Abandoned islands as art galleries

AT THE END of World War II, with the city of Tokyo a smoking ruin, Hiroshima and Nagasaki pulverised, and food shortages so acute that throughout Japan people were dropping dead of starvation in the streets, a young photographer named Yoichi Midorikawa sought refuge from the cataclysm among the islands of the Seto Inland Sea. Since ancient times, boats plying this 450-kilometre wide stretch of water, which separates three of Japan's four main islands, had formed the core of the country's trade and transport. Even amid the post-war devastation, its many small islands supported thriving communities of men and women famous for their robust self-sufficiency.

For the next ten years, Midorikawa travelled the islands and waterways, documenting these hardy folk as they fished, farmed, gathered seaweed, and tended livestock: goats on the slopes, cattle on the flats. He photographed village people as they celebrated the launching of new boats and the birth of new babies, enjoyed plays in their own kabuki theatres and a unique form of life-size puppetry performed exclusively by women. In Midorikawa's unstaged, unromanticised photographs, his subjects' vitality is so palpable you feel they're about to stride off the paper and dump a basket of still-flapping fish right at your feet.

Travelling, I'm always interested to learn something of a place's backstory, but when I encountered an exhibition of Midorikawa's work last October, on the last day of a week visiting the Inland Sea, its impact was more than that of historical interest satisfied. I felt the wallop of an absence suddenly made present. All week I'd been walking past, and sometimes into, abandoned houses – and here were the people who'd once lived in them. This fisherwoman with her direct gaze; this man peeking adoringly into his swaddled infant's face; these mobs of kids with glossy bowl-cut hair playing by upturned boats, helping younger siblings up the steep stone steps. It was their ancestors who'd quarried and laid stone upon stone to construct, over centuries, those narrow granite pathways I'd been treading up the steep hills, and the sturdy rock walls still protecting coastal villages from the sea.

The stones remain, but the people have mostly gone. Factory ships rendered small-boat fishing fleets obsolete; industrialisation closed uneconomic quarries and copper smelters; modernisation has seen children into schools and eventual city desk jobs and done away with large families gathering seaweed and chrysanthemum. Over the decades since Midorikawa took his photographs, the Inland Sea's island population has plummeted to as little as one fiftieth of what it was then, and those few who remain are for the most part old enough to have been his subjects. In the small port town of Honmura, signs alerting drivers to the presence of pedestrians depict not children's outlines, not even a striding adult's, but that of an old man with a walking stick leading a hunched old woman by the hand. The signs are heart-achingly realistic.

Yet throughout the week I'd been there, the streets and pathways had been crowded, the ferries packed, cafés sold out of food before lunchtime was over. The Seto Inland Sea brimmed over not with residents, but visitors who, like me and my small group of Australian friends, had come to view an extraordinary art event: the 2013 Setouchi Triennale, an explicit and energetic attempt to find a cultural solution to the region's problems. The triennale's brief, as outlined in my slender English language guide, is to 'fuse contemporary art with the allure of the islands of the Setouchi region. Through this, it aims to inform the world of the enchanting beauty of the Seto Inland Sea, to revitalise local communities and to restore the sea.'

This, I feel confident to say, is the biggest festival most Western art lovers have never heard of. Over the course of the 2013 triennale's three sessions – spring, summer, and autumn – some two hundred artworks have been installed over twelve islands and two port cities, and about a hundred performance events staged. Many of the several hundred artists taking part – mostly Japanese, but with representatives from another twenty-two countries – spent weeks or months on the islands in preparation, working both with their own often sizable teams and, crucially, with local people. Almost four thousand volunteers enrolled to help: their bright red or blue T-shirts seemed to be everywhere as they ushered the crowds on and off ferries, staffed information booths, and stamped our Setouchi 'passports' at each venue. And visitor numbers? Well, if what I witnessed is anything to go by, attendance at this year's triennale may top that of the first in 2010, which saw 930,000 visitors over one hundred days. This, by the way, is more than double the number of people who visit the art exhibitions of the Venice Biennale.

BEHIND ALL OF this is one man with very deep pockets: Soichiro Fukutake, billionaire head of an educational publishing firm. In 1986, the sudden death of his father brought Fukutake back from the Tokyo office to the company's headquarters in Okayama on the north side of the Inland Sea. At first he missed the big city, but over the ensuing months and years he grew ever more appreciative of the natural beauty of the Seto region, and determined to reverse the decline of the islands – through art. In 1992, he opened Benesse House Museum on the island of Naoshima, in a striking building designed by architect Tadao Ando, the first of three modernist museums dedicated to contemporary art and sculpture. In nearby Honmura port, Fukutake established an 'art house' project which has so far transformed fourteen abandoned houses into small galleries and arty cafes. Naoshima has become one of Japan's most favoured tourist destinations.

