Location: Shiogama, Miyagi
On Architecture, Art, and Preserving Heritage in Shiogama
Interview conducted, transcribed, and translated by Naoko Sakazume
Co-edited by Sat De Los Angeles
*Parts of this interview have been edited for brevity and clarity
This spring, artists Sayuri Kanno and Sotaro Kikuchi exhibited at the Sugimura Jun Museum of Art as part of the museum’s Voyage series. Sendai Motions sat down with them to discuss how the historical character of buildings and the cityscape of Shiogama influenced them creatively in preparing for their exhibitions.
Sotaro Kikuchi dabbles in a diverse array of materials such as pencil, realia, and construction materials to create fascinating art installations and spark curiosity among visitors as to how they experience space. At the heart of his Voyage installation was a memorable house called Wisma Kuwera he encountered while living in Indonesia. Following the owner’s passing and endless spontaneous renovations, Sotaro went on to do fieldwork to investigate and understand its transformation from a social angle.
Through photographs, Sayuri has been carefully documenting reconstruction efforts across Miyagi Prefecture, as well as the lives of the people who live here. Her work focuses on the sense of strangeness seen in urban spaces in contemporary Japan. She has been practicing photography with her digital camera since the early 2000s. The newly built homes photographed by Sayuri are often minimal and bland, with a barebones functional aesthetic—many bear a sheet metal–like exterior covered with a coat of white or light-grey paint.
The Sugimura Jun Museum of Art is located in Miyagi Prefecture, in the heart of Shiogama City’s historical downtown area, a ten- or so minute walk from Hon-Shiogama Station. The walk from the train station to the museum passes through a charming commercial district with a fusion of old and new buildings spanning eras from Meiji to Reiwa. Rising above the shops, partway up a small hill, stands the Sugimura Jun Museum. The museum’s canary-yellow facade, built from locally excavated Shiogama stone, and the spaceship-like curves of the auditorium make it hard to miss.
"This museum is no ordinary museum." —Sotaro Kikuchi
The building housing the museum was initially constructed after the Second World War. From its opening in 1950, the building functioned for most of its existence as a full-time local community center. Following renovations, it reopened in 2014 in its current form as the museum, with elements its former community-center functions still in operation as well.
SM: Sotaro, In terms of renovations and from what you saw, how is this building—the museum—different from ones in Indonesia?
Sotaro: Like the house [I lived in], the Wisma Kuwera building in Indonesia, this museum is also a place where its functions have been changed and it has been renovated over time. I feel that this is a place where signs and traces of the people who live here are constantly updating themselves with the times. It may be a little different from what renovation in Indonesia means, but I think there is something in common between the two.
Generally speaking, the purpose of renovations in Indonesia and in Japan are different. Renovations in Indonesia are thought of as just extensions or alterations, because the renovations are things which are necessary immediately [to make a building functional and liveable]. There’s no need to make things look neat and stylish, the way we think of renovations here in Japan.
However, in Indonesia, home renovations also keep going. There are no boundaries as to when to when to start and finish, so it seems like homes are constantly expanding and changing. People just take a break and when the break’s over, renovations continue.
Also, Indonesia has only one season—summer—so if there are gaps in between the buildings, it doesn’t bother them and homeowners are usually very generous with carpenters [with regard to meeting a deadline].
It’s very different when you compare it to renovations in Japan. If a building is still not finished by winter, you cannot live in it. It would be difficult to follow an Indonesian-style renovation routine here because the climate is definitely different.
But despite the differences, I would like to respect and appreciate how Indonesians approach renovation and use that mindset.
SM: In Japan, when you construct or renovate buildings you have to draw plans for earthquake resistance, and there are many safety regulations. Are there no regulations at all in Indonesia?
Sotaro: Indonesia is also a country with a lot of natural disasters such as earthquakes. Of course, there are safety regulations for construction. However, not many people follow them.
Another reason is the lack of money. For example, in the case of creating brick walls for homes, there is a rule that they must be double-layered for earthquake resistance, but there are many cases where there is only one wall [due to cost issues].
