Research Log | The Importance of Continuous Discussion

Takayuki Kubota rethinks the form of biennials and triennials after a recent trip to the Setouchi International Art Festival.


On July 19th, 2010, Fukutake gave a speech during the opening ceremony of the inaugural Setouchi International Art Festival. He said that the leading factor of the festival was not the art itself, but to rejuvenate the area and benefit the locals. This philosophy is applied in both Echigo Tsumari and Setouchi. Many artists cooperate with locals to produce and install artworks, and a team of volunteers from Japan and around the world known as Koebi Tai (which literally translates as ‘small shrimp party’) are actively involved in organizing the festival. You can see the similarities, and how the Setouchi International Art Festival builds on the ten years of experience gained in the Echigo-Tsumari region. In this essay, I would like to first introduce the new festival, and then look at Soichiro Fukutake’s activities in the island town of Naoshima where he has been working for more than 20 years.

The Setouchi International Art Festival is held on seven islands in the Seto Inland Sea: Naoshima, Teshima, Megijima, Ogijima, Inujima, Ohshima, and Shodoshima. The Seto Inland Sea was the first area designated to national parks in Japan, in 1934. In Yasujiro Ozu’s film Tokyo Story several scenes take place in the town of Onomichi, which faces the Inland Sea. Some of the islands I visited have a similar atmosphere, although on a much smaller scale than Onomichi, with many hills and wooden houses scattered between mountains and sea.

The area’s scenery is beautiful but there are also problems such as depopulation issues and environmental struggles due to illegally dumped industrial waste and the nearby metal refineries. The island of Teshima, for example, has had serious issues with illegally dumped waste. Fukutake has been playing a leading role in developing Naoshima, creating a famous resort and also renovating an old metal refinery into a museum on the island of Inujima. The Setouchi International Art Festival can perhaps be described as a compilation of Fukutake’s activities over his past two decades in this area.

Naoshima has become renowned as an island where site-specific works produced by artists such as Hiroshi Sugimoto, James Turrell, Walter De Maria, Shinro Ohtake and Bruce Nauman, are permanently installed. The Benesse Art Site and Chichu Museum of Art, both founded by Fukutake, have played a pivotal role and the projects have expanded  all over the island, such as the Ie Project (House Project), with its site-specific installations in old houses on the island. The Lee Ufan Museum has also just opened. Every year, around 360,000 people from all over the world visit the island, which has a population of approximately 3,000.

The site-specific works in the large and open, rural area of Naoshima reminded me of the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, where founder Donald Judd first started installing artworks in 340 acres of land in 1978, with the support of the DIA Art Foundation. However, while the Chinati Foundation was founded to achieve Judd’s artistic goal, Fukutake’s approach in Naoshima and for the festival is strongly connected with tourism and a specific purpose of rejuvenating the rural areas.

The island of Naoshima did not attract many tourists before the 1980s. The scenery was beautiful but infrastructure for tourism such as hotels was not in place. Fukutake and architect Tadao Ando started to develop the island from the late ‘80s, building a museum and luxury hotel next to each other. The concept has worked in bringing in audiences. A friend of mine, who professes to have had zero interest in contemporary art, visited Naoshima last summer. She told me that she chose the island as a destination because of its fame as a resort. After her vacation, she became interested in contemporary art and now regularly goes to galleries and museums. I am sure many people who were not previously familiar with contemporary art became interested after travelling to Naoshima—even though their original intention was just to have a nice vacation. As I wrote earlier, Fukutake stated several times during his speech that the most important element is not the artwork or the context of art, but that his activities in Naoshima and the two festivals have helped, both directly and indirectly, to raise people’s interests in contemporary art in Japan. 

I only had three days to document the festival, which of course was not enough time to cover all the exhibits on seven islands. However, I would like to introduce some of the highlights. In Teshima, the New York-based, Japanese video and photographic artist Mariko Mori has installed Tom Na H-iu, a 4.5 metre sculpture made of glass and inspired by ancient Celtic lores of standing stones. Mori’s glass object’s LED lighting is connected via the Internet to Super Kamiokande, a neutrino observatory at the Institute for Cosmic Ray Research, University of Tokyo, and flashes with light when a neutrino is observed. This series has been shown at gallery spaces before, but it was a wonderful opportunity to see her works in a site-specific installation particularly in such a tranquil setting.

