Contemporary Art in Japan and Setouchi Triennale 2016

I have been to Japan five times, mostly in the winter and autumn season, this is the first time I’ve made a visit in the summer only for the purpose of checking out the Setouchi Triennale. At first I thought it is easier to land in Osaka but I was also there to meet my boyfriend. We’ve decided to meet in Tokyo, stayed for one night then the next morning went to take the bullet trains going to Okayama.

We arrived early in Okayama, since we have a full day ahead of us, we’ve decided to leave our things at the hotel and get a train to Uno Port and had lunch there. Time tables in Japan are very accurate. We missed the Setouchi Triennale train but since my boyfriend is fluent in Japanese, the lady at the train station told us we can take another train going to Uno Port. We took the train but we were delayed for 30 minutes. While waiting there we’ve decided that we have to get our timings right so we have enough time touring the other islands. We could’ve booked a hotel in one of the islands or an Airbnb but we’ve decided to just get a hotel in Okayama cause we thought initially it would be more convenient for us to stay in a hotel.

As soon as we arrived Uno Port, we went straight to the visitor’s center to get our passports. After seeing the map and talking to the locals, the timing and the ferry routes are accurate that you have to plan your day in advance to understand exactly where you want to go otherwise, you’ll end up late, tired and confused. We’ve decided to tour Naoshima island first since it’s the easiest to go to. I’m lucky that my boyfriend is used to time tables and meeting deadlines, we never miss.

At the port we’ve decided to go to the closest museum, Chi Chu Museum. We could’ve taken the bus but we were so excited to bike, we’ve rented bikes. I was impressed seeing the museum’s structure which was designed by the famous architect Tadao Ando, that I bought a book signed by Tadao in the museum for my brother as his birthday present. The museum prohibits taking pictures, it was a bit disappointing but the experience was worth it. They have five paintings from the Water Lilies series produced by the great Impressionist painter Claude Monet in his later years can be enjoyed under natural light in the museum. The size of the room, its design and the materials used all were carefully selected to unite the Monet paintings with the surrounding space. An entire art space, containing a sphere 2.2 meters in diameter and 27 gilded wooden geometric forms, was created under the direction of Walter De Maria as an artwork. Viewers experience this space under the natural light coming in from the ceiling, producing dramatic changes in the room’s illumination depending on the hour. James Turrell’s work is also on exhibit. The three artworks on display were selected amongst Turrell’s representative series and span his entire career, enabling visitors to experience the changes in his work throughout the years.
Open Sky is on view during the museum’s regular opening hours, but a special sunset viewing (night program) is also available.

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Red Pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama at the port of Naoshima

We’ve decided to leave early so we can spend some time in Okayama to have dinner. After all, we had a long travel from Tokyo to Okayama to Naoshima. This was the time that we realized that we could’ve stayed at one of the islands or we could’ve rented a car and traveled from one island to another. The only great thing about traveling in Japan is that the trains are very comfortable and most of the time, you can get a good seat.

The second day was like a marathon. I wore workout clothes that day. I was so eager to see the artwork of Oscar Oiwa, so we went to the island of Teshima to see his work first thing in the morning. I was so impressed. We were inside the world’s biggest drawing!

It was satisfying seeing it in person. We went to see more artwork within the island. One of my favorite is the mazes made inside a Japanese home. They called the exhibit Maze Town because there’s a few houses that were converted into a maze, and it’s not far from each other.

It was very humid, we had a few breaks in between. It was an advantage that we’ve rented wireless internet. We were able to get directions to the nearest cafe and nearest places to eat. There are times that we can’t get a signal, we had to search for them on our own. The Japanese are very friendly and accommodating but not many can speak English well. As a visitor, try to learn a few basic phrases to communicate effectively.

We accomplished a lot that day. One of the highlights of our day is the Teshima Art Museum, designed by Tokyo-based architect Ryue Nishizawa. The design is minimalistic and inspiring. The open gallery space features 25cm thick concrete shell with two elliptical openings that serves as windows to the nature surrounding it.  It was peaceful and quiet, we layed on our backs enjoying the serenity and calmness of the space. Later on we had a snack at the cafe.

After the Teshima art museum, we walked about 3 miles to check out installations in what looks like a neighborhood turned into small art spaces. There are a few of the houses that were converted into an art space, totally consumed by the installation alone. I enjoyed the Storm house installation. It was a Japanese home converted into art itself. You sit down and the rest of the surroundings give you the feeling of what it’s like being trapped in a home when a typhoon hits. You’ll feel the cool air and see the rain shower hitting the windows. It was a good experience that even the scent of being in there reminds me of my childhood. Years of staying in, reading while the rain pours, hearing violent thunder and the wind whistling.

The Lemon Hotel was a cheeky and fun installation. It’s where we had the most fun. It was interactive. Aside from using your senses, you have to use your imagination. I was tired that day, I completely lost it when we reached the final installation, the people already closed the installation when it’s not even 5pm. We retired early to go back to Okayama and had dinner at Uno Port.

The next day was a lot easier, we went back again to Naoshima and took the bus this time and walked a few blocks. All of the museum in the island strictly prohibits taking pictures, I only had a few pictures from that day. It was a worthwhile visit especially the architecture of the museums and the views. There are a few installations throughout the islands a few blocks from the port, it can be a worthwhile visit for some. The great thing about all these exhibits is that you are fully immersed in the experience. I find it intriguing and fascinating. If you have a passport, you can mark them off yourself using the stamps provided at the markers. We went home earlier that day, enjoyed a game of sour milk, ice cream and beer before heading back to Okayama.

The island of Shodoshima is one of the biggest island in the group of islands participating in the Triennale. I fully recommend that you get a car so you can visit most of the art work in this island because the artwork is spread out. The most interesting thing about this island is discovering that there are olive trees grown in Japan. I researched that in 1908, the prefectures of Mie, Kagoshima, and Kagawa were charged with the growing of olives. Only one town, in one prefecture, succeeded, Nishimura, on Shodoshima became the olive capital of Japan. The scent of the air is amazing. We had lunch at Cafe Chuzaemon that day. Everything served in the restaurant is locally grown. I was very pleased with it sparked an idea of making my own version of the dish they served. My favorite art installation from the island is the artwork Dream of Olive by the artist Wang Wen Chih from Taiwan. It’s a massive dome constructed from over 4,000 pieces of locally-grown bamboo. The interior becomes a stage on which visitors can wander around. The dome’s presence transforms the feel of the surrounding landscape. We had a brief rest here and went back to the port to return our bikes.

I lost it again in this island, my buttons were definitely pushed because of exhaustion. I biked 16 miles and walked 5 miles that day. It was worse than my military training, but I’m glad I made it at the end of the day. It helped that we had electric bikes with push assist to help us climb steep slopes.

Megijima is an island located in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan, north of the city of Takamatsu, and is part of Kagawa Prefecture. It has a population of about 200, I don’t see many young people here, mostly older people and are retired. There was a summer camp by the beach, after talking to some of the kids, they said they were just there visiting, they don’t live in Megijima. The island is a popular destination in summer because of the public beach and it’s close to Takamatsu City by boat. It reminded me of Palau Ubin in Singapore, a place where I go to have a more feel of nature and to escape the concrete jungle.  The island has been linked to the mythical island Onigashima (“island of ogres“), visited by the folktale character Momotarō. The