Setouchi Art Festival

Jenny and I are art buddies, as we both studied History of Art in university, so I knew that we had to visit Naoshima, a small island on the Seto Inland Sea between Shikoku and Honshu. It was turned from a rural backwater into the setting of world-class contemporary art by the Benesse Corporation, the Japanese company that owns Berlitz Language Schools. There are permanent works on Naoshima and the surrounding islands, but this year the Setouchi Triennale Art Festival is on as well, which means more art and better transport to the islands. Some works are free to view, some cost ¥300 and the museums cost ¥1000, but for the festival you can buy passports for one or three seasons (Spring, Summer, Autumn) which allows you to visit most of them for free once, and gives you discounted entry to others. I bought a two-day ferry pass for ¥4000, and the three season passport, ¥5000, because I knew I wouldn`t get to see all that I wanted to and it wouldn`t be difficult to get the train down from Kanazawa for a weekend during the Summer and Autumn. What`s great about the passport too is that you can get stamps at each of the works, which is very addictive. We felt like we were doing the art version of our temple pilgrimage.

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After our temple walk in Tokushima, we spent the night in Takamatsu and the next day took a ferry to Inujima, a tiny island, very close to Honshu. In the early 20th century a copper refinery was built on the island to try to keep industrial pollution away from the big cities in Honshu, but it closed down not long after and the population steadily dwindled until it reached the fifty people that currently live there today. The smeltery was turned into a museum that uses solar energy and natural air currents to regulate the internal conditions of the building with minimal impact on the environment. The museum contains artwork by Yukinori Yanagi based on the motif of Yukio Mishima, a very interesting writer in post-war Japan who committed ritual suicide in 1970 after a failed coup d`etat. I read his book Spring Snow while we were traveling around, and he was used in this setting because he had been wary of the effects of modernization on Japan. The picture above shows one of the works which is a large glass box containing his final speech before his suicide, deconstructed to form vertical lines of gold characters suspended from the top.

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Because Inujima is so small we were able to see everything on it in the morning before getting a ferry on to Teshima, a bigger hillier island. The guidebooks recommended renting electric bicycles for exploring the island but when we arrived they were all rented out so we got the bus to the Teshima Art Museum, which is a bit of a misnomer as it is really just one art space that is the art work. It`s such a simple design yet the atmosphere is quite amazing inside and little streams of water flow around the concrete floor. My desription doesn`t do it justice at all, but I would recommend it as one of the most serene architectural spaces I have experienced.

We wanted to get to our accomodation before it got dark because there were no lights on the back road that led to it, but there was so much else we wanted to see on Teshima that we decided to rent bicycles in the morning and explore the island before getting the ferry to Naoshima. The day we arrived had been rather overcast and threatened rain, but in the morning the weather was gorgeous and the view of the island and the surrounding sea was just stunning. The electric bikes were a godsend too because the hills are really steep and it just means you can press a button to give your pedals an extra push.

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Despite studying history of art I don`t really know anything about contemporary art, in fact, it`s because of this that I feel very ignorant about it because I lack the hindsight that`s needed to analyse art historically. But I do love going to see contemporary art because a lot of the time its fun, interactive, multimedial and it allows you to experience things in a new way. It`s like going to an intellectual funhouse.

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Because the Teshima Art Museum was closed on Tuesdays, the direct ferries weren`t running to Naoshima so we had to get a ferry to Uno Port on Honshu and then another to Naoshima. Our stop at Uno port allowed us to see a few other works like one of Yayoi Kusuma`s pumpkins (above), this one you could get into and look out through the spots, and this fish (below) that was made out of rubbish.

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When we finally did make it to Naoshima it was getting late, so we rented ordinary bikes and cycled across to the Honmura Art House Project where works of art were installed in old houses in the village. It felt like a treasure hunt because we were trying to get to see as many works before they closed at 4 o`clock. Afterwards we cycled down to the Benesse House, the original contemporary art museum on the island, but we didn`t go in because we wouldn`t have had much time before going back to return the rental bicycles. But our trip wouldn`t have been complete without seeing this, another of Yayoi Kusuma`s pumpkins:

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Private sponsorship seems to play a big part in the Arts in Japan, and many great art museums were founded and funded by private companies. In my last post I looked at the Otsuka Museum in Tokushima prefecture, and some of the best museums I have been to are private institutions. The Mori Museum in Tokyo was created by a property developer and it holds temporary exhibitions ranging from contemporary artists to ukiyo-e, and the Miho Museum near Kyoto houses the collection of Asian and Western antiques belonging to an heiress of the textile industry in a stunning building designed by I.M. Pei (who designed the pyramid at the Louvre). Last year when I went to Tokyo for Golden Week I went to the Mitsubishi Ichiokan Museum, owned by the Mitsubishi Company, and the National Museum of Western Art, which although it is public institution, its collection was amassed by an industrial magnate before he went bankrupt.

Art has always been a sign of wealth and class, and private institutions really know how to publicize their art because in essence they are selling themselves. There is a big difference in the image and administration of publicly and privately funded institutions, and I would need to look into it more to say which I think is the best way to run a cultural institution. The biggest controversy currently in the museum world is the creation of the Louvre brand (like the private Guggenheim brand) which has been franchised to the city of Abu Dhabi. It`s due to open in 2015 though at present there is an exhibition of its permanent collection, and also there are plans to open another Guggenheim Museum in the city in 2017. Exciting times for art in the Middle East.

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6 thoughts on “Setouchi Art Festival

  1. I read ‘The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea’ by Mishima. I bought it because I had fallen in love with the title, but it made for rather disturbing reading at points…

    I love that Japan has islands devoted to art. The more I read of your adventures over there, the more I want to visit the country one day.

    As always, I loved this post – and the photographs are spectacular. (I can’t believe the pumpkins are sculptures – I thought my postcard was a copy of a painting!)

    • I`d like to find out more about him – he was pretty out there politically, but Spring Snow wasn`t what I expected from him.

      There is so much to see here! And these photos are just of a few of the works we saw. I hope to do more posts about the festival when I go back.

  2. Seems like you had a good time in the area.
    Glad you enjoyed Teshima so much, but a bit sad that you didn’t make it to Ogijima.

  3. Pingback: Bridges, Islands and Gorges | thirtysixviews

  4. Pingback: Back to Naoshima | thirtysixviews

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