This year, a remote cluster of 12 islands in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea – declared a ‘dying sea’ during the rapid urban development of the country’s postwar economic miracle – anticipates a staggering one million visitors over a period of just 108 days. Accessible only by erratic passenger ferries, the islands’ jagged coastlines, neglected infrastructure and dense forestation form the backdrop for the third Setouchi Triennale.
Director Fram Kitagawa positions the festival as a counterpoint to the archipelago’s ‘negative legacy of modernization’. Water pollution caused by illegal industrial waste disposal, together with unprecedented urban migration, have resulted in enduring demographic and environmental challenges. Inujima, one of the smallest participating islands, has seen its population fade from 1,500 to just 50 over the last half-century.
Kitagawa also directs the Echigo-Tsumari Triennale, on which Setouchi is modelled. Both reject the dominant biennial model of star-studded international group exhibitions supplemented by dense curatorial statements. Setouchi’s only published text offers a utopian vision of the islands being slowly and progressively reactivated through art. In practice, for each edition, Kitagawa commissions a disparate programme of outdoor sculptures, site-specific installations and public workshops. But his aim to bring artists into meaningful dialogue with island communities has sometimes stuttered in its realization.
This year, Kitagawa commissioned more than 100 new sculptural works, of varying quality, which are scattered across the 12 islands. Like Setouchi’s 2013 edition, this year’s triennale is split into three seasons – spring, summer and autumn – intended to minimize disruption to local residents. Though previous editions have featured an international roster of invited artists, this edition consciously focuses on artists living and working in Asia. Some – such as Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa, whose Gift of the Sun (2015) is a golden olive wreath inscribed with local children’s hopes for the future, installed at the main port of Shodoshima island – mawkishly interpret Setouchi’s socially engaged vision.
The two central architectural commissions of this year’s festival lack the social efficacy to which Setouchi’s vision aspires. Perched on Naoshima’s shoreline, architect Sou Fujimoto’s ethereal Naoshima Pavilion (2015) – a seven-m³ polyhedron of white stainless-steel mesh – feels like a too- literal translation of the island’s physical geography. Begun in 2010, curator Yuko Hasegawa’s ongoing ‘Art House Projects’ on Inujima island invite artists to create installations in disused homes. This year’s Art House commission, Chinatsu Shimodaira’s Ether (2015), is a taut web of neon levelling strings – traditionally used to mark horizontal lines at construction sites – which run from the corners, windowsills and roof of a 200-year-old wooden house. The focus on physical context in both installations underscores the primacy of the artists’ concern with formal qualities rather than critical engagement.
Since 1992, billionaire publisher Soichiro Fukutake, who finances the Setouchi Triennale, has commissioned three museums on Naoshima designed by architect Tadao Ando, as well as numerous site-specific works by Walter De Maria, Yayoi Kusama and James Turrell, among others. Where monumentality and art tourism characterize Fukutake’s revitalization agenda, Setouchi envisions a grassroots model of social change through art. Typifying this, Kitagawa has advocated for the inclusion of Oshima Island in the triennials. A former leper colony, its residents had, disgracefully, been forced into isolation by the Japanese government, until the law allowing for this treatment was finally repealed in 1996. However, the disconnect between Setouchi’s artistic programme and such well-meaning ambitions is made starker by an absence of contextual information. It is nonetheless refreshing to see a triennial relatively unconcerned with market valourization and operating on a timescale far removed from the quickness of the international biennial. Depopulation in rural areas is a growing global challenge. The Setouchi Triennale advances a model of non-urban revitalization that poses questions for the usefulness of art within a particular geographic context. But the question remains: how welcome are one million visitors to an island population of 50?
First published in Issue 180