By Xenobe Purvis
The Seto Inland Sea – a 450 kilometre long body of water nestled in the gaps between Japan’s three main islands of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu – has long inspired hyperbole in its visitors. In 1873, Thomas Cook wrote that the ‘Inland Sea of Japan surpassed all my dreams of beauty’ (noting, with a characteristic eye to British tourism, that he would ‘not be at all surprised to hear of enthusiastic British yachtsmen coming here to cruise among the thousand islands that are said to bestud the great lake’). The German traveller Ferdinand von Richthofen echoed this praise, claiming that there ‘is nowhere else in the world greater’.
Over a century later, the Inland Sea continues to be a site of inspiration. For 108 days this year, 12 of the 3,000 islands in the Inland Sea will host the Setouchi Triennale, a celebration of the work of multimedia artists such as James Turrell, Tatsuo Miyajima and Hiroshi Sugimoto. This is the third Setouchi Triennale; the first, in 2010, and the second, in 2013, witnessed the islands come alive with the arrival of troupes of tourists and artists from across the world. With its international appeal and emphasis on upcoming contemporary artists, this festival is intended as a measure to restore cultural energy to the islands, which have suffered due to the migration of the younger population to mainland metropolises.
Despite being an area of remarkable natural beauty – which was pronounced a national park in 1934 – and home to attractive fishing villages, olive groves and rice paddies, as well as the dramatic Naruto whirlpools and Itsukushima Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the city of Hatsukaichi, the Inland Sea has seen a striking diminution in its population in recent years. In an attempt to revive interest in this secluded corner of the country, the island of Naoshima was established as a burgeoning centre of contemporary art. It has become home to the internationally acclaimed Benesse House Museum and the many so-called ‘Art Houses’ which punctuate the landscape. Here, visitors will find pieces by Jasper Johns rubbing shoulders with those by Cy Twombly, Antony Gormley, Andy Warhol and the characteristically vivid Yayoi Kusama, all set against a Tadao Ando-designed structure. Dreamed up by the founder of Fukutake Publishing (now Benesse Corporation) and the mayor of Naoshima in 1985, these sites of creativity are notable for their emphasis on the mutual benefits for both visiting artists and the inhabitants of the island.
The commitment to ‘foster a relationship of mutual growth between art and the region’ avowed by the founders of Benesse House Museum, and their aim ‘to make a positive contribution to the local communities’ is one echoed in the intentions of the Setouchi Triennale. The participating artworks in the festival have been designed to complement the beauty of the landscape and the Inland Sea, while many of the installations erected across the 12 islands respond to the history and culture of the places themselves. To pluck a handful of examples out of the wealth of exciting and culturally engaged pieces being displayed over the course of the three seasons of the Triennale: on Oshima Island, the ‘Art for the Hospital Project’ considers the island’s history as a home for leprosy convalescents. Alexander Ponomarev, a Russian artist with a background in nautical engineering, creates works inspired by ships and the sea on the island of Honjima, which was, for several centuries, the base for the Shiwaku naval force. Meanwhile, on Inujima, the various Art House Projects interact with local landscapes. ‘A-Art House/reflectwo’ – a collaboration between Kazuyo Sejima and Yuko Hasegawa – is an interesting example of this, consisting of an enormous acrylic circle inside which shapes made from vivid, man-made petals are displayed. The transparency of the structure allows viewers to juxtapose the shapes against a backdrop of natural scenery.
In this celebration of creativity, everything becomes art; even the islands’ most mundane elements. In several of the installations, transport is given an imaginative makeover. The ‘Araki Train’ on Takamatsu is wrapped in images by Nobuyoshi Araki, to create a practical piece of art in motion. On Shodoshima, Nobuho Nagasawa builds on this transport theme by creating a boat hull illuminated in pulsating blue light, while Akira Ishii responds to the naval history of Honjima in his sculpture ‘Departure’ – an enormous recreation of the Japanese warship Kanrin Maru.
Among the most interesting pieces to be exhibited as part of this year’s Triennale is Oscar Oiwa’s work on Ogijima Island, which sees the interior of a traditional Japanese house rotated 90 degrees so that the tatami-mat and ceiling form the walls; visitors find their perspectives dizzyingly altered as they observe the scene standing on the room’s seeming walls. The group of performance artists named the ‘Seppuku Pistols’ dress in rustic Japanese wear and play instruments such as the taiko, shamisen, and wooden flute under the slogan ‘Make Japan Edo!’ On the diminutive island of Oshima, Seizo Tashima creates a spatial picture-book in a former dormitory; the unfolding narrative includes the love story between a mermaid and a pirate in this piece entitled Blue Sky Aquarium.
The site-specific artworks displayed throughout the festival are often eccentric, innovative and surprising, drawing on the backgrounds and inspirations of contributors from across the globe. With around 1.07 million visitors to the last Triennale in 2013, the islands of the Inland Sea prepare themselves for another deluge of art enthusiasts. The festival promises a mesmeric range of multimedia works, including installations, performances and projects designed to promote an intercultural exchange of ideas between Asia and the rest of the world. This heady blend of natural scenery and contemporary art is a concerted effort to restore cultural enquiry to this quiet network of islands, an effort echoed in the overarching theme of this year’s festival: Restoration of the Sea.
There is an ancient legend associated with this archipelago. In the legend, Urashima Taro, a local fisherman, is rewarded for an act of kindness with a visit to the palace of Ryujin, the Dragon God. After some time (from three days to three years – accounts vary), Urashima Taro is said to have grown homesick, asking to be delivered back to his village on one of the islands in the Seto Inland Sea. There he discovered that three centuries had passed since he left; the village had changed unrecognisably, and his family were long dead. It is a moving story of disorientation, a leap between worlds which bears many affinities with Washington Irving’s tale of Rip van Winkle. Would it be a stretch to suggest that after the three-season Triennale, with its surreal and immersive blend of art and nature, visitors might find a return to their everyday lives equally bewildering?
• This year, the Triennale falls over three seasons: spring (20 March to 17 April); summer (18 July to 4 September); and autumn (8 October to 6 November). The art sites, numbering around 200 in total, can be visited with a ‘Triennale 3-Season Passport’, which allows admission to each of the festival’s disparate locations at the advance price of 4,000 Yen. 2016’s Triennale will enjoy a particular focus on food, with a celebration of the local cuisine and food products from the Setouchi region.