Opinion / Cai Hong

Art triennale brings life back to dying islands

By Cai hong (China Daily) Updated: 2016-10-24 08:17

'The climate is mild, and the scenery is relaxing. Why don't you come?"

Faded posters with these lines enticing people to move to Kagawa prefecture are visible at many bus stops on its second largest island of Shodoshima.

Like the rest of Japan, Kagawa is faced with a shrinking, aging population and economic decline. The smallest prefecture in Japan sits on Shikoku Island facing the SetoInland Sea, known as the Japanese version of the Mediterranean Sea.

The Seto Inland Sea that separates Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu-three of Japan's four main islands-had long been used for maritime transport. Heavy industry, along with illegal dumping of industrial waste, caused pollution, which affected the livelihoods of people on many of the smaller islands.

When major industries and workers moved away, and a large number of young island folk leave for larger cities, the area is on the verge of becoming obsolete.

Road signs are rusty, homes are abandoned, and schools are closed. The islands' destinies are left to a handful of remaining residents, mostly elderly, who have no strength and vision to revitalize their moribund hometowns themselves.

Until the Setouchi Triennale was launched in 2010, few Japanese would have had much occasion to visit these islands, never mind foreigners.

It was private patrons that came up with the idea of reinvigorating the islands through art as opposed to industry.

The Triennale, which runs in spring, summer and autumn, has expanded the venues from seven islands in 2010 to 12 islands and two ports now. This year, the event has brought 177 groups of artists from 25 countries and regions to the ordinarily sleepy region.

Taking inspiration from the history and landscapes of these venues, the artists have created artworks of various sizes and mediums that stand in the rice fields, around the ports, and in the woods. Artists use local materials and create art that comes together with the environment.

It is a ground breaking endeavor. One of the projects takes abandoned old houses and other buildings in Naoshima and transforms them into permanent site-specific art exhibition spaces.

In Naoshima alone, visitors can explore the Chichu Museum, Benesse Art House, Lee Ufan Museum and the Art House Project as well as numerous installations around the island, many outdoors.

Much of the artwork remain standing after the festival, justifying a visit to the area at any time of the year.

Islanders have joined the art festival, giving the artists a helping hand and material.

Museums and art installations attract tourists who bring business to the local cafes, restaurants and accommodation. Magic has gathered on those islets.

In 2010, the 200 or so inhabitants of the small island of Ogijima faced a grim future and feared that their cultural sanctuary would die out. After the 2013 Triennale, people with family roots, artisans, or others who just wanted to live a quiet island life started moving to the island.

Ogijima's population has been growing, and its school reopened in 2014. The kindergarten will reopen soon.

The organizers of the Setouchi Triennale want to bring vitality back to those islands where nature and the lifestyles of the people have coalesced together. This year's event was titled "Restoration of the Sea". More than a million visitors are expected to turn up.

The sustainable future of the islands remains unsure as the Triennale may not bring enough residents. But the art is making people happy.

The author is China Daily Tokyo bureau chief.

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