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Vol.12 Creating Regional Possibilities: The Endeavors of Maizuru RB

by Toyohira Takeshi


Regional Possibilities

"Rejuvenating the town and region." It has been some time since this phrase came to be commonplace in regional promotional campaigns. But what exactly is it supposed to mean?

If you simply think of the phrase as an expression of the need to reactivate the local economy, it makes more sense. But what else is suggested by the word "rejuvenate"? In recent years, art projects and other events have been rapidly accepted as a means of regional promotion and town renewal. Isn't this in itself proof that people are seeking a new form of project with an extra added "something"?

One example of this new type of approach is Maizuru RB ("red brick"), an art project that was launched in 2009 as a cooperative effort between the city of Maizuru and an NPO called the Red Brick Club Maizuru. Simply put, this project is meant to unearth new possibilities in the local area. In more specific terms, this means organizing art projects that encourage new perspectives on things that were overlooked as too obvious in the past. This in turn helps people understand the complex and diverse nature of the region and identify the endless possibilities it contains, inspiring them to create their own stories, and convey them to the wider world.

The various viewpoints presented by artists in a series of projects organized by Maizuru RB function to reveal the rich and diverse potential of the area. One of these perspectives is the "view from the sea."


The Maizuru Sea

Maizuru, with a population of just under 90,000 (according to 2010 statistics), is situated along the sawtooth coastline of the lovely Wakasa Bay, and was developed as a natural harbor. Maizuru Bay, surrounded on three sides by mountains, was effective in repelling foreign attackers due to its narrow entrance, and as the gentle waves and deep water allowed many battleships to dock there, the port came to be used as a naval base, facing the Asian mainland, in the Meiji era. After World War II, it functioned as a salvage port for the mainland, and today, it is the only Maritime Self-Defense Force (SDF) base on the Japan Sea.

In the center of the eastern section of Maizuru, the east-west streets are named after battleships that were active at the time of the Russo-Japanese War, such as Fuji, Yashima, Shikishima, Asahi, Hatsuse, and Mikasa. And with SDF ships docked along the bay, the area's naval history is combined with the everyday scenery of the city. Adjacent to the SDF base is the Maizuru office of the Universal Shipbuilding Corporation (formerly the Maizuru Naval Arsenal), where huge vessels, including SDF and antarctic research ships like the Shirase, are built. On the other hand, a fishing port was developed in the west part of Maizuru, which flourished as a castle town, and the area is also home to the headquarters of the 8th Regional Coast Guard. In addition, in the Kanzaki and Oura district, which surrounds the bay, there are expansive sandy beaches and old fishing villages, leading to a different view of the sea than the one that is visible from the city. Looking at Maizuru as a whole, one finds approximately 130 red-brick naval buildings, including a group of twelve warehouses used by the old imperial navy for storage, the Hoffman kiln, where bricks were fired, a water reservoir, and the remnants of gun batteries.

A brief look around the city reveals that Maizuru is filled with things connected to the sea. The discovery of a dugout canoe suggests that this link dates to the Jomon Period, and the richness of the sea is indicated by one of the world's leading collections of fish specimens at the Kyoto University Field Science Education and Research Center (Maizuru Fisheries Research Station). And that's the only the start.

Located in a cluster of red-brick warehouses, Maizuru RB showcases the sea, which is an "obvious" part of the city. The inspiration for the project came from the Kyoto-resident artist Koyamada Toru's "Floating Museum."


Floating Museum

Held at Maizuru RB from October to December 2009, "Floating Museum – For Things Connected to the Sea," overseen by Koyamada Toru, was an unusual sort of exhibition. A variety of objects related to the nearby sea were hung in a tremendously large space in Red Brick Warehouse No. 7, a structure built over 100 years ago. Some 300 objects that had washed up on ashore, including lifejackets, sandals, hardened pieces of polystyrene, plastic bottles with Hangul, Chinese, and Russian writing on them, a helmet from an old diving suit, and specimens of fish preserved in formalin, were arranged in an orderly fashion. The display items were all found by Koyamada and participants in his workshop in the course of their field work. While most of the items were flotsam collected along the Maizuru coast, there were also some old marine tools that were discovered in one corner of the Kyoto University research facility. The preserved fish were first caught by workshop participants and then turned into scientific specimens under the direction of a researcher from the center.

Koyamada explained his reason for choosing objects from the sea as the theme of the exhibition as follows: "Since Maizuru is much more deeply rooted in sea culture than land culture, I thought using things from the sea would bring out the geographical features of the area. The fact that things from the Yura River [flowing through the western section of the city] ended up on the beach, and flotsam from Korea, China, and Russia washed ashore is in itself is related to the culture of the past." (Excerpt from a 2009 interview with the artist.)

While using all five senses to trace the history of the sea in the Maizuru area back to the Jomon Period, as explained by Koyamada and a variety of guests, the workshop participants helped hang the objects that had been selected.

Koyamada continues, "[By hanging the objects], the background and foundation are cleared away, and the objects take on a life of their own as things. Placing various objects in the same situation struck me as a good way think of approaching the things. And this seemed to somehow overlap with an approach of considering the history, present state, and future of Maizuru. There are a variety of ties and historical fabrics, so it isn't easy to remove the objects from them, but by suspending them in the air, it becomes easier to see what is interesting about them, what they have in common, or to discover how they're different." (Excerpt from the interview mentioned above.)