Wisma Kuwera was the private residence of a famous Indonesian architect named Romo Mangunwijaya. It was decorated with his original ornaments, so there is some recognition that it is an unusual building, but since there has been no research or investigation into it, it doesn't seem to be well preserved.
SM: That's a little different from this museum, isn't it?
Sayuri: At this museum, I feel a there is very strong will to preserve the building.
SM: Why is this museum different from other museums?
Sotaro: This museum is no ordinary museum. It has windows . . .
Sayuri: . . . Normally, museums have no windows. It's hard to believe that natural light from the outdoors can enter the exhibition room.
Sotaro: There is something different about this museum from the so-called plain “white cube galleries.”
[White cube galleries are types of art galleries that have white-painted walls and floors, with no windows and no space to engage and interact.]
Sayuri: I was surprised to learn after the exhibition schedule was decided that I was not allowed to hammer nails into the museum’s wall.
To put it bluntly, not being able to hammer nails into a two-dimensional work such as my photographs is quite a big deal. You can't just hang your work on the wall.
This is because there are restrictions on not damaging building interiors such as walls and the like. I've never exhibited in such a place before, so it was very difficult. I think anyone who holds an exhibition here will run into that problem. My starting point for this exhibition was to figure out how to exhibit under such constraints.
SM: So you suspended your photographs in the air [with each photograph sandwiched in a glass frame] this time because you couldn't hammer any nails?
Sayuri: Yes, but once the ground starts to shake, the works will shake quite a bit, so the museum’s curator and I discussed how serious it would be if a big earthquake happened.
After assessing the scenarios, we decided that if the photographs were going to shake a little, we would just pretend that even the shaking was part of my exhibition. I was very worried about it before setting my works up, but I'm glad that I managed to make it happen.
[By sheer coincidence, several hours later after we conducted this interview on February 13, a strong shindo 6+ earthquake occurred off the coast of Fukushima Prefecture, about one hundred kilometers southeast of the museum. Another of similar scale followed a month later on March 20. Fortunately, neither the artworks nor interviewees were harmed.]
SM: In your exhibition, you mentioned the "loss of identity in our memories" by showing the new housing developments and temporary housing that popped up everywhere like mushrooms after the 2011 earthquake. Here, this building—where this museum and public space is—aims to preserve the city’s history, people’s memories, and celebrate milestones.
With identity and memory in the spotlight, what are the differences you’ve seen between this place and the residential homes you’ve taken photographs of?
Sayuri: Compared to Sendai City, where I live, I believe Shiogama values memories much more deeply. While safety is key in creating new physical structures, it comes at a cost of losing memories in the process.
When I made my presentation pitch [for the Voyage exhibition], I explained that it’s a common practice to replace such old buildings with new ones. In Sendai, local authorities often destroy buildings over seventy years old. That’s why I was so shocked to see old buildings remain here in Shiogama.
So in my pitch, I said I wanted to exhibit the photographs of the residential areas in a place like this museum. I believe this place has a strong will to preserve such lost memories. [Because the homes in the photographs seem plain and ordinary,] my work would stand out if I exhibited it here.
I am glad that my intention was understood by the jury and that I was able to exhibit here successfully. I also hope this will give the public an opportunity to reflect about identity and memory from this perspective as well.
Museum hours: 10:00–17:00 (last entry 16:30)
Admission: ¥200 adults. Some exhibitions may require an additional fee.
Language: English OK
Location: Shiogama City Sugimura Jun Museum of Art (塩竃市杉村惇美術館)
Access: 9-minute walk from Hon-Shiogama Station
About the contributors
Naoko is a freelance translator specializing in content about the local art scene in Tohoku. Born in Aichi Prefecture, after time spent living abroad in Europe her journey led her back to Japan—to her current home of Shiogama, where she is the lead coordinator for JUNBI Supporters, the official volunteer group of the Sugimura Jun Museum.
Sat De Los Angeles
Sat is an interdisciplinary artist and language instructor; he has been working as an assistant language teacher in Shiogama through the JET Programme since 2016. A longtime radio DJ before moving to Japan, he now experiments with different forms of art such as sound design, illustration, and writing. He also works on various collaborative art and community projects, including volunteering at the Sugimura Jun Museum through the JUNBI Supporters group.