Japan Celebrates The Power of Art To Transform Communities

The Setouchi International Art Festival opens July 19 and concludes October 31 2010 http://setouchi-artfest.jp/en/

To participate in an exclusive Japan travel program October 9 - 21 2010 to attend the festival, please contact Anne Geismann Alene at ageisalene@earthlink.net.

July 19 2010 marks the start of the Setouchi International Art Festival, a 100-day art bonanza, and is certain to be a gratifying destination and awe-inspiring experience for visitors. As Indian Jones sought far and wide for the Holy Grail, likewise, the Festival event will take the adventurous art traveler away from familiar urban scenes and through tidy rural landscapes to meet a wind-blown mysterious sea highway. Traversing one island shore to the next will offer numerous discoveries of art and world-class architectural treasures, all in the spirit of bringing people together to celebrate local culture and creativity.

The Festival is hosted by Executive Producer Soichiro Fukutake (b. 1945) and Chairman of the Fukutake Museum Foundation. In 1986, Fukutake inherited reign as CEO and expanded Fukutake Publishing, his father’s literary education company, to become Benesse Corporation. Benesse, meaning good life in Italian, is best known for distance learning and test preparation schools including the worldwide chain of Berlitz language schools. Fukutake is 19th amongst the top forty billionaires of Japan with a net worth of 1.6 billion US dollars, and ranks 522nd of the world’s 793 billionaires in 2009 as reported by Forbes magazine.

Access to the Festival is a swift three-hour ride by high-speed Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo. The bullet train station stop at Okayama City (pop. est. 200,000) is Fukutake’s hometown and Benesse’s corporate headquarters. Far from neon skyscrapers, Okayama station connects to a 45-minute local train ride into the countryside. The last train stop is a mere hundred feet from the shore of the central Seto Inland Sea, and a short walk to the port connects to a 15-minute ferry ride and to the main island of Naoshima.

The Seto Inland Sea is both a national park and major industrial region, characterized by an irregular shoreline and dotted with nearly 1000 small islands, extending as far as 250 miles east to west and at certain points as wide as 40 miles across. The Inland Sea travels between two of the five largest islands of the Japanese archipelago, Kyuushu and Shikoku. The Inland Sea starts from the largest island Awajishima at the tip of northeastern Shikoku and travels west and south to the tip of Kyuushu to meet with the Pacific Ocean once again. The Inland Sea is home to historical shogun battles and ancient shrines, and one of the largest transportation highways in East Asia.

Naoshima is home to 3000 residents, a small industry for salt, squid and sea bream farming, and since World War II, has served as a satellite production site for Mitsubishi copper-smelting and refinery industry. In medieval times, Naoshima monitored sea traffic and police piracy for the local daimyo warlord’s sea territory.

But, Naoshima is also now a major hub for artistic and architectural genius, the origins of Fukutake’s Benesse Art Site. Naoshima’s Benesse Art Site concept has expanded its influence out to seven more small surrounding islands and even across the shores to Shikoku Island’s port city Takamatsu. The Festival celebration will provide a web-like network of small boats which will transport visitors to commune with each of the newly featured installations.

Setouchi International Art Festival celebrates over twenty years since Fukutake and the regional government officials took initiative to experiment with the impact of art on the local region. In 1986, Fukutake broke ground on the main island of Naoshima, chanting the mantra from local to international while bringing together talented and sympathetic artists and architects to plan a community-based international art site. No one yet in the history of Japan (or possibly the world) has been as successful as Fukutake in shifting the focus from international exhibitions held in large urban centers such as Tokyo and regenerating the tiny fishing islands and its surrounding cities and towns suffering from depopulation.

Fukutake has transformed the local island culture into an “island museum,” creating jobs, restoring the area, facilitating local exchange, and rewriting the discourse for how and where art can be experienced. Benesse Art Site transformed Naoshima to accommodate visitors from all over Japan and the world, proving Naoshima as one of the greatest contemporary art and cultural experiences on the planet.

Until recent, a typical visitor’s pilgrimage is to spend a minimum of one day and one night at Benesse House, the original museum-hotel designed by house architect Tadao Ando. Hotel rooms and galleries co-exist with views of the Inland Sea from all sides. Fukutake has accumulated an extraordinary collection of masterpieces by David Hockney, Jasper Johns, Jannis Kounellis, Richard Long, Bruce Nauman, Cy Twombly, Yayoi Kusama, and Cai Guo-Qiang.

