Seto Inland Sea island finds salvation through art, but on its residents’ own terms


It’s always a pleasure to visit Naoshima, Benesse’s “art island,” whether it happens to be a Setouchi Triennale festival year or not. Many permanent exhibitions are available for perusal, including those inside museums (Monet waterlilies in the Chichu Art Museum, for example), the Art House Projects located in traditional Japanese houses (James Turrell’s experiential “Backside of the Moon”) and outdoor installations with marine backdrops (Yayoi Kusama’s pumpkins).

But the expansion of exhibits to the surrounding islets is what really sets off the Triennale. These additional works help keep the Naoshima contemporary art concept fresh while providing an island-hopping opportunity you won’t find anywhere else in the world.

Art has gone a long way to helping restore these sparsely populated islands to sustainability. Located along the marine byways of the Seto Inland Sea, these once-thriving communities suffer from the draw of the mainland. Modern city life has reeled in the lifeblood of these fishing villages. Homes are either vacant or abandoned, schools are closed and lack of medical care is becoming a contentious issue for the elderly who remain. The islands’ destinies are typically left to a handful of remaining residents, mostly elderly, who lack the strength — and often the vision — to revitalize their moribund hometowns themselves.

To get a closer look at what is really happening on one of the outlying art islands in Kagawa Prefecture, I spoke with David Billa, a French resident of Takamatsu, the prefectural capital, who was invited to blog about the first Triennale in 2010 (at that time called the Setouchi International Art Festival) by a local organization aiming to promote Kagawa and Shikoku to French people.

“I loved the art projects instantly,” he told me in an email exchange. “It reconciled me with contemporary art and allowed me to discover the local islands in a very unique way.”

Naoshima offers “large-scale, big-budget museums and art installations,” says Billa, “which attract tourists who bring business to the various cafes, restaurants and other accommodation. It’s a tourism-based economy.”

In the case of Naoshima, which previously suffered from the effects of an illegal industrial waste dumping site on nearby Teshima, the Benesse art concept has changed the island’s image dramatically. It was in 1985 that publishing magnate Tetsuhiko Fukutake, president of the forerunner to Benesse Holdings, and the mayor of Naoshima, Chikatsugu Miyake, first talked about revitalizing the island through art as opposed to industry. “The island has survived, been revitalized, but it is deeply changed,” explains Billa.

The smaller islands, most of which have populations in the mere hundreds compared to Naoshima’s 3,000 or so, are a different experiment. With neither the infrastructure nor accessibility of Naoshima, the approaches to the displays on the smaller islands are a pleasant juxtaposition to the more well-known installations on Benesse’s main art island.

While Billa cautions that each island is different and has its own unique community, culture — and, thus, needs — the small island of Ogijima was able to find a formula that allowed it to keep its community intact.

In 2010, the 200 or so inhabitants of Ogijima faced a grim future. Due to the aging and declining population, the indubitable fact was that their cultural sanctuary would eventually die out. To preempt this fate, the island folk started to consider whether art could be a viable salvation. But how does an island wary of large-scale tourism offer tourist appeal without wagering its soul?

“A handful of people started organizing events — not for visitors, but for the local people,” says Billa, who has had a hand in some of the projects, and has been blogging about developments on Ogijima in both French and English. “These events always involved the community and, over time, strong bonds formed between volunteers, the island and its population. For the first few years it was just about keeping some activity on the island to keep it alive. But after the Triennale of 2013, people started moving there: artisans, people with family roots, or others who just wanted to live a quiet island life.”

The Setouchi Triennale committee, directed by Fram Kitagawa, has helped the small island realize its aim of revitalizing its community by presenting art on its own terms. The large, captivating structure called “Ogijima’s Soul” by Jaume Plensa (installed by the city of Takamatsu) that welcomes visitors at the port sets the tone for Ogijima to be taken seriously as an art haven. In the same spirit, the locally nurtured community-based art scene has engaged with outside artists, who have in turn embraced a promotional role on behalf of the island. “Akinorium,” by Akinori Matsumoto, which features the “sounds of Ogijima,” is owned and managed by the Ogijima Community Association. Onba Factory, the local producer of the colorfully hand-painted “onba carts” the islanders use to transport light goods, also serves as an art venue.

The factory’s owner, Yoshifumi Oshima, has also established an unusual guesthouse on the island.

“Onba Guesthouse is not for regular overnight visitors but offers longer stays for those considering moving to Ogijima or who wish to experience island life,” he told me.

Today, as the 2016 Triennale opens, the situation on Ogijima has surpassed expectations. The island population has been growing and the school reopened in 2014. The kindergarten will also reopen soon. All these things were unimaginable just a few years ago.

The legacy of this locally driven revitalization process for the islanders has been an ethnohistory of Ogijima told via art. For art afficionados tired of big attractions and treading the well-worn tourist path, Ogijima offers the dual promise of opportunities to discover up-and-coming artists while learning about a unique Japanese island’s culture and traditions.

The spring Setouchi Triennale runs March 20-April 17: www.benesse-artsite.jp/en. The Setouchi Explorer blog offers details on artists, exhibits, ferry passes, and other tips and advice for visiting Ogijima: www.setouchiexplorer.com. Japan Lite appears in print on the fourth Monday Community Page of the month. Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp