ART HAS TRANSFORMED A FAR JAPAN ISLAND
Art can enlighten, confer, challenge, provoke. Sometimes it can transform a whole community. A clear illustration of this statement is the 5.5 square-mile island of Naoshima, located in the Inland Sea of Japan.
At one time, Mitsubishi’s metal recycling plant was the largest employer in Naosima. In fact, it is still the largest employer – just not as big as it once was.Blame automation of this process, but following the reduction of jobs, the island’s population also declined, falling from 8,000 inhabitants in the 1950s and 1960s to just over 3,000 people.
For Japan, this is not surprising. The population of small towns is declining throughout the country. Some cities disappear altogether. The reasons include the combination of a general reduction in the population of the country and an increase in the number of people moving from rural areas to large cities. So, probably, the same incessant decline awaits Naosimu.
Pay attention to Benesse Holdings, an educational and publishing conglomerate located in the nearby city of Okayama. Its most famous brand is the Berlitz language school. Another claim to the fame of the conglomerate is its world collection of contemporary art, including paintings by Claude Monet, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol, as well as many Japanese artists, less well-known in the United States.
The former head of Benesse Holdings, Soichiro Fukutake, wanted to find a special place for the collection – or, if I may say so, a kind of house, where it would not only be given to the outside world, but also be a local decoration, attraction of the surrounding territories.
Therefore, almost 30 years ago, Benesse purchased a large plot of land on the southern coast of Naoshima. The conglomerate hired world-renowned architect Tadao Ando, and over the next two decades he designed museums and luxury apartments. The buildings he built seem to follow the natural contours of the landscape. One museum is predominantly underground, and thanks to the open wells, natural light penetrates inside.
The Ando case is to build, and the visitors will come themselves. This year, the Naoshima Art Festival, which is held every three years, according to the most courageous calculations, will attract at least 800,000 tourists to the island.
“As soon as we had an active and developed tourist industry, and tourists flooded the island, many Japanese people moved here to open stores,” said Naosima Mayor Michiru Hamanaka. “Last year, we even recorded some population growth.”
For example, a 38-year-old Masaaki Yamagishi is one of the owners of new island stores. His institution Simakoia can be called a semi-cafe, a semi-bookstore in the form of a tent camp, a sort of community center where people gather to learn English or watch movies.
Yamagishi himself first came to Naoshima from Tokyo as part of an art tourist trip. “I was so struck by the kindness of the locals that I fell in love with this island,” he says. “So I thought: what a wonderful place!”
His cafe is located in the village of Honmoore. Its narrow streets are dotted with abandoned houses. Conglomerate Benesse Holdings acquired several of them and handed them over to artists who turned houses into permanent art objects. Now these “Art-houses” redirected the flow of tourists from the museum town to the village, and this turned the residents of Naoshima into enthusiastic supporters of modern art.
One of them is the 74-year-old Morohiro Nambara. He works as a lecturer in a house where the locals used to meet for a go board game. Artist Yoshihiro Suda put his camellia sculpture in this room. This combination of real camellia wood with empty space should push you to think about where the fake is, where reality is and where true art is. Nambara likes to discuss this sculpture with visitors at home.
“At the beginning, I had no idea how to evaluate contemporary art according to merit,” he admitted. “But little by little I became like exhibits on the island, and even began to take them closer to my heart.” Therefore, it seems to me that now I understand them a little better. ”
It is no exaggeration if we say that with art you can encounter everywhere on the island. Benesse ordered some more special works. A couple of sculptures tourists can see already near the harbor, without leaving the ferry. For example, a giant red pumpkin with a polka dot pattern created by Yayoy Kusama became the symbol of Naoshima. A smaller copy of the sculpture – a yellow pumpkin located in the middle of the undeveloped beach – looks out to guests from the old concrete pier.