The art is displayed not only within the museum-hotel, but also along the beach, and inside of restored properties called House Projects in the island village: The original House Projects feature artists: Tatsuo Miyajima whose Sea of Time (1998) is a flickering LED counter installation set in a shallow pool of an inside courtyard once a seafood wholesaler merchant home; James Turrell whose Back Side of the Moon (1999) is a nearly imperceptible black environment of a restored Temple; and Hiroshi Sugimoto whose Appropriate Proportion (2002) is the renovation of neighborhood Go’o Shinto Shrine and its elaboration with an entrance portico, a flight of glass stairs and a subterranean sanctuary. Further installations by painter Hiroshi Senju, Shinro Ohtake and Yoshihiro Suda were installed in restored properties in 2006

A full-time youthful staff has been organized from all over Japan to function as the curatorial, logistical, and operational team of the island museum and accommodation facilities. Most staff is given residence on Naoshima in dormitories vacated since Mitsubishi’s downsizing and enjoy luxuries of daily meals cooked by neighboring villagers. Cheerful senior residents of Naoshima have been hired to serve as stewards of the House Projects manning admissions throughout the operating hours and as bus drivers for easy transportation around the island.

A second museum also designed by Tadao Ando, Chichu Art Museum opened July 2004, which juxtaposes the work of just three artists: Walter de Maria who has conceived a room installation worthy of a shrine of a lost civilization; James Turrell who created three light environments from different intervals of his career; and Claude Monet for whom the museum has created an arrangement of five Nymphéas paintings from the final chapter of his artistic activity c. 1915-1920 including a widescreen Waterlily Pond diptych.

In addition, early 2008 marked the opening of a revolutionary eco-museum project of Hiroshi Sambuichi on the small island of Inujima. Under the direction of Fukutake, Sambuichi and his single collaborating artist, Yukinori Yanagi, cleverly used the ruins of a former copper refinery to build a museum and single-artist installation which is symbiotically designed to coexist with the earth and building materials. The museum’s design operates a natural climate-control system and even grows its own plants fertilized by the waste filtering system, while Yanagi’s artwork is primarily of recycled personal materials of legendary Yukio Mishima. Inujima easily moves to first place as one of the great Land Art reclamation projects of our era. Yukinori Yanagi seized the attention of the contemporary art market with World Ant Farm exhibited at the Venice Biennale, comprising a matrix of 80 Perspex boxes linked by tubes and housing national flags carefully constructed in colored sand. The performance work utilized ant colonies to burrow tunnels and deposit sand particles in a central chamber which eroded the symbolic flags of national identity.

But, July 2010 begins the most ambitious event ever in Benesse’s artistic history, unveiling the most recent projects, which will be exhibited across the rice fields, beaches, wooden houses and shrines of Fukutake’s ever-expanding island art community. The festival draws in 45 artistic geniuses from around the world and Japan. Japan’s finest architects, designers and artists are on board, including nationals Kenya Hara, Rei Naito, Mariko Mori, and Shinro Ohtake, collaborating alongside with international artists such as Olafur Eliasson, Christian Boltanski, Leandro Erlich, Janet Cardiff and George Bures-Miller.

The award-winning SANAA partner architects (New York New Museum completed 2007), Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, will debut two new art venues: Inujima Art Project “Village” (Sejima in collaboration with artist Yukinori Yanagi) and Teshima Art Project “Museum” (Nishizawa works with artist Rei Naito). Teshima was once home to Mitsubishi’s toxic waste dumps while Inujima has a population of only fifty. Christian Boltanski recorded and collected the sound of heartbeats of people around the world as part of his work featured on Teshima. Also, on Naoshima, prolific graffiti artist, Shinro Ohtake designed a fully operational Naoshima Public Bath teaming up with graf, Yoshitomo Nara’s head design company. Tadao Ando will open a venue devoted to the great minimalist Korean-Japanese artist Lee Ufan. The blossoming art haven of Setouchi International Art Festival and Benesse Art Site indeed lie distant from the capital in geography but continue to seek only to embrace concepts essential to rural Japan and promote island culture by merging aspects of art and architecture closely linked to the nature and history of the site.

There is little superficial evidence despite a laundry list of development, and island life still remains provincial, self-contained, quiet and simple, but Fukutake and local officials have helped the islands overcome the threat of extinction which loomed a little over 20 years ago. The Festival slows down the pace for visitors, affirms art’s ability to restore and renew, and creates unforgettable exchange with the local population and international art. The Setouchi International Art Festival will integrate itself into Fukutake’s overall plan and continue to connect people from all over Japan and the world. An area once on the endangered species list is inspiring communities all over Japan to find new ways to encourage rural economies and pilgrims to revisit forgotten locales and even forgotten aspects of themselves.