Whenever traveling directly from one island in the Seto Inland Sea to another, I sense threads holding each one to the other. Perhaps this is a vestige of the trade routes that traversed the 700-plus islands in this scenic region between Hiroshima and Osaka. As sea trade waned in postwar Japan, these threads have become almost invisible, but artists such as Erika Masuya envision links connecting one island to another today.

Amid realities such as populations half of what they used to be and just as many abandoned hotels as operating ones, empty houses are often easier to find than inhabited ones on these islands. Starting in the 1990s Benesse Corporation founder Soichiro Fukutake saw the possibility art held for revitalizing the landscapes that are at risk of vanishing in the Inland Sea.

Fukutake not only brought his own art collection to Naoshima but also invited artists to make new works in response to the region. Two decades later, a gigantic art festival was coordinated with the help and expertise of community art specialist Fram Kitagawa. Since the first Setouchi International Art Festival in 2010, connections between local community groups, regional governments and national networks have blossomed.

For the second Triennale, which opened on March 20, long-standing artists have been commissioned to make new works, such as Shinro Ohtake’s “Mecon” (“Female Root”), a work whose feminine form responds to the Japanese characters for “megi” (“female tree”) in the name of the island, Megijima. This year’s festival is spread across three seasons and include 160 new artworks hosted on 12 islands and in two ports. But can art really save these islands?

The painful realities facing the Inland Sea need more than aspirin. Many places are at risk of abandonment. Yet hope exists in the micro communities of each waterside village, a desire for creative sustenance. In the village of Kou on the island of Teshima, Hiromi Tango and Craig Walsh recently completed the work “Traces: Blue.” Starting with an out-of-use fishing boat on the shore, the artists covered it with mirrors to reflect the deep stillness and uncertainty of the town.

They also gathered blue clothing from the community to weave ropes inside a house nearby. “We wove together, took the ropes and danced, to celebrate our encounter through art with vigorous energy,” Hiromi recalls.

The villagers responded by raising flags on the shore for the mirror boat, a celebratory act that had become nearly extinct in that town.

“We show ways for the community to express itself,” says Craig, explaining that the project gives a voice to the people. “Art is providing one avenue of belief for the future.”

Art may not create jobs or help the declining birth rate, but it can provide comfort and encouragement in times of uncertainty.

Many of the islands are famous for their stone quarries that have been used to build ancient castles, and more recently railroads and airports. In particular, Shodoshima is known for its white granite and black basalt, whose history reveals layers of stories, memories and struggles.

Over the past three years, I’ve developed the base of my own work “Sunset House: Language as the house of Being” on the social history of stones in the small town of Kounoura, on the southern tip of Shodoshima. While working with what was once a lounge building for stone-quarry workers, I created participatory elements for community members and volunteers to record their memories, dreams and hopes into the exterior walls of the building. I also repainted the interior walls with arc forms using the dust of two stone quarries on the island — one of which is defunct and the other currently operating in Fukuda (where the Fukutake House will open in summer).

This year I asked visitors to draw a worry, fear or difficulty onto the underside of each granite stone which were then arranged in the garden. Through the process of releasing personal stress into the stones, the garden that was once filled with burned garbage is now charged and nourished with shared feelings. Discarded black basalt stones from the same defunct quarry also became the base for a meandering pathway leading to Sunset House, which is becoming an integral part of the social landscape.

On the intimate island of Ogijima, artist Sayaka Ishizuka collected kitchen tools, various objects and hardware for her work “Water Mirror.” She suspended the household objects in the air, so that they appear to mysteriously float within the rustic interior of the house. The wood surfaces of baskets worn from touch, metal scissors rusted from the salt air-and-glass bubbles warped by time are recirculated from their past functions in daily life to find new meanings. Thin black strings suspend each of the items in midair, never quite touching, yet all arranged like islands in a circular formation, each floating perfectly flat at eye level. The objects composing these islands, which were created by the hands of island residents and organized by the hands of the artist, now float in the unknown realities of the Inland Sea today.

Reflected in these social landscapes of a mirror boat, a pathway of basalt stones and accumulations of household items, the sustainable future of the islands no doubt remains unsure, but this year’s Setouchi Triennale will help revitalize the spirits of the Inland Sea.

James Jack is an artist currently based and working in Japan. www.jamesjack.org. The Setouchi Triennale 2013: Seto Inland Sea Art and Island Journey Through the Season runs from March 20 to April 2; then from July 20 to Sept.1; and from Oct. 5 to Nov. 4. Many artworks are also viewable outside these dates. For more details, visit setouchi-artfest.jp

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