Setouchi: the art of island hopping

Japan's Seto Inland Sea and its islands provide a beautiful backdrop to the area's first major international art festival

by Lucy Birmingham

Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, known for its breathtaking vistas and art-filled island of Naoshima, is the site for the inaugural Setouchi International Art Festival until October 31. Also titled as a “100-Day Art and Sea Adventure,” about 78 Japanese and internationally recognized artists and art groups are showing a cornucopia of contemporary artworks on seven islands — Naoshima, Teshima, Megijima, Ogijima, Shodoshima, Oshima, Inujima — and the port areas of Takamatsu (on Shikoku Island) and Uno (on Honshu, near Okayama).

For Asia, it’s a unique, ambitious undertaking, spearheaded by Soichiro Fukutake, an avid art patron and head of Okayama-based Benesse Inc. The Naoshima Fukutake Art Museum Foundation is also involved, with additional backing from local and prefectural governments.

“The Seto Island Sea is like the womb of Japan,” explains Fram Kitagawa, director of the festival. Until the 1920s the region was Japan’s commercial center, its “cultural and historic crossroads,” when the country’s commerce was still based on the sea.

“The area attracted many different races and cultures,” adds Kitagawa. “But as Japan modernized, its sea culture was abandoned. We’re now trying to revitalize it into more than just a travel destination and into a place that visitors can experience on a deeper level through contemporary art and culture.”

The festival’s seven “art islands” are a small cluster tucked between Okayama Prefecture and Shikoku Island. They are among the nearly 3,000 that dot the narrow 450 km stretch of Seto Inland Sea (Setonaikai) running between Kobe and Kyushu. But, like many rural parts of Japan, the islands are facing serious depopulation. At most of the inhabited islands participating, the average age of residents is 80.

Industrial pollution from modernization also damaged the area’s once thriving fishing industry. Affected islands included Inujima, once the home of a copper refinery that fed Japan’s military buildup in the early 1900s, and Teshima, the site of Japan’s worst-case of illegal-waste dumping in the 1980s. But with generous funding and various cleanup programs, the two islands have become remarkably successful land-art reclamation sites.

Inujima is now a must-see. The crumbling copper refinery has been brilliantly transformed into an eco-sensitive underground museum by architect Hiroshi Sambuichi. Artist Yukinori Yanagi has added Yukio Mishima-themed installations, complete with the writer’s nationalistic sentiments and wartime references.

For the island’s art festival works, Yanagi teamed up with Pritzker Prize-winning architect Kazuyo Sejima and Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo Chief Curator Yuko Hasegawa to create three installations placed in gallery/ house-like structures. While a militaristic theme echoes through two of the installations, Yanagi explains that there is much more.

“I’ve chosen subjects including ‘light and shadow’ and ‘past and future’ as part of my theme, which is based on Japan’s mythological Sun Goddess and our present day,” he clarifies. “These site-specific projects are meant to highlight the contrast between today’s frenzied, urban consumption culture with this depopulated, isolated island community and the original Japanese way of life — standing in awe of the gods, while respecting ancestors and nature, with few wants.”

One gallery installation contains a neon Hinomaru flag reflected in a shallow pool of water. Another gallery installation shows two videos — a large blinking eye revealing wartime images of Japanese soldiers watching citizens committing mass suicide from a cliff, and the eye of a young child reflecting the viewer and the garden behind. The third work is a long acrylic wall embedded with lacy material that appears like spider webs. The center contains an image of a dollar bill, symbolic of America’s now fading financial dominance.

On Teshima Island, highlights include Olafur Eliasson’s “Beauty,” a play on his breathtaking rainbow works; Susumu Kinoshita’s sensitive drawings of an elderly woman; and the water-drop-shaped Teshima Art Museum, opening on October 17, designed by Pritzker Prize winner Ryue Nishizawa in collaboration with artist Rei Naito. Osaka University of Arts, Art Project Laboratory offers a relaxing, floating sensation with its “Swaying with Laver” work set inside a former nori factory. Chiharu Shiota explores memory with a “time-tunnel” going into an old community center. Australian duo Claire Healy & Sean Cordeiro offer dinosaur delight with their “Luck Exists in the Leftovers.” Mariko Mori’s “Tom Na H-iu,” inspired by a Celtic legend, is connected via the Internet with the Super Kamiokande Neutrino Observatory at the Institute for Cosmic Ray Research at the University of Tokyo. The 4.57-meter glass monolith is said to be well worth the long “jungle” trek to the site.

On Ogijima, a must-see is “Wall Work 5: Kamo Jima Kamo Jinja,” by Australians James Darling and Lesley Forwood, curated by A.R.T. The couple imported 12 tons of fumigated Australian mallee gum root from the country’s arid landscapes for the wavelike wall installation, placed along the steps leading to the island’s sacred Shinto shrine, Kamo Jinja.

“The mallee root is a metaphor for the future of the planet,” explains Darling, whose 7,486-hectare farm in the dry “mallee country” of South Australia has won awards for its environmental sensitivity. Over 2 million hectares of Australian land is now salinized and unusable after European settlers, since the 1800s, replaced the hearty, deep-drinking mallee root with surface crops. “We wanted to make a contemporary environmental statement linking the salinization problems of Ogijima (where the water is now undrinkable) and Australia, as well as bridge the animistic traditions of Shinto and the Aborigines,” says Darling.

Naoshima remains a major attraction, with its Benesse House Museum and Chichu Art Museum, both designed by architect Tadao Ando. Ando also designed the newly opened Lee Ufan Museum nearby, a surprising showpiece for this veteran Korean-Japanese minimalist sculptor and painter.

The island’s Honmura village houses converted into art installations have some new additions featured in the festival, including Yoshihiro Suda’s superbly crafted wooden sculptures of camellia flowers titled “Gokaisho/Tree of Spring.” Nearby is Hiroshi Senju’s sublime “Ishibashi/The Garden of Ku/The Falls,” created with spray paint, no less. Shinro Ohtake’s humorous “Haisha” is not to be missed. The former office and family home of a dentist, it now houses a two-story look-alike Statue of Liberty and scattered collages of pictures and paint. Ohtake’s healthy humor goes bubbly at a real sento (public bath) he designed last year near the island’s Miyanoura Port, titled “I Love Yu” (the “Love” represented by a heart symbol and “Yu” in kanji form).

While the festival offers a unique and rewarding art experience (art and theater performances are also held throughout), navigating the islands by public ferries and boats is a challenge. One, maybe two islands in one day is a reasonable itinerary. While group tours are available through JTB, budget permitting, visitors would do well to arrange a private guide. For more information, visit