Art Islands2

A bird's eye view of the 'art islands'

Art Islands

アートの島

Art Islands2

A bird's eye view of the 'art islands'

The small islands of Naoshima and Teshima in Kagawa Prefecture, together with Inujima in Okayama Prefecture, lying in the Seto Inland Sea are known as Japan’s ‘art islands’. Collectively they form the Benesse Art Site Naoshima – a collaborative project by Benesse Holdings, Inc. and Fukutake Foundation – which fuses art and architecture with the environment and industrial heritage of the islands.

Since its founding in the late 1980s, the Benesse Art Site Naoshima project has been spearheaded by the philanthropist and arts patron Fukutake Sōichirō via his publishing and education company Benesse Holdings Inc. and Fukutake Foundation for the Promotion of Regional Culture.

Inspired by the idea of fusing art and nature, Fukutake collaborates with celebrated architects like Andō Tadao, to design art museums that are sympathetic to, and symbiotic with, the islands’ natural landscapes. He also engages acclaimed Japanese and international artists to produce works specially for the islands. Numerous works of art, from Claude Monet’s Water Lilies series to Kusama Yayoi’s Narcissus Garden, are enjoyed by visitors from all over the world.

Every three years, Naoshima, Teshima and Inujima, together with 9 other islands and 2 port areas in the Seto Inland Sea, host the Setouchi Triennale, an international contemporary art festival. The event’s origin was a proposal by the Fukutake Foundation in collaboration with local government, with the purpose of celebrating and revitalizing the region through contemporary art.

The Natural Environment

The ‘art islands’ – part of Japan’s largest national park, Setonaikai (lit. ‘Seto Inland Sea’) – are abundant in natural beauty; however, industrialization and modernization in the 20th century made a significant ecological impact on the region. The islands suffered from illegal industrial waste dumping in the 1970s and 80s, and pollution from factories, such as the copper refinery on Inujima.

The ruins of this refinery have since been repurposed to form the Inujima Seirensho Art Museum, a collaboration between the artist Yanagi Yukinori and architect Sambuichi Hiroshi. Designed to create minimal environmental footprint, the museum is built from locally available materials, harnesses natural energy to regulate temperature and uses a mirror-reflection system to naturally illuminate the space. Displayed inside are Yanagi’s works that comment on Japan’s modernization.

The rehabilitation of the islands and the creation of harmony between their inhabitants and their visitors, nature, architecture and contemporary art are constantly considered in Benesse Art Site Naoshima’s activities across all of the islands. 

Community Engagement 

Urbanization in a post-industrial age left the islands in the Seto Inland Sea with dwindling, ageing populations and declining economies. Sensitive to these challenges, the project has used art as a tool for community revitalization and its successful approach is known as ‘The Naoshima Method’. Initiatives like the ‘Art House Project’ on Naoshima help to restore disused original buildings, turning them into art installations. In one such building, named Kadoya, 125 Naoshima residents helped to create Miyajima Tatsuo’s artwork Sea of Time ’98.

These types of interactions between artists and local communities help to familiarize residents with artworks, and empower them to interact with visitors and offer tours. On Teshima, local residents restored abandoned rice terraces for the opening of the Teshima Art Museum. Meanwhile, residents of Inujima use Inujima Life Garden – a once abandoned plot of land regenerated into a botanical garden – to interact with and pass on their stories to visitors.

Collaboration between landscape, art and architecture 

Benesse Holding Inc’s impressive art collection – including works by internationally acclaimed artists such as David Hockney, Bruce Nauman and Sugimoto Hiroshi – is thoughtfully displayed in specially built museums on the islands. Architectural designs integrate buildings into the local environment and amplify visitors’ experience of the artworks. For example, the subterranean Chichu Art Museum, by Andō Tadao, is discreetly set into the landscape of Naoshima and designed to exhibit works by just three artists: Claude Monet, Walter De Maria and James Turrell. Its gallery showing Monet’s Water Lilies series presents the works in only natural light, with rounded room corners for an uninterrupted viewing experience.

Meanwhile, on Teshima, which was once known for its abundance of springs and clean groundwater, the Teshima Art Museum – a creative collaboration between architect Nishizawa Ryūe and artist Naitō Rei – is designed in the shape of a water droplet built into the surrounding hills and housing just one groundwater-based art installation.  

In addition to the specially designed museums, numerous outdoor works are meticulously installed in the landscape of the islands, offering visitors a surprising encounter with art. Kusama Yayoi’s Narcissus Garden, with its 1,700 mirrored balls, is not only visually stimulating but also offers visitors an aural experience. Another outdoor piece from the 1990s, Ōtake Shinrō’s Shipyard Works: Stern with Hole reflects Naoshima’s historical and cultural connections to the sea.

The founding of the Benesse Prize in 1995 has been instrumental in the commissioning of new works on the islands. Winning artists create site-specific works, with past winners including Venice Biennale or Singapore Biennale participants Cai Guo-Qiang, Olafur Eliasson, Tacita Dean, Pannaphan Yodmanee, amongst others. Site-specific commissions encourage artists to contemplate the themes of nature, history, community and wellbeing, to engage with local communities and ultimately create artwork that complements and enriches the identities of the islands. The piece by Tacita Dean is highly anticipated. 

Inujima ‘Art House Project’ 

Inujima is the site of the innovative Inujima ‘Art House Project’, a collaboration between artistic director Hasegawa Yuko and architect Sejima Kazuyo, which attempts to re-energize the ageing local community of fewer than 50 residents. With ecology and sustainability at its core, the project comprises a series of five pavilions built from recycled materials and designed to use minimal electricity.

Artists, whose works have been, or are, exhibited on the island, include Nawa Kōhei, Kōjin Haruka and Komuta Yūsuke. One of the most recent artists, Beatriz Milhazes, collaborated closely with the local residents, engaging them in the ideas behind the creation of Yellow Flower Dream, enabling them to act as guides for visitors while telling their own stories. Hasegawa and Sejima plan to continue using art, infrastructure and renewable energy to further grow Inujima into an ecological art island. Inujima ‘Art House Project’ is the focus of Japan House London’s exhibition Symbiosis: Living Island (21 May – 4 September 2022).

Art Tourism

The activities of Benesse Art Site Naoshima – on Naoshima, Teshima and Inujima – over the past 30+ years have undoubtedly transformed the islands’ landscapes and communities, brought attention to their histories and environmental issues, stimulated the development of infrastructure and transportation links, brought ever-growing numbers of international visitors and boosted local economies.

On Naoshima alone, visitor numbers increased from 36,000 in 1992 to over 720,000 in 2016. Art tourism has offered revitalization opportunities whilst maintaining an approach that is considerate and supportive of the existing cultural identities and traditions. Naoshima has seen an increase in the populations of its Miyanoura and Honmura districts, with more younger people moving to the island, attracted by employment opportunities created by growing visitor numbers, and by a way of life that harmonizes environment, art and community.

Fukutake Sōichirō, Chairman of the Fukutake Foundation, on the lasting legacy of the art islands: “Through the medium of contemporary art with a message for contemporary society, the people who live on the islands and the people who visit can interact with each other. By discovering each other's qualities, I believe that both sides can develop a sound mutual understanding and acceptance.

"I believe that this process will have a positive impact on people living in cities and will help revive regions with declining populations. I hope that this will help to shape a society with well-balanced values that can make the most of the diverse, rich cultural tapestry of regional areas. I would like to propose a new perspective on civilization for the 21st century — one of 'using what exists to create what is to be' — from the Seto Inland Sea to the rest of the world.”