Berlin-based Chiharu Shiota’s installation, Farther Memory, is exhibited in a former public hall on the island of Teshima. The Japanese artist has created a tunnel out of old, salvaged windows and doors, in what is one of the few exhibits in the festival that offers a link to the issue of industrial waste in the area. Brazilian-born Oscar Oiwa exhibits a large drawing piece inspired by the Japanese films Twenty-Four Eyes (1954) and The Naked Island (1966) which both depict life in the Seto Inland Sea. Other artists were inspired by the scenery and space, while some produced works based on the history of the area or the region’s problems. It was interesting to see each artist’s approach in creating site-specific works.

Fukutake House 2010 in Megijima (a project produced by Fukutake as a part of the festival) organizes solo exhibitions by artists, and features 11 Japanese and international galleries including the Tokyo galleries Gallery Koyanagi, Hiromi Yoshii, SCAI THE BATHHOUSE, Shugoarts, Tomio Koyama Gallery and Taka Ishii Gallery; and international galleries James Cohan Gallery (New York), Gallery Guido W. Baudach (Berlin), Vitamin Creative Space (Guangzhou), Boers-Li Gallery (Beijing) and kurimanzutto (Mexico City). Fukutake House was originally launched as a project for the Echigo Tsumari Triennial in 2006, to provide a space of experimentation for galleries and artists. This year’s edition in Setouchi includes more overseas galleries than the last two editions at the Echigo Tsumari Art Triennial in 2006 and 2009. Jun Yang at Vitamin Creative Space has installed Phantom Island, a video work about an artificial island he created and floated in the East China Sea surrounded by China, Taiwan, and Japan. His work tacitly tells how identity and nation exists as “phantoms.”

At this point, I would like to come back to my original point, of how I have begun to reconsider the form of biennials and triennials as a result of this trip. The method of carrying out biennials and triennials has been discussed by many professionals working in the field, but usually they are discussed with a focus on the context of artistic direction. There are three major biennials and triennials in Japan other than the Setouchi International Art Festival: the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennial was established in 1999 and the Yokohama Triennial and Echigo Tsumari Art Triennial were launched in the early 2000s. Each has its own perspective and strategies in carrying out an international exhibition. It would be fair to say that the Yokohama Triennial reflects global trends while the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennial has energetically introduced artists in Asia. The Echigo Tsumari Art Triennial and Setouchi International Art Festival, in contrast, have a clear purpose for local residents. This poses an excellent opportunity to open up a dialogue about the form of biennials and triennials – there are afterall various examples already in this small country. There is, however a need to have a sustainable place to have this discussion: something more than a two or three-hour panel discussion.  

There are also issues of discussion specific to the Setouchi International Art Festival. The event will be held until October 31, 2010, and organizers predict approximately 350,000 visitors this year. I met one local who told me that he would buy beer than pay the ¥300 admission to each exhibit. I am sure that many locals have already been actively involved in the festival but there is also a gap. There are still many local residents who have their doubts about the festival. I found this out after talking to several locals during my trip. Their doubts are not based on the content of the festival, but how the festival has made the area a centre of attention – which, I am sure, is the first time that many locals are having this experience. More than 350,000 people will visit the islands, which only have a combined population of 50,000. It is not difficult to imagine how locals would be perplexed by this particularly in the first year of the event. 

I believe that the most important thing for this kind of festival is to keep sustaining a discussion with locals. Skulptur Projekte Münster, for example, has taken place every 10 years from 1977 and has more than 30 years of experience. It is important to keep in mind that even Skulptur Projekte Münster had an issue with local people opposing the project. It has become a successful model after many trials and errors, steady research and many discussions. The festival in Setouchi has only just begun and I hope that many people will visit from beyond the area, but I also hope that the locals will be interested in the festival, to draw issues which will help improve the next edition, scheduled in 2013.





Takayuki KUBOTA

Sun, 1 Aug 2010
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