From this week onwards a small cluster of islands in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea will host its third international art festival. The 2016 Setouchi Triennale will run for a total of 108 days, and is expected to receive upwards of a million visitors, along with over one hundred new artworks joining the permanent installations already dotted across the archipelago.
Twelve islands in total will be taking part, along with Uno Port on mainland Honshu and the town of Takamatsu (known by fans of Haruki Murakami as the setting of Kafka on the Shore) on nearby Shikoku. This year’s thematic focus looks both inward and outward: paying particular attention to local Setouchi cuisine and traditions alongside ‘cultural exchange among Asian countries that are connected by the sea.
While the Triennale originally began as summer event, it has now extended into ‘a journey through the seasons’, running from March 20th to April 17th, July 18th to September 4th, and October 8th to November 6th. This attention to the distinct qualities of each season is distinctly Japanese, and is much utilised by its tourism industry; the arrival corridors of Tokyo Narita airport are lined with a quadriptych of cherry blossoms, a sun-topped Mount Fuji, fiery maple foliage and Hokkaido snow slopes. While the Setouchi archipelago may not be able to provide Mount Fuji and northern snow, the islands possess their own natural charms, with secluded beaches and woodland hemmed in by clear blue sea.
The islands have not always been such a natural idyll; in the 1960s and 70s the area faced problems with illegal dumping of industrial waste and it is only relatively recently that this widespread practice has been tackled by Japanese authorities. In addition to these ecological obstructions, the region has also had to cope with the dehabilitating effects of depopulation and the isolation of its aging communities, leaving a once busy and industrious area struggling to stay afloat.
Events like the Triennale are part of an ongoing movement to counter this downturn with the transformation of the area into a haven of artistic activity and production. This movement began in the mid-1980s, and has grown into a network of art activities, museums and installations crisscrossing the Seto Inland Sea. Naoshima, Setouchi’s main island and capital of sorts, is the project’s birthplace, and the islands involved are collectively referred to as ‘Benesse Art Site Naoshima’. Initiated in 1985 by a meeting between the Major of Naoshima and the president of Fukutake Publishing (now Benesse Corporation), the project’s goal was to transform the Setouchi area into a cultural and educational hub, attracting visitors from all over the world. Promoting the natural beauty of the islands was a focus from the beginning, with art becoming the project’s principal focus as it evolved throughout the 80s and 90s.
From these ecologically focused roots came the Naoshima International Camp, overseen by architect Tadao Ando, which invited visitors to stay in beachside Mongolian yurts beneath the watchful eye of Karen Appel’s totem-like Frog and Cat sculpture. Three years later came the hilltop Benesse House Museum, a museum-cum-hotel also designed by Ando and ‘based on the concept of coexistence among nature, architecture, and art’. In the late 90s, after a successful outdoor exhibition called ‘Out of Bounds’ featuring Yayoi Kusama’s yellow spotted pumpkin (perched on a pier beside the Benesse House hill, it has become an icon for the project), the project began to focus on site-specific artworks. This lead to the ongoing ‘Art House’ installations in the Naoshima’s Honmura District, where abandoned houses are transformed from the inside out by visiting artists. Since then many other installations have emerged across the islands.
In 2004 Ando continued his leading role in the Naoshima developments with the stunningly designed Chichu Museum, an underground structure lit entirely by daylight streaming in through geometric openings cut into the hillside. It houses large-scale work by James Turrell, Walter de la Mare and Claude Monet. Monet’s waterlilies hang in a vast gallery whose floor is exquisitely tiled with hundreds of tiny marble cubes, where visitors must change into white slippers upon entry.
The project leaders are keen to emphasis on the involvement of the island communities, who have participated in the installation of site-specific artworks along with working as guides and in the galleries. There are seasonal cafes, guest houses and bike rental businesses that have benefited from the steady increase of visitors, along with the resurrection of rice paddies on Teshima island that had declined when there was no one left to maintain them.
The 2016 Triennale welcomes back some familiar faces. Ando will be installing ‘Sakura no Mori’, a living cherry tree forest, and Yasuka Goto, whose arresting monochrome paintings based on local stories from Takamijima were shown in 2013, will also be contributing new work.
Shinro Ohtake returns with ‘Needle Factory’ an installation which incorporates an old ship hull found in boatyard on Uwajima. A contributor to the Art House project, Ohtake also created with Naoshima’s first bathhouse and literally immersive artwork. The I♥YU Bathhouse (“yu” = hot water in Japanese), is a mishmash of retro neon and glowing steamy windows. Having paid for a token in the colourful slot machine and duly shed their clothes, visitors will encounter pasted shunga lining the bottom of the baths and animated by the ripples of hot water, along with a veritas stuffed elephant presiding atop the wall separating men from women. International artists include Regina Silveira, a Brazilian artist whose installations play with visual illusion, and Christian Boltanski, who adds to his existing ‘Les Archives du Coeur’ on Teshima Island with a new work called ‘Animitas’, an installation of three hundred wind chimes.
The 2016 Setouchi Triennale runs from March 20th to April 17th, July 18th to September 4th, and October 8th to November 6th. The Benesse Art Site Naoshima is open to visitors all year round.
Text by Miranda Stuart