Fukutake's vision for reinvigorating the region (and bear in mind that Japan offers no tax breaks for this kind of cultural philanthropy) kept expanding, giving rise to the first Setouchi Triennale which was held throughout the summer months of 2010 and featured works on seven of the islands. Feedback from the islanders that this long period was too disruptive and exhausting led to the decision to break the second Triennale up into three 'sessions': spring, summer and autumn. One hundred and eight days in all. Many more artists were invited to attend in 2013, including sixty artisans from Bangladesh who throughout the summer session established the hugely popular 'Bengal Island' in the heart of the busy port centre of Takamatsu: a living showcase of traditional Bengali crafts, from mats to musical instruments, quilt-making to boat-building, all created before your very eyes. Finally, during the autumn session – the one my friends and I attended – three western islands came on board for the first time, with dedicated ferries connecting them; the opportunity to visit these hard-to-access places brought people flocking from across Japan.

Mr Fukutake, through his Benesse Foundation, is the driving force and financial engine behind the festival, but this second triennale has attracted the assistance of many additional sponsors and funders. Grants from the Australia Council, the Australia Japan Foundation and the Australian Embassy, for example, supported the multi-faceted installations by Craig Walsh and Hiromi Tango on the island of Teshima, as well as assisting Asialink's participation in the summer session symposium, 'Exploring the Art Platform: How Do We Respond to Globalization?', which also brought two Melbourne chefs to work with local cooks and ingredients to prepare the symposium dinner.

The symposium was held in an abandoned primary school on Shōdoshima; 'creative abandonment', one might say, is the triennale's recurring trope. My introduction to this came on the first day of our visit, when on the island of Megijima we found the yard of another defunct primary school transformed by artist Shinro Ohtake into a new and shimmering playground: a palm tree mounted on a massive buoy, a tower comprised of mosaic tiles, ceramic objects, tree roots, and plants from all over the island, and a brilliant technicolour canopy. Though I only came to understand this as the week went on, Ohtake's installation embodies characteristics of many of the triennale's artworks: siting in an abandoned building, the use of objects – ranging from crockery and postcards to tools and machinery – discarded or donated by the islanders, and the inclusion of natural elements such as plants, insects, the sea itself, the lovely shifting light and the utterly glorious views, often across water to other islands.

As I left that endearing playground with one of my travelling companions, both of us abuzz with pleasure, we stepped out of the gate of the former school and found ourselves sharing the narrow roadway with an elderly man, wheeling his dusty bicycle. In the deep wicker baskets fastened over both front and rear wheels were piled the sweet potatoes he'd just harvested – old people on the islands still grow vegetables, peanuts, even rice, arduously working their tiny allotments alone and by hand. 'Konichi-wa,' we said, but the old man did not return our greeting. Indeed, he didn't look at us, but turned his shoulder quite deliberately and wheeled his bike slowly away. I assumed he was just tired, but my friend felt he'd seemed resentful of our presence. And why wouldn't he be, after all? What good are we, galumphing strangers who barely know how to say hello? Gawking at him as he goes about his daily chores. We can't replace the islander children who once spilled out of that school and skipped down the path, or the families who used to live in the houses now being used to display as art those objects once employed by living hands.

IT SET ME wondering: how much are the islanders really benefitting from the triennale? The feedback that the first event had been too intrusive and exhausting, which had led to the change to seasonal sessions – would some islanders have preferred no second triennale? And financially: certainly the ferry companies and the hotels in Takamatsu port were doing very nicely out of it, but I found almost no opportunities to direct my tourist dollars into islander pockets. With the exception of Naoshima there was no accommodation on offer on the islands, and most of the cafés had been set up as part of the triennale (indeed, were themselves deemed artworks) by people from elsewhere. And the enormous number of volunteers who'd enthusiastically turned up suggested that very few paying jobs, even temporary ones, had been created.

With my Japanese vocabulary limited to about a dozen mangled words, and the islanders' English even less, I was not able to engage in discussion with them about the accuracy or relevance of my concerns; it was as much as I could do to buy ferry tickets and bumble my way about. But, although I did over the course of the week encounter several elderly people who preferred to ignore me, more were friendly. Only a few hours after encountering the taciturn sweet potato harvester, another old gent, wreathed in smiles, pressed a paper cup half full of fermented peanuts upon me. 'Arigato, domo arigato,' I managed, bowing, and munched several while he watched with an approving grin. (Fermented peanuts? An acquired taste, I'd have to say. One I have yet to acquire.)

The welcome was warmest on the three western islands which were taking part in the triennale for the first time. Getting from the central port to Honjima, Takamijima and Awashima and back was, as I'd been warned, quite a production, involving two trains, four ferries and a bus, not to mention a great deal of walking over the course of a solid ten-hour day. In fact, the English-speaking volunteer we'd made inquiries of back at information headquarters did such a good job of dissuading us from going to the western isles that only two of our gang of five made the trek. Japanese visitors weren't put off, though. It was a public holiday, and people had come from all over the neighbouring prefectures and from cities as far as Tokyo for the rare chance to visit these tiny, isolated islands, whose combined population is less than a thousand. Excitement was in the air, and the locals we encountered were plainly thrilled by the swirling activity.

It was on these distant islands, too, that I encountered some of the artpieces that became my triennale highlights. On Takamijama, where a sea of three thousand yellow flags made by schoolchildren of the region and bearing their blue handprints greeted arriving visitors, we climbed steep paths – ridiculously steep, with often precipitous drops and no handrails, causing my partner and I to comment on how Australian OH&S would shriek in horror at the very idea of these places being used as public art venues – to the topmost point of the island, where three artists affiliated with a Kyoto university had transformed an abandoned house into the 'House of Pyrethrum'. For centuries, certain types of chrysanthemum from which the insecticide is produced had been cultivated on the island; the installation utilised old photographs blown up to wall size, the harvesters' equipment, and quantities of the fresh flower at various stages in the production process displayed with Zen precision in great rectangles on the lacquered floor. All that was beautiful enough – and I should mention that the houses themselves are very handsome, with their dark wood panelling, narrow wooden staircases with handrails worn over time to silken smoothness, and great round roof beams – but to enter the single dark room upstairs, and encounter the massive spirals of green pyrethrum cones snaking across the floor, some already burnt to a collapsed pile of grey-gold ash, was astonishing. Swooningly beautiful, and fascinating. I wanted so much to linger, but alas, the ferry schedule was tight. On to the next island, bounding like middle-aged mountain goats down that crazy path to sea level.

Awashima, population two hundred and ninety, had pulled out all stops for this day. The Awashima ladies auxiliary, or something like that, was serving food from a small building near the wharf, kind of like our CWA doing Devonshire teas, except the Awashima ladies were offering not scones with jam and cream but grilled octopus with rice and something else impossible to identify but pretty darn tasty. At another stall, a young man urged me with enthusiastic gestures to try a dark red foamy drink being served in vast plastic cups: beer with tomato juice, as I soon discovered, and bloody delicious it was too. Thus fortified, I felt strong enough to stand in line to gain admittance to yet another abandoned house where artist Rui Sasaki's work, titled Subtle Intimacy, awaited. Only a few people were allowed to enter at a time; I had to wait forty minutes for my turn. Inside, darkness, but for a very small glowing room-within-a-room which filled one corner. A room made of glass, or rather, of glass panels, constructed of hundreds of little panes each displaying the ashen skeleton of a plant, leaf, or flower. The artist had spent six months on Awashima, getting to know the people, collecting plants with them, plants which were then sandwiched between two slices of glass and kiln fired. You could go into this room; it was a little too small to stand in, so I knelt, working my way around the glowing walls on my knees, gazing at the delicate yet resilient life held there as though floating before me. It was magical. Walking down the street afterward, I found myself in those inexplicable tears to which occasionally – rarely – art reduces me.

I wished I could have spent more time there on Awashima too. I wished that for each of the islands. A day each for the small ones would have only just been adequate, and for the larger islands such as Shōdoshima, or the treasure trove of Naoshima, maybe three. A week was certainly not long enough to see even half of the Setouchi artworks. Rigid ferry timetables not calibrated for an arts festival made getting between the islands hard, and the fact that, once arrived, the artworks are often grouped kilometres apart made it harder again. So did lack of language. The Setouchi Triennale website has a great deal of good information in English, and I foolishly expected something similar – a catalogue, say – to be available in printed form. It wasn't: just the slim and pretty basic magazine-format 'overview'. Some volunteers spoke some English – about as much as my Japanese – and we encountered only two who were fluent. The art-site maps handed out at each island's ferry terminal were in Japanese, and signage in any language was minimal. There's a Triennale app which you could download, but even if I had a smartphone, and had managed to get it working in Japan (not itself an easy task), still connectivity on the islands was limited.

VISITING THE SETOUCHI Triennale is challenging. One of my friends said he felt that each day he was being presented with a puzzle, one which he had no idea if he could solve, or not. Of our group, I think I'm the only one who'd go there again in 2016. Perhaps changes will have occurred by then which will make the event more foreigner-friendly, who knows? And I don't much care: the beauty of this place has won me.

Besides, I have a sense that the participation of foreigners is something of a sidebar to the success of this festival.

As we left Awashima, having not seen another Western face all day, we were surprised to be addressed in English by a fellow-passenger on the crowded bus, a young man in his twenties. Tomo, soon to complete his medical internship, and his girlfriend Ayu, a cardiology unit nurse, kindly offered us a lift back to our hotel in Takamatsu in their car, sparing us the long final train journey. Tomo was buzzing: he'd been so thrilled to visit the western islands, to view the artworks, to glimpse the communities. He told us with considerable vehemence that he loves the Inland Sea; he grew up in Marugame, a manufacturing town on the southern shore, and chose to do his internship at Takamatsu Hospital. And when he's a qualified doctor, he told us, he plans to go into general practice on one of the islands. Naoshima, initially. 'That's where I want to live,' he said. 'On the islands.'

Yes, I thought, watching Tomo's determined young face. Here's the Setouchi Triennale's true target audience. And this is the sort of outcome it's aiming for.

Yes. It's working.

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