Trolls in the Park 2011 | Connecting green and urban space

A bed of fabric red apples fallen from an imaginary orchard, a monolithic slab of black metal jutting at an acute angle out of the ground, glow-in-the-dark water lilies - these are just a small sample of a diverse range of artworks which have appeared in Zempukuji Park to surprise, excite, and sometimes shock the residents of Zempukuji.
‘Trolls in the Park’ is an annual open air art exhibition which takes place in autumn in the modestly sized but lovingly tendered Zempukuji Park, located in a secluded area of Suginami in Western Tokyo. Now celebrating its tenth year, the exhibition which brings together both Japanese and international artists as well as a number of performers and local groups, aims to bring contemporary art closer to the daily lives of the surrounding community. Hiroko Murata, co-founder along with her husband Tatsuhiko, explains the reasons for starting the event:

“The first idea to start the exhibition came after an experience of helping out with Fujino Fieldwork, an open air contemporary art exhibition which took place in Kanagawa. The artists put in a lot of effort, and the exhibition itself was of a very high quality, but the local residents showed absolutely no interest. The majority of visitors were art professionals who made a special journey out to see the exhibition.
So I thought what would happen if the same kind of exhibition were to be held in Tokyo, in Suginami? Local residents are using Zempukuji park every day to walk their dogs, by children in the play area. So I wondered how they would react to contemporary art. In the case of art enthusiasts, even if the first experience of seeing art in a park was difficult at first, I thought perhaps they would grow to enjoy the event. After thinking seriously about it throughout 2001, we finally started the exhibition in 2002.”

Hiroko goes on to explain the reason for choosing the unique name of the exhibition.
“For some, the sudden appearance of artwork in the everyday setting of a park might be a strange occurrence. A common reaction by ordinary people when they see art of this kind is, ‘what is ‘contemporary art’ anyway? It’s over my head.’ In a sense, the artwork is like the appearance of a strange fantastical creature. But in meeting with this new ‘something’, viewers are sometimes led to make new discoveries in their everyday experience. It is for this reason that we started the exhibition.”
Tatushiko goes on to talk about Zempukuji Park, and its unique history.

“Zempukuji Park came into being by the grouping together of different landowners who shared their land to create a park shared by everyone. It was only later on that it became a metropolitan park. It was a park created by the community, just as Momoshi Elementary school (a school in close vicinity to the park and another venue for the ‘Trolls’ event this year) was also created by local landowners who put their money together.”

The area of Zempukuji was originally a farming village that provided rice and other vegetables to the Edo government. After the war, as wealthier people moved to the area, it gradually evolved into a residential area, with people buying land to build their own houses. In recent years, these plots of land are being divided to provide housing for newer generations which has led to a dramatic change in the structure of the Zempukuji community.
So what sort of reactions to the event have there been from the different generations residing in Zempukuji? Hiroko talks about the mixture of feeling about the first exhibition.

“The very first reaction came from Radio Pachi Pachi (a local radio station who have been broadcasting to the Zempukuji community on a regular basis. They also celebrate their tenth anniversary this year), who asked us for a radio interview. After the exhibition started, the first reaction was to Ryozo Takashima’s work in which two hundred or so miniature windmills were placed on a slope in the park, turning in unison with the slightest gust of wind.Although the work itself was tinged with irony, it was an enjoyable sight to see the windmills turning. There was a sign next to the work saying that visitors were free to take them at the end of the exhibition. We worried they would be tampered with before the end, but all the windmills remained intact. The fact that all the windmills were taken at the end shows a number of regular visitors had been enjoying the work. On the other hand, there was the work of Aska Yokoyama. It involved floating large fake water lilies on the Zempukuji pond which glowed in the dark due to a coating of special phosphorescent paint. Aska had first wanted to use nets to float the lilies, but complaints were made by members of the Wild Bird Society of Japan who frequently visit the park. She found other ways of securing the lilies, but during the month-long exhibition, they had dispersed somewhat, which led to more claims.”

The first exhibition in 2002 involved only three artists, Ryozo Takashima, Aska Yokoyama and Antti Ylonen. Antti was an artist from Finland who had joined the Youkobo Artist Residence Program in the same year. He set a unique bamboo installation on a tiny island in the Zempukuji Pond, with the bamboo donated by a landowner who permitted him to use more than 200 fresh slim bamboo trees from his garden.
The 'Trolls' in the event title originated from `The Moomin Trolls' created by the famous illustrator and writer Tove Jansson who also comes from Antti's home country.

The location of Zempukuji Park poses a number of challenges to the artists who participate. As a public space surrounded by residential houses, to some regular visitors it is more like an extension of private space, a garden shared by all those who live close by. And as such, any change to the norm of those who use the park on a daily basis can sometimes lead to friction. The park is also a so-called ‘natural park’ where the management are making every effort to maintain it in a natural way, hence refraining to use pesticides.
The fact that a number of artists have joined the exhibition on repeated occasions suggests that the merits of showing in ‘Trolls’ outweigh the obstacles which have to be overcome. So what can we expect from this year’s exhibition, which welcomes back the three artists who joined the first event in 2002 Hiroko explains:

“My feeling is that this year’s event should be a kind of festival which all the people who have contributed over the past ten years can enjoy, where the artists will again work hard to put on an excellent exhibition which can also be enjoyed by the visitors to the park. In a word, a fitting exhibition for the tenth anniversary celebration.”

The 2011 event will not only involve an exhibition of work by fifteen Japanese and national artists, but will also see a number of performances taking place at weekends. As in previous years, the local group Radio Pachi Pachi will be providing tea and coffee at a small café next to the stage, and visitors will get a chance to hear more about the work in an art tour conducted by the participating artists themselves.
It is perhaps with the future of the ‘Trolls’ event in mind that this year will also see a number of collaborations with the neighboring Momoshi Elementary school. This new development will have children working directly with participating artists, and some of the finished work will be shown in the school grounds as part of the event. In the final comment about the next ten years, Tatsuhiko and Hiroko talk of continuing to build on the event as a collaboration between artists and the Zempukuji community.

“Even though there have been many difficulties, over the last ten years we have managed to set the foundations for this event. And having laid these foundations, it naturally follows that something be built on top. I think if the links and connections that we have established with the community can be combined with new connections made through the leadership of younger generations, the event can be developed even further. It doesn’t matter if the structure is changed, but the worst thing would be for the event to come to an end. From now on, I hope that art’s message can be conveyed even more effectively, so that viewers’ reactions don’t simply end with ‘how interesting’ or ‘this is enjoyable’. But I think this is the job of newer generations.”
‘Trolls in the Park 2011’ will commence on November 3 and continue until November 23.

Interviewed by Jaime Humphreys
Photographed by Kanai Manabu