Far From the Art World

Zachary Johnson
A curator on producing public art in Japan

I made my first foray into public art in Chicago in 2012. Or rather, attempted to. For months I struggled with pessimistic ward office secretaries, confusing city government bureaucracy, and unresponsive city departments. I sought out advice from a veteran art planner in the city and tried to rebound from each bureaucratic defeat. I asked the artist I was working with for patience and pushed our spring installation proposal into summer. I was moving to Japan at the end of July, so time was running out as I continued to call and email the city representative that could green light the project. On July 29th the spot I’d hoped to fill with art stood empty, and I was on a plane for Japan.

The experience left me feeling discouraged and burnt out. Did I really want to get into public art if it meant endless bureaucratic red tape? Still, I saw my new home as a fresh start. Life on a rural Japanese island was nothing like the bustle of Chicago. I wanted to try again. 

With my first few curatorial projects in Japan, I’d received near-instant approval. Within minutes of approaching a cultural center about a group exhibition of American artists, I had permission. In only twenty minutes, my town’s city hall approved my "Before I Die: Kawaura" proposal. It had taken Candy Chang, the project’s original creator, months.  In January of 2014, I proposed something more complex. Since coming to the city of Amakusa, I’d been interested in creating an art project reflective of Amakusa’s biggest problem: the declining population rate, which is the fastest in Japan. The symptoms are everywhere: empty houses, closed schools, shuttered storefronts, etc.

From that I came up with the idea of omoidemari, a combination of the Japanese word for memory, omoidé, and temari, a local folk art. I planned to make a simplified version of temari and distribute them to Amakusa residents, inviting them to place the small, thread-wrapped balls at locations they once enjoyed. In addition, I would distribute instructions on how to make one’s own omoidemari, a process I intentionally made fast and simple. Thus, I hoped, the images of the balls would become familiar, and their creation might become a new tradition. 

These were the ideas with which I walked into the Ushibuka City Hall branch office in January. Once again nervous, I handed an office worker a two-page proposal, requesting the project become a part of Ushibuka Haiya, Amakusa’s biggest annual festival. In less than one week, I’d been given approval and a point person for the project. The plan was in motion. I couldn’t believe it could be so easy.

In April, after months of feverishly creating more pieces (the city had supplied me with materials to increase my works from 100 to 300), the weekend of Haiya had arrived. I set up at the festival and was ready to go. Quickly, I encountered a few setbacks. First, the approved locations were very few, six stores in the town center and the large parade boat that sat prominently in the downtown. Second, within the first hour, my workshop space was ransacked by others in need of more chairs and tables. Undeterred, I handed out the pieces next to a large sign the city had created to explain the project. One by one, I asked people to write their memories of Ushibuka and showed them the map of locations. 

I’d been excited to make art for the general public, and I got what I wished for. Some people were reluctant, others shied away from me, and some elderly residents looked confused. Still, others approached enthusiastically. They had read my newspaper interview the city had arranged and were excited to take part. A mother helped her 7-year-old son write in still unfamiliar letters, “はいやはたのしかった” ("Haiya was fun"). Then she took the magic marker from him and passionately wrote sentence after sentence until she ran out of space. I could feel her excitement about Ushibuka and felt so happy that I could give her a means to express it. When encountering less spirited participants, part of me longed for the ease of a contemporary art audience: familiar with art, open, interested. But the satisfaction of reaching out to everyday people and responding to their lived experiences with art kept me excited and ready for the challenge. I felt satisfied in creating a project whose aesthetics were familiar, its execution easy to understand. Even if an old woman stared at me confused, I could explain the project in just a few sentences.

In the end, through the changes that came with collaboration, the idea of the project had departed significantly from my original intentions. The balls and the memories attached to them became another celebratory element of the Haiya Festival rather than a way to illuminate forgotten spaces. My plans of encouraging locals to create their own weren’t realized either. In a way I was ready for this. Before beginning the project, I’d read that effective public art planners strike a balance between compromise and the original intent of a project. I had come into the process with that mindset.

After the festival ended, I experienced another unexpected shift. The omoidemari, which the city and I had planned to remain up for a month, had been moved inside the shops and put on display. The store owners smiled happily as I took their pictures with the displays, and I felt that while locals hadn’t taken to creating their own pieces, the omoidemari did have a second life after all. The city would bring them out again for next year’s festival and the store owners would keep some up during the year. In addition, the city began discussing how the project could be repeated next year after I leave Japan. It seemed the omoidemari had a chance to weave their way into Ushibuka life after all.

In August, I return to the States and with this experience and feel confident that I can continue with public art in my home country. Even though the execution of the project changed significantly from my plans, I feel proud that I was able to make something that held meaning and value for a specific community. I’m not sure I want to take on a large city again just yet, but if I’ve learned anything, it’s that small towns are ripe for place-conscious public art.

Zachary Johnson is an artist and arts worker currently living in Amakusa, Japan.  He has created and organized public artworks and exhibitions in Chicago, its suburbs, and Japan. He also writes, designs, and manages content for the Chicago-based organization Sixty Inches From Center. He holds a BA in art history from Columbia College Chicago.


Parade scenes: Courtesy of the city of Ushibuka. All other images courtesy of the artist.

Published by CAR_Jeff on Tue, 12/02/2014 - 1:28pm
Updated on Sat, 01/24/2015 - 1:15am