x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

The healing touch of Japanese art

A journey to the Inland Sea to look at an innovative art festival designed to rejuvenate a Japanese region in apparently terminal decline.

Black Porgy by the duo Yodogawa-Technique in Uno was created from rubbish washed up on the shores of the Seto Inland Sea, much of it originating not only in Japan but in other parts of the world, too.
Black Porgy by the duo Yodogawa-Technique in Uno was created from rubbish washed up on the shores of the Seto Inland Sea, much of it originating not only in Japan but in other parts of the world, too.

A floating bamboo palace rises from a rice paddy. A fisherman's net made of thousands of tiny metal "men" glimmers on an empty beach. Blue eyes attached to forest trees flicker in the shadows. A sun flashes neon rays of light in a garden of peach trees.

Welcome to Japan's most high-profile new art project, which involves the scattering of numerous modern installations across the natural landscape of rural fishing islands.

Where some people associate art with the white walls of a minimalist gallery, the new Setouchi International Art Festival opts for the less conventional backdrop of Japanese island life.

From fields and beaches to Shinto shrines and abandoned schools, the project has resulted in an eclectic selection of artworks appearing surreally across seven small fishing islands and a nearby port.

What's more, this is no provincial endeavour: there are creations by 75 artists from 18 countries, from the architect Tadao Ando and the photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto to the international art celebrities Christian Boltanski and Olafur Eliasson.

The ambitious event focuses on a clutch of the 3,000 islands that pepper the blue waters of the Seto Inland Sea, the body of water that separates the country's three main islands - Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu - and known as Japan's Mediterranean.

Once a major maritime gateway, the formerly prosperous region is in decline today as a result of shrinking birth rates, depopulation and ageing communities struggling to survive in the 21st century.

The festival, launched this summer and intended to be held every three years, is an attempt to revitalise seven fishing islands and the mainland hub, Takamatsu Port, using modern art instead of government policies, according to Fram Kitagawa, the Tokyo galleries and festival director.

In an interview at Takamatsu Port, Kitagawa says, "This is a really unique project because it's set on very small islands where the average age is over 80. This area was once very wealthy and the centre of Japan. Today it's depopulated and it's very tough for communities to survive.

"But more than 2,000 mostly young volunteers from across Japan and even some from Hong Kong have been working here over the past few months to help make this project work."

He adds: "What I really hope is that these communities will be revitalised by the presence of the artworks and the young people who are working or visiting here."

The concept is something of a trend in Japan. Among a growing number of rural art projects is the Echigo-Tsumari festival in mountain villages of Niigata prefecture (also organised by Kitagawa), which has become arguably the world's biggest open-air art festival.

Visiting the Setouchi region to check out the newest open air art museum, I hop on to an 80-minute flight from Tokyo to Takamatsu before catching a boat to Ogijima, a tiny, mountainous island covering less than one square kilometre and home to only 200 people.

The dense landscape is packed with steep, narrow alleys lined with old wooden houses, with curved tiled roofs and façades of burnt black cedar wood, behind which lie countless surprises.

Wandering up a tiny pathway with deep blue sea views, I hear a high-pitched tinkling long before arriving at an old stable where dozens of white feathers with bells attached to mini vibrating devices quiver from the rafters.

Another exterior wall is covered with an intricate collage of wooden, doll's-house-sized structures, while the interior of a neighbouring house is filled with colourful paper balls created by the artist Takeshi Kawashima.

The elderly local people appear, smiling but bemused by the sudden invasion of art buffs (mostly recognisable by the fact they are under 70).

Toshiko Nakamura, 75, who is patrolling the village beneath her sun umbrella, laughs loudly when asked for her thoughts, and replies: "Well, it's very lively here all of a sudden. We are starting to lock our front doors for the first time with all these visitors, but we are mostly happy with what's happening."

On the nearby island of Teshima, too, they appear to be taking it all in their stride, as the quiet isolation that surrounds one artwork reflects: Boltanski's global heartbeat bank Les Archives du Coeur. There can be few more beautiful places for a memorial to heartbeats than a house on a tiny beach at the end of a quiet path humming with birds and flanked by farmland.

In the house, a dark room with flickering lights plays recordings of heartbeats one after the other, alongside a clinic-style space where visitors can record and add their own heartbeats.

In a chance encounter on the beach, the French artist tells me: "This place belongs to the islanders. I am a foreigner. It's been very important that they accept my presence here so there have been many meetings with them.

"What Kitagawa is trying to do is bring contemporary art to the villages and make sure that everyone is happy. If there is more art here, more people will visit, more money will be spent, and there will be less reason for locals to leave the region. That's the aim and I hope it works."

Neighbouring islands reveal equally high-quality projects. Enduring snapshots include a floating bamboo palace inland on Shodoshima island, an angular tunnel of mirrors in a copper refinery on Inujima, and a spiral sculpture of mirrored glass in an old farm shed on Megijima.

It is outside this last artwork that I meet 23-year-old Azusa Takahashi who is one of the project's 2,000 volunteers.

"I'm loving it here," she smiles. "This will hopefully make the region less isolated. More and more young people are already starting to come here."

Although the festival formally ends today, many of the pieces will remain in place for the three years until the next one, and some could even be permanent, along with the futuristic modern art museum that opened this month on Teshima, designed by the SANAA architect Ryue Nishizawa and the artist Rei Naito.

But the event's crowning glory is Naoshima, an island that has flourished over the past two decades since opening a string of art projects in restored old houses as well as two art museums by the architect Tadao Ando. It is already a template for modern art revitalising a community, and visitor numbers have boomed to 300,000 a year, drawn to projects such as Yayoi Kusama's spotted pumpkin sculptures by the sea, and Benesse House with its art gallery and hotel rooms filled with art that would not look out of place in the Tate Modern in London.

This summer also saw the opening of an Ando gallery dedicated to the artist Lee Ufan. A modernist haven cut into the hills, it has sunken corridors of sharply lined concrete contrasting with dense blue skies and complementing Ufan's minimalist rock boulders, meditative metal sheets and poetically silent spaces.

Ufan says: "These islands and seas are very isolated. But an island is a place where people should connect. This project will reconnect local people with the outside world."

A further textbook case of art having a positive impact on the community is Naoshima's local "sento" baths, entitled I Love Yu (yu is Japanese for hot water).

Shinro Ohtake has transformed the original baths into a kitsch paradise of ceramic collages, abstract paint daubs and strange memorabilia - but the same elderly couple continue to run it, apparently undisturbed by the makeover.

Stepping inside the baths, I watch a clutch of local elderly women laughing with visiting young art lovers beneath a large elephant sculpture - in a perfect example of harmony in a community opening up to the outside world.


For more information, visit www.setouchi-artfest.jp/en