpreted in English as “expression”. Expression of the face. Expression of surface, both exterior (the visually apparent) and interior (the psychological). The interpretations upon this theme vary widely amongst the commissioned artists but across the board the result is some very exciting contemporary artwork.
Intelligent and thought provoking, the collection of works of Expression range from an acoustic piece exploring love for music, to surreal imagery on wood executed in coloured-pencil. From watercolour paintings in which unexpected natural elements replace expected architectural features, to a mixed media installation of imagery and text based on an old guidebook that is meant to be opened and investigated as part of the experience. All the installations are truly conversation pieces that cleverly weave around the theme of “expression”, offering an assorted palette of styles and interpretations for viewer.
The project that is AIR Onomichi pays homage to the past while integrating the notion of contemporary and future Japan. Reinvention. Rebirth.
“This is a new movement in Onomichi and we don’t know what will happen in the future,” says Inagawa. “But the hope is that it will grow and help young artists to develop their work and hone their craft”. As AIR Onomichi grows and enters its next phase with the exhibition Expression, Faulon’s words still ring true.