In his book, The Inland Sea, Donald Richie extolls a unique part of Japan in elegiac tones. From one point of view, Richie’s account is a classic of travel writing that is not only a celebration of a disappearing world but a journey of self-discovery. From another, it is a classic of self-indulgence, alleviated by a few lyrical descriptions and sharp observations. I’m strongly inclined towards the latter position, although there is nothing in the English language to threaten Richie’s centrality. The Seto Inland Sea, as he found it in 1971, has changed almost beyond recognition.
Whenever Richie ceased contemplating himself and turned his attention to the islands, he found age-old ways of life being eroded by the incursions of the modern world. This was hardly an unusual story for post-war Japan, and it is not uncommon today. Almost every time a western traveller describes this enigmatic country, we read a tale of sorrow that those traditions of which he or she was never a part, are coming to an end. In the 1970s this was because of the incursions of industry and the damage it caused the environment. Nowadays, it is the spectre of depopulation that haunts so many regions, as young people leave their home towns for the cities.
And yet Japan has the unsettling habit of confounding its most knowledgeable commentators. At the very moment that declining population and economic hardships prefigure a gloomy future, the most extraordinary new ventures are born. First there was the Echigo-Tsumari Triennial, a sprawling contemporary art event intended to revitalise the mountainous regions between Tokyo and Niigata, now there is Art Setouchi 2010, the inaugural event in another triennial art extravaganza.
Last year’s Echigo-Tsumari was spread out over an improbable 700 square kilometers, requiring a week or more to see everything. Art Setouchi is distributed across seven islands in the inland sea, and the port of Takamatsu. To see the entire exhibition necessitates many separate trips on ferries or motor launches – a level of commitment unique among the world’s art exhibitions. This is a way of drawing visitors to the inland sea and keeping them occupied for days at a time. An equally important part of the strategy is the creation of art and community centres on the islands, as well as a range of permanent artworks.
The driving force behind both Echigo-Tsumari and Art Setouchi, is Soichiro Fukatake, the head of the Benesse corporation, which has made its money from school textbooks and language programs. The artistic director of both events is Fram Kitagawa, a sixties radical turned art impresario, who now vies with the terminally suave Fumio Nanjo, of the Mori Art Museum, as the most influential figure in the Japanese contemporary art world.
By any standards, Mr. Fukatake is a most unusual business tycoon. He is passionate about education and believes that art has the power of art to change society. Over the past decade he has invested many millions in the inland sea in an effort to culturally regenerate the region. The showpiece is the island of Naoshima, which I’ve written about in the past, conceived as a harmonious symbiosis of art, architecture and landscape.
Naoshima, which is fast becoming one of the country’s leading tourist attractions, is the centerpiece of the Setouchi festival. When Donald Richie visited thirty years ago he found “a small, beautiful, somehow sad little island.” He reasoned that “the sadness comes perhaps from the loneliness – in the early afternoons there never seems to be anyone on these islands.”
In Richie’s case the sadness may have also come from his failure to seduce a local schoolgirl, but putting such setbacks aside he might not recognise Naoshima today. The island has been completely transfigured by art. Apart from the three buildings designed by Tadao Ando that double as stylish hotels and galleries of contemporary art, there is the Chichu (‘underground’) Museum, devoted to the work of Claude Monet, and the Americans, James Turrell and Walter de Maria; and a series of large-scale permanent installations inserted into the villages where the island’s small group of residents make their homes. The artists responsible for these works include James Turrell, Tatsuo Miyajima, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Shinro Ohtake.
The latest addition to Naoshima’s pantheon is the Lee U-fan Museum, another minimalist creation by Ando, dedicated to the work of the Korean-born artist who has become a national living treasure in Japan. Lee U-fan made his name in the sixties as the leading exponent of the Mono-ha movement (literally “school of things”), and has continued to make works that may be no more complex that a single brush stroke, or a rock placed artfully in a room. His entire career demonstrates how the slightest gestures can produce a powerful sense of presence.
The other islands – Inujima, Teshima, Megijima, Ogijima, Oshima and Shodoshima are less spectacular than Naoshima, but there is still an amazing array of art on display. Inujima, the most distant island from Takamatsu, is dominated by a massive installation by Yukinori Yanagi set within an old copper refinery. The interior of the building has been turned into a dark labyrinth, punctuated with wall size mirrors. In the centre of this maze one finds fragments of the house of the writer, Yukio Mishima, suspended in mid-air.
In local folklore, the island of Megijima was home to a race of ogres, vanquished by the boy hero, Momotaro. Although the ogres have long ago moved to Hollywood, there is an abundance of art displayed near the dock, in the village, and clustered into an old school building, which has been renamed Fukutake House. The classrooms and facilities have hardly changed, and there are still children’s drawings on the walls, but inside each room one encounters pieces by artists such Bill Viola, Yasumasa Morimura or Qiu Anxiong. The shows have been co-ordinated by a range of international galleries, turning the building into a miniature art fair.
The entire Setouchi exhibition includes 76 artists or artist projects, from eighteen countries. They range from high profile figures such as Olafur Eliasson, Pipilotti Rist and Christian Boltanski, to a group of emerging artists. After Japan, thanks largely to an unusually committed embassy, Australia is the best-represented country. Dadang Christanto, who now lives in Brisbane, has an installation on the island of Shodoshima; James Darling and Leslie Forwood have created a wall of mallee roots that winds up a hill towards a Shinto shrine on Ogijima.
The other Australian works are gathered on the island of Teshima, along with Boltanski’s Archives du Coeur, which is literally an archive of heart-beats recorded around the world that may be experienced as thumping noise in a darkened room, or as a searchable data-base. Another memorable project, by a team from the Osaka University of the Arts, invites us to feel what seaweed feels for a few minutes, sinking into an elasticised environment in a deep blue space. On first impressions, I’d have to say that being seaweed feels a bit like visiting a late-night bar.
The Australian artists on Teshima are Cameron Robbins, Sue Pedley, and the duo, Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro. They have spent weeks on the island, getting to know the inhabitants and becoming part of the community. The opening night was a riotous affair, with dancing, chanting and shouts of “Banzai!” testifying to the success of this exercise in cross-cultural pollination.
Robbins’s Sea Songs of the Subconscious, consists of a row boat resting bottom up on a rocky pier. It has been turned into a musical instrument by the lapping tides that run up and down an arrangement of pipes, emitting sounds that might pass for a John Cage composition.
In Harmonica, Sue Pedley has draped a specially woven net over a traditional house, making an interior display of the contents abandoned by the previous owners. Healy and Cordeiro took a more whimsical approach to this kind of local archaeology in their work, Luck Exists in the Leftovers. In another abandoned house they installed a convincing replica of a dinosaur skeleton, propped up by boxes and pieces of furniture. A stray bone resting in a hole dug in the floor of kitchen suggests that the dinosaur is the fruit of a lucky excavation.
Teshima, which can trace its occupation back 9,000 years, was once known for its seaweed, but that industry was ruined, thirty years ago, by a toxic waste dump. As one walks around the island today there are still many caches of the iron hooks used for harvesting the seaweed. They might just as well be abstract metal sculptures, providing a memory of a more prosperous past and a hope for the future through the transforming powers of art. Although we do not know whether art actually has the power to regenerate a community, it seems a more promising approach than relying on the politicians.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, August 21, 2010
Art Setouchi 2010
Takamatsu and surrounds, Japan