Beppu, a steaming hot gateway to hell – or at least that’s the description we found across our most reliable travel guides & fellow travel blogs – filled with open air hot springs, onsen spring water bath houses & hostels with showers using hot water straight from the springs themselves; adding Beppu to the growing list of ‘places to see in Japan’ wasn’t such a dilemma, however, what remained was identifying which of our interests of #Travel_Art, #Travel_Architecture & #Travel_Music were going to help Beppu navigate its way to the top of the list.
Enter, the Beppu Contemporary Art Festival – ‘Mixed Bathing World’ 2012.
Hot Art & Modern Springs
Held during Beppu’s art months between October & December, the art festival & it’s name ‘Mixed Bathing World’ seek to reunify the city that gradually has changed over the past fifty years from a flourishing port town brimming with hot springs, to a city with a declining population & hot springs still regularly visited by tourists, but in declining numbers.
With the name, ‘Mixed Bathing World’, the arts committee aims to remind the town of a time before the hot spring baths were segregated between men & women, to a time some fifty years past where everyone would come together as a community to bathe openly together with no clothing acting as a barrier or defence mechanism, and without separation so that everyone held the same level of respect and received open encouragement to communicate.
In 2009, the Beppu Arts Committee welcomed the world to it’s hot springs like every other year, but this time had the opening ‘Mixed Bathing World’ festival to encourage more exploration of what else Beppu has to offer tourists, but to affirm it’s mission statement to encourage the local populace to try new things, but also encourage the growing number of youth leaving the city upon graduation age.
It was an immediate success, people from all over the world (art critics & art gallery directors included) welcomed the change in direction Beppu had pointed it’s future towards, however, rather than being able to build off the back of such welcoming critics, for the following years festival found itself in the middle of a worldwide financial crisis; and then the next year, and then the next year…
…finally in 2012 the festival returns.
Whilst some of the previous festivals art spaces remain as ‘Platforms’ – art spaces for resident artists & local artists to showcase their growing collections of work – rather than disturb the growing organic way the platforms have come to grow throughout the city, the committee decide upon the idea of hosted artists working at one of eight separate sites, or ‘Projects’ as they are so named.
Project One –Resurrecting vacant old houses by displaying intriguing works of art in them
Located within the Hamawaki area just a five minute work south of Beppu’s downtown, this piece was commissioned by the buildings owner as an opportunity to take what was once a rundown traditional Japanese wooden structure, and turn it into an entire piece of art, from top to bottom, from lighting to decoration.
Minimal, dark & moody, the coldness of the blue light filtering through hundreds of glass balls of differing sizes began to draw us towards reaching for them, reaching for the light, hoping to feel the message intended.
Supported by the owner as a personal fan of his work, Satoshi Hirose has constructed a art piece within an space that could, and can be considered art within it’s own right.
Project Two – Transformation of entire shopping arcade into a theater
Formerly Beppu’s primary shopping arcade, the closed shop fronts are a stark reminder of how many business’ have closed over the past fifty years in the wake of regularly opening multi-floor shopping centres & economic problems felt world wide.
Aiming to try new methods to rejuvenate the darkening windows & rotting wooden windows, Beppu’s Contemporary Art Festival enlisted the talents of space director/choreographer Yoko Higashino, sound performance artist Toshio Kajiwara & dramatic stage art group R type L to evolve something dramatic from the gloom.
Sounds crafted from tunes old & forgotten. Full wall decorations created from objects discarded & retired. The empty menswear shop utilised for this part of the project has a story long forgotten, but the story being written by these artists spoke to us of never forgetting that the future is built on the past, that for every new item of clothing that is stitched together, every MP3 that replaces a CD or cassette; people & their communities must utilize these buildings & items perfectly ready to support a new business.
Project Three – Considering issues of contemporary society in an age of advancing globalization
The subject of advancing globalization was a tantalizing subject after having spent a week in Tokyo, where the advance of western big name brands is growing with every day, so reading about Shilpa Gupta’s project excited me; and it didn’t disappoint.
Best heard than explained, Gupta’s work is as much an audio piece as a physical one. Once heard & discussed, the imagery used along with the spoken words & sound effects gave us uncomfortable feelings, but also forced upon us the idea that globalisation – or in the case of this piece, sexual tourism – is spreading.
Project Four – Free-form performing arts zone in renovated strip club
Once Oita Prefectures only strip club, the A-Kyu Beppu Theater closed its doors soon after the 2009 festival, this building has been remodeled & renovated as the Eikyu (Eternal) Beppu Theater, used by a local non-profit organisation to promote free-form performance art.
During the night we were there we had the fortune to watch four artists perform from the nearly extinct traditional Japanese kinpun (gold-dust) shows – a decorative dance sexualised for performances in strip clubs during the 1950’s – tango, modern & hip-hop/street dance.
Project Five – Disused commercial spaces as venues for dramatic perceptual experiences
Atop the Tokiwa department store on a disused shop floor where former clothes shop signs still decorate the walls, Ann Veronica Janssens’ sensory installation woke uncertain feelings of danger upon entering.
Entering into a large blacked out room where the only light available steams from a few lights positioned around the room, there is a purpose made mist, or fog, which fills the air; not damp to the touch across your skin, but heavy on the air – like walking along a country lane at 2am, our eyes slowly began to adjust & the shapes across the bare walls became clearer & welcoming.
Apprehensively stepping forward into the path of the light, the work covers you & wakens your eyes to the largeness of the room & the intention of the installation – appreciating your senses as sometimes one forget we possess.
Project Six – Otherworldly transformation of the city by the ring of 100 banners with bells
Along the pier jutting out into Beppu’s shining sea from the sandy beachfront are one hundred banners themed on the hot water that Beppu is famed for, but also the calm cold blue sea that borders the length of the seaside city.
Rushing winds pass over the whole scene ringing two types of bells attached to the flags of red & blue creating a singing soundtrack to our walk from start to finish, best heard than described.
Project Seven – Local landmark as a a venue for re-examination of modernity
Beppu Tower, third oldest of Japan’s long line of tourism attracting towers, shines it’s lights across the city come the dark of the night displaying the words of one of Japan’s leading breweries.
Tsuyoshi Ozawa’s intent for this project was the take the bright neon signs along the length of the tower & program them into a chorus of words that on reading tell a tale in multiple languages. Each selection of letters can be interpreted as a differing word to the one before it, and each word may either be in Japanese, or even in Spanish, French & Chinese – languages of foreigners living in the city. The aim? To push citizens permanent & temporary to communicate to with each other to interpret the tale being told.
Based around the story of the ‘Tower of Babel’, the project evolves & can be seen around the city from pieces that have been made, in part, with the shopkeepers of the city shopping arcades.
Also mimicking the great tower stretching to the heavens, towers of coffee, glasses, clothes fruit & sweets can be seen as an accompaniment to the Beppu Tower itself as an attempt to drive conversation between passers by & the shop owners themselves.
Project Eight – Widespread display of large bamboo sculptures incorporating steam rising from hot springs
Spread out between the numerous hot springs in Beppu’s Kannawa district, Qie Zhijie’s bamboo sculptures utilising old techniques to pose new questions of how the old industry of hot springs & the steam that funnels up to the sky will adapt to an ever-changing world; atop of red hot chimneys & streaming down scaffolding, peaking through the white wind of steam & against the blue sky backdrop, the sight its unusual to see, but satisfying.
How To Find –
As a starting point, in the lobby of the sole train station in Beppu you’ll find a ticket counter specifically for the festival where you can purchase your ‘Passport’ (ticket for all of the projects, stamped as you enter each), plus you’ll be able to pick up a map & booklets detailing all you’ll need to know. (NOTE – English material is scarce but on request, any important information can be given)
Adults: ¥2,000 – €20/£16/$25
Value for money –
HIGH – Though the price may startle some, the valuation against the quality & quantity of art on offer during not just the pieces themselves, but also the performances, options for spoken tours (on request) & the art month running simultaneously, is a small price to pay.
Location address & map –
Beppu Contemporary Art Festival – Information Desk
Beppu Train Station
View Beppu Contemporary Art Festival – ‘Mixed Bathing World’ in a larger map
More important than the artworks themselves, the effort of the town to turn the tide of how it’s community sees itself & how it’s beginning to work together to turn around the declining looks & feel to the city touched us both, so much so that we wouldn’t hesitate to return at the next triennial festival.
As for the projects themselves, there is something for everyone – much like every festival you’ll find around the world. Our personal favourites were the works by Ann Veronica Janssens, Shilpa Gupta & the Kinpun (gold-dust) performance, but again, it’s the feel of the festival & the ideas for the future that make this truly unmissable.