I spent December in Japan: first a week working in Tokyo as part of the Playable City Tokyo creative lab (read more about it here) and then a few weeks traveling around refreshing old connections and making new ones.
There’s a blog post on my website giving an overview of my travels; this is expanding a bit more on a section of it.
I hadn’t initially planned to go but, after receiving several recommendations, I went on a spur of the moment day trip to Naoshima.
Naoshima is a small island in terms of both size (I walked across it in about 30 minutes) and population (about a three hundredth of the size of Birmingham’s population).
Located in the Seto Inland Sea, I gather the traditional fishing industries are in decline at least in part as a result of increasing levels of pollution. Given that the northern end of Naoshima is home to a massive mining operation – complete with tall belching chimneys* – you can easily see how this might be the case.
[*I’m hesitating here because of course I composed all my photos to avoid the signs of industry and it seems many others have done the same so I can’t double check my memories!]
Nowadays the island is as likely to be associated with art as it is with fishing or mining. There are several contemporary art museums, various installations and a regional triennale.
Even though I went in December and things like the main information office were closed, there were still a fair amount of tourists making a similar trip to mine (our paths kept crossing at the main travel termini!).
I think most of the people who had suggested Naoshima to me had probably experienced the big museums or perhaps been there when the island was in triennale mode. My impulsive but late start and a series of badly coordinated travel transfers meant I had limited time, so I opted to hunt out the Art House installations dotted around the port of Honmura rather than to travel around to the southern part of the island where the galleries and museums are.
Empty buildings have been transformed into artworks, containers for artworks, and things that blur the boundaries between the two.
Unfortunately photography isn’t allowed inside any of the properties, but hopefully these snaps from the outside of some of them will give you a sense of the range of buildings involved.
The 200 year old Kadoya house, a former dentist’s office and a renovated Shinto shrine:
There are 7 locations in all – entrance for 6 of them is charged at about £7 – with staff at each location stamping your ticket/leaflet as you go in.
My afternoon left me incredibly curious about how the project came about (it seems the first installation was in 1998, the latest three in 2006) and where the different sorts of value are perceived to be.
The sort of empty shops projects I’m familiar with in the UK generally involve run down areas – hence the empty properties – and colonisation by emerging artists. They (the spaces, not necessarily the artists!) usually have a, shall we say, a certain rough and ready aesthetic. The first house I went to (the former dentist’s office) didn’t jar with this too much, but several of the subsequent locations had a very different feel – both in terms of the work presented and with the age/style of the buildings being used. (My perceptions of age=value becoming evident there…)
It was new (and, I have to admit, somewhat discombobulating) to see an empty buildings project that appears to involve a string of established (presumably well remunurated) artists, and that can support admission charges and associated costs of staffing and marketing.
I was full of questions, but my basic Japanese language skills only extended to trying to ask one of the attendants what had come first; what had catalysed Naoshima’s embracing of contemporary art?
I was expecting (or perhaps hoping) that there had been some grass roots activity that had grown to critical mass and then everything had taken off.
Had this been something that had just evolved, or had the project been masterminded and commissioned by someone?
The leaflet included some text in the same vein as this (although I’ve lifted this from an online description:
Going from one of the houses to another, visitors pass through the Honmura district, where everyday life unfolds around them, in the process not only engaging with works of art, but also sensing the layers of time and history interwoven in the community and the fabric of local people’s lives. A notable feature of the Art House Project is that because viewing it means traversing a zone of daily life, it acts as a catalyst for interaction between visitors and local residents, giving rise to many a memorable episode. A truly organic project that changes day-to-day, it has evolved to present a new model of community, characterized by positive interaction between urban and rural, young and old, resident and visitor. [source]
The Art Houses read like the sort of project I am familiar with, but it felt very different.
I recently found out a bit more information with a little bit of online detective work…
The leaflet that also acts as your ticket bears a tiny little Benesse Art Site Naoshima logo. I was aware that Benesse was associated with the swankier stuff on the south of the island, but I hadn’t realised there was a connection to the Art House project. Well, that explains the types of artists (I assume are) involved, then!
First of all, a few extracts from the Benesse Art Site website:
Benesse Art Site Naoshima’s origin can be traced back to the overlapping vision of two men.
Tetsuhiko Fukutake, the founding president of Fukutake Publishing, who aspired to create a place in the Seto Inland Sea where children from all over the world could gather; and Chikatsugu Miyake, then incumbent mayor of Naoshima, who dreamt of developing a cultural and educational area on the island. [source]
Benesse Art Site Naoshima was born from the Naoshima International Campsite in 1989. It then opened Benesse House (1992), an establishment offering hotels rooms and dedicated spaces for exhibiting contemporary art. After holding the outdoor exhibition “Out of Bounds” (1996), in 1998 the focus moved from the art museum toward the local town and its inhabitants as they went about their daily routines, leading to the start of the Art House Project. In 2004, it opened the Chichu Art Museum as a stage for showcasing a compilation of all the art activities carried out in Naoshima up to that point. Over a span of many years, it has made art become ingrained with Naoshima and its natural landscapes. [source]
Mar. 1998 Start of the Art House Project
A project that takes old houses in Naoshima’s Honmura District, restores them, and lets artists convert these spaces into works of art. The first work of this project, Kadoya, was opened to the public in 1998. This became a great opportunity for expanding the area dedicated to art projects, reaching out from the Benesse House Museum toward the local town and its inhabitants, and engaging with their daily routines. [source (click on the title in the timeline to view this caption)]
This is all I have to go on, so not the most comprehensive or wide-ranging of source materials, but I’m starting to get a sense of how this facet of Naoshima has come to be. Previously I had been wrestling with some sort of assumed divide between placemaking projects being from the bottom up and big budget long-term projects being commercial endeavours. Both these shaped by my own experiences as an emerging artist working in the UK: short-term, low budget.
It’s taken a while – and a bit of digging – but the Art House project has reminded me that things can be different. It may yet be that Benesse is a canny business investment (it certainly now seems to own a lot of property on the island), but it’s been eye-opening to see an initiative led by a private investor and sustained over such a long time.
I still have questions: about how all this art is regarded by the locals and whether either the art itself or the repercussions of the associated business has improved the quality of life for the residents (if at all). In particular, in the wake of the Playable City Tokyo lab, I am curious about the claims about positive interactions between residents and visitors.
For the whole afternoon looking at the Art Houses I didn’t really have any interactions with anyone beyond getting my ticket stamped, and I’d mostly been inside my head all day, existing in the space behind my eyes as I waited for transport or passively viewed art.
After everything started to close for the day, I decided to meander over to the next town, where I had the most stand-out experience of the whole day: a series of interactions with a young girl who was playing with a football in the car park outside this ramen restaurant. She found the courage to come up to me at the bus stop to say hello. (Something she couldn’t convince her little sister to try!)
It didn’t feel like something that had been facilitated by art, but maybe she was used to seeing foreigners waiting there and had had other chats with other tourists.
How do you assess impact like this?