In the "Floating Museum," display items with a variety of purposes were randomly suspended at the same height in a grid pattern. This made it possible to remove the meanings that clung to the objects, and allowed the viewer to focus on the material and texture of the things themselves. As we traced the scratches on their surface with our eyes, the sea story of each of the items naturally began to appear. Shifting our glance from the items to the entire exhibition space, the significance of the "war legacy" that weighs so heavily on the red-brick warehouse dissipated, and the story of the building as an architectural structure along with the sea story contained in the Maizuru area rose to the surface in a new form.

In addition to the "Floating Museum," Koyamada has organized several other events in conjunction with Maizuru RB to present a view of the city from the sea. These have included a December 2009 exhibition called "For the Love of Nautical Charts," which featured rare nautical charts of the area that have been preserved by the 8th Regional Coast Guard; and a July 2010 event called "Koyamada Toru Style: Art Camp on the Coast," in which 20 elementary and junior-high school students participated along the city's Kanzaki Shore. This in turn led to "The Seeds Trip in Maizuru" project, directed by the artist Hibino Katsuhiko, at Maizuru RB.


The Seeds Trip in Maizuru

"The Seeds Trip in Maizuru – Departing Maizuru: Stories of the Sea as Conveyed by a Boat" project was launched in September 2010 under the supervision of Hibino Katsuhiko. Along with the "Assate Asagao Project" (Day After Tomorrow Morning Glory Project), designed to link many areas and people with morning glory seeds, Hibino has conducted "The Seeds Trip" project, in which he creates boats in the shape of a morning-glory seed, in places such as Kanazawa, Niigata, Yokohama, and Kagoshima. Just as seeds are "vehicles" that contain memories of land and plants, boats play a central role in distribution and trade as well as carrying thoughts and memories. "The Seeds Trip in Maizuru" is the Maizuru version of the project. Unearthing the regional character and resources related to the Maizuru sea, the first phase of the project, in which a self-propelled boat will be built over a three-year period, called for the production of a full-scale, wood and cardboard model of the Maizuru-maru with a height of four meters, length of five meters, and width of four meters. The huge model, created over the course of a month primarily with local people, was displayed in the plaza behind one of the red-brick warehouses following a completion ceremony in October, attracting many viewers, including many families.

Hibino says the project is meant to "make connections between people through the boat." In his view, conversation isn't the only thing that brings people together. For example, by working on something together, even if they don't speak to each other, a link is formed. By constructing he framework of the ship out of wood, sewing its cardboard exterior together with kite string, and attaching coarse colored paper to the exterior, many people formed different kinds of relationships with each other. The "boat" functions as a symbol at the heart of this process.

When I asked one boy who participated in the project about his experience, he answered in a perfectly natural manner, "Is my boat finished?" Unable to take part in the building of the ship's base (created mainly by adults) because he was still only in elementary school, he was only able to participate in the comparatively simple work of attaching the exterior panels. Despite this, in his eyes, it was "his" boat.

With this in mind, the completion ceremony for the Maizuru-maru served as the climax of this village festival as an event that commemorated the finished vessel and its launch. And like a festival, the preparation phase might be seen as the most fundamental part of the project. In the process of building the ship, the participants reconstructed their connections with each other, and showed a renewed appreciation for the sea and the land. In that sense, the Maizuru-maru truly belonged to everyone who took part in the project. Of course, "The Seeds Trip" porject has aspects that are distinctly different from a village festival. In a festival, the villagers are both participants and viewers, but the participants/viewers in this project weren't limited to villagers alone. More than a few people who participated in past versions of both Hibino's morning-glory seed and boat projects came from around the country and took part in this project too. The boat created in Maizuru was also their boat and the festival connected to the project extended far beyond the local area.

In fiscal 2011, "The Seeds Trip in Maizuru" will be held for the second year. This time the boat is set to travel Niigata, the birthplace of the "Assate Asagao Project," as the participants work to make the vessel self-propelled. According to Mori Mariko, art director at Maizuru RB, there are plans to convey the unique regional characteristics of each area by stopping at various places along the way, and traveling from port to port, and fishing village to fishing village. In other words, the story of the sea as conveyed by a boat departing from Maizuru is just about to begin.


Increasing Understanding of the Local Area

In addition to the two projects mentioned above, Maizuru RB has attempted to alter the obvious and unearth rich possibilities in a variety of ways in the city. These have included a diverse range of events including stage production called Urban Diary: Maizuru (2009), performed at Red Brick Warehouse No. 2 by the Marebito Theatre Company, under the direction of Matsuda Masataka; a dance performance titled Totsutoshu Dance (Halting Dance; 2010), staged at the Graceville Maizuru special nursing home for the elderly by the dancer Jareo Osamu; and a lecture series in which specialists in a variety of fields, including Hibino Katsuhiko and the architect Miyamoto Katsuhiro, discussed Maizuru.

The presentation of a variety of different viewpoints in Maizuru RB is also indicative of an increased understanding of the local area. As the sociologist Yamada Sohei has said, "Increasing understanding in a region calls for a knowledge of the potential for coexistence between diversity and various types of culture in the area, and is an activity that serves as the foundation for greater democracy and the realization of a free and fair society." The Maizuru RB project is one such activity, and while it might initially appear to be a circuitous route, it is in fact a shortcut to "rejuvenating the town and region.

(English translation by Christopher Stephens)


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