‘Art Seto’ bringing islands back to life


INSULAR INSIGHT: Where Art and Architecture Conspire with Nature, edited by Lars Muller and Akiko Miki. Lars Muller, 2011, 453 pp., $70 (hardback)

Islands lend themselves to introspection, rebalancing, a yearning for independence and equipoise. They may not be the solution to all our anxieties, but their detachment encourages a viewpoint from which to survey and revaluate our lives.

Self-expression and examination find a home in a cluster of small islands in the Seto Inland Sea. Soichiro Fukutake, head of the company Benesse and mastermind behind this art project, conveys the impression of a latter-day Florentine patron of the arts, but one with a heightened sense of the responsibility of art to improve lives and habitats.

More than simply an art project, the Benesse scheme is about resuscitating islands and islanders, stimulating both cultural and regional growth. Among the contributions to this book is a masterful essay by Peter Sloterdijk, “The Drunken Isle,” that adds to the rich stock of writings about these amphibian land masses — one that extends from D.H. Lawrence’s “The Man Who Loved Islands” to Peter Conrad’s more recent “Islands: A Trip Through Time and Space.” Apropos the Seto island project, Sloterdijk observes, “islands have afforded man the opportunity of rejuvenating culture on a smaller scale.”

The waters of these islands, their reflective surfaces like the muted silver of an ancient shrine mirror, were the setting for Yukio Mishima’s 1954 novel “The Sound of Waves.”

In a critical essay featured here, Shunya Yoshimi, describes how a mere decade later, suffering the compound effect of chemical plants, oil refineries, the dumping of cyanogen and cadmium, “the Seto Inland Sea had been turned into a sea of death.”

In this age of cultural tourism, one of the most encouraging successes of the art project has been the restoration of Teshima, a former depository for toxic waste. The museum here sits among graduated rice fields, in which residents now both produce and consume their own harvests.

Instead of transforming another island, the deeply scarred Inujima, the project has focused on adapting its former copper refinery into a complex hive of chambers and galleries, an ecological museum no less.

Commissioned works by Richard Long, James Turrell and Water De Maria grace the Tadao Ando-designed Chichu Art Museum on Naoshima, a venue that also displays the signature lily pond paintings of Claude Monet. Another Ando landmark is the nearby, semi-subterranean Lee Ufan Museum, devoted to the respected Japanese-Korean minimalist artist.

The artworks on display at the galleries, museums and other appropriated spaces on the islands are, inevitably, uneven in quality and intensity. Hiroshi Senju’s granite slab on a patch of lawn at the Ishibashi House, loftily called “The Garden of Ku,” is less impressive than his fifty-feet long mural, “The Falls,” created from pigments of seashells, coral, stone and mulberry paper. A gleaming enamel toilet bowl of the older variety stands in for a rock surrounded by ripples of dark sand in a modern version of the Japanese dry landscape garden inside Yukinori Yanagi’s “Icarus Tower” structure on Inujima. The book provides no commentary regarding whether this is playful monstrosity or art statement.

Some of the installations featured in this book speak for themselves; others need explication. When I visited Naoshima I was impressed by the composition of the rocks from Lake Taihu in China, used by Cai Guo-Qiang for his “Cultural Melting Bath,” an open-air hot tub with fine views across the water. Only by reading this title did I learn that the “qi descending the slope of the mountain is diverted by the stones and gathers temporarily in the Jacuzzi bath, before flowing out to the sea.”

The artwork celebrated in this beautifully illustrated book provide an invaluable counter-model to reckless growth and industrial carnage, but is it really possible to transform human values through the mediation of art? The Inland Sea project may soon deliver the answer.