This article first appeared on Vogue IN on 27th April 2016.
All text by Suhair Khan.
Springtime began this year with the Setouchi Triennale entering its 2016 rendition. Japan’s Seto Inland Sea connects the Sea of Japan to the Pacific Ocean, and to its Eastern corner sit the Naoshima Islands—a cluster of twelves small isles known as much for their natural beauty as for the now three decade old Benesse Art Site Project and the more recent Setouchi Art Festival, launched in 2010.
Few places inspire the senses more through design than Japan—the land of Zen temples, Wabi Sabi, the majority of the world’s living Pritzker Architecture Prize winners, and countless gorgeous vistas and landscapes. The Naoshima Islands are well-known among art world insiders as home to a uniquely Japanese confluence of architecture, natural beauty and local and international art and design.
The Setouchi Festival attracts thousands of visitors every three years, most of them Japanese, and all really knowledgeable about art and architecture, eclectically dressed and effortlessly chic. I’ve been hearing about Setouchi for some years from two friends who have been commissioned to build installations for 2016. The first is Kohei Nawa—the Kyoto native and international artworld superstar (find his famed plexiglass deer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York). The second is from my dear friend, Aparna Rao, one half of Bangalore-based art collective Pors & Rao.
I lured my friend Gisela and her husband Thiago over from Brazil, and together we spent a few blissful days hopping on ferries and little dinghies, meandering through the miniscule and sunny island of Inujima and clambering along hilly inclines in Teshima.
Of all the contemporary artists involved with this massive contemporary art project, Naoshima Island—the heart of Setouchi—is really defined by the iconic architect Tadao Ando. He has designed and built three major museums: Chichu Art Museum, the Benesse House and the Lee Ufan Museum.
Ando’s signature concrete studded blocks rise in and out of the landscape, in some cases melting entirely into it. Chichu Art Museum is mostly built underground and houses works by Claude Monet, Walter De Maria and James Turrell. Seeing is believing in De Maria’s temple-like chamber, Turrell’s surrealistic and immersive plays on light, and the most powerful setting of Monet’s water lilies from his years in d’Avignon I’ve seen.
Benesse Art Site houses a museum and extended grounds—walking along headlands and down hillside pathways, you come across sculptures by Niki de Saint Phalle, Kazuo Katase and George Rickey. The vistas are part of the show—Rickey’s three massive silver squares move silently in the breeze, blinking sunlight back at the ships sailing past the water below. And of course, one of the enduring images of Naoshima is Yayoi Kusama’s bright spotted pumpkin on the water’s edge.
In the small town there are tiny local cafes in traditional homes tucked into cobbled streets. Drop into the vegan Genmai-Shinshoku Aisunao, with deliciously proportioned traditional Japanese lunch sets, soy ice cream and green tea as you sit on Tatami mats in a wooden house in Honmura. Or to class it up, book at the Benesse Museum Restaurant’s famous kaiseki dinner with a view of the peninsula.
Inujima and Shodoshima Islands
Much of the art in the area is based on the philosophy of “using what exists to create what is to be”—this defines the Inujima Seirensho Art Museum. Designed and re-built in 2008 by Hiroshi Sambuichi out of the ruins of a shuttered copper factory, the museum uses local materials like granite and bricks from the old refinery. Among the large-scale artworks on display are an intriguing tunnel of mirrors and a tribute to the late novelist Yukio Mishima by artist Yukinori Yanagi.
Despite the constant buzz, there is a permeating sense of being in rural Japan. The Art House Project sites in Naoshima’s Honmura neighbourhood and in Inujima comprise traditional homes and centuries-old temples that have been given over to an artist to create an installation inside or outside. The highlights for me were Kohei Nawa’s Art House C, “Biota” on Inujima and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Appropriate Proportion in the Go’o Temple in Naoshima.
On Shodoshima Island, India-based Pors & Rao have built inside a shed designed by Dot Architects for “Someone’s Coming!”—canvas-covered panels have been installed in a gallery-like space, revolving as though observing people’s actions. Go early, the path leading to the shed becomes completely impassable at high tide.
When you first step into the Teshima Art Museum, the view before you—as designer Philip Lim recently described—leaves you quite speechless. Sitting on a hilltop amidst lush paddy fields and with still blue sea vistas, the museum opened at Setouchi in 2010. The experience deliberately fuses the natural landscape, light, sound, water from a natural spring, and the energy of visitors. A collaboration between architect Ryue Nishizawa and Japanese artist Rei Naito, it comprises two large elliptical openings and a visibly unsupported structure that spans 40-by-60 metres.
As you walk out, head to the museum store and cafe—a miniature version of the main site. Nibble on moist rice-flour lemon donuts whilst reading up on the artists and philosophy behind the artwork. Then wander down the four miles along a hillside past Karato port to Teshima’s other major art site, “Les Archives du Cœur”. This is a repository of human heartbeats created by the artist Christian Boltanski in 2008, housed inside a preserved charcoal building by the sand. Visitors can listen to recordings from an ongoing global project that collects the sounds and vibrations of visitors’ heartbeats.
There is something strange about leaving your heartbeat in a room with a giant blinking bulb that pulses loudly at the rate of your heart (out of all of us, only Thiago went through with it). But as I reflect on it now, I realise it is possibly the only permanent sign you will be able to leave of yourself on these timeless and distant islands.
See: Visit as many of the 12 islands as you can—especially during Setouchi.
Stay: Benesse House, Naoshima; Yado Seven Beach, Naoshima; Uno Port House, Uno City; Ryokan Shioya, Naoshima
Buy: I’m a sucker for Japanese ceramics, design books, fabrics and stationery, so I’d recommend the various tiny Museum stores on the islands. The festival also has little pop ups at the port stations that have gorgeous pieces.
Eat: These are all exquisite, and mostly low key, but if you can’t find them, stay local and rely on lucky wanders:
– Shima Kitchen, Teshima
– Benesse House Museum Cafe and Restaurant
– Cinnamon Cafe, Naoshima
– Genmai-Shinshoku Aisunao, Naoshima
– Kagawa Gun Sushi, Naoshima
– Chichu Art Museun Cafe and Garden, Naoshima
– Inujima Port Cafe, Inujima
– Ikeda – Ya Sushi, Uno Port
– Teshima Art Museum Tea Shop, Teshima
Read more about Benesse Art Site Naoshima here.
For more information about the Setouchi Triennale 2016, click here.
Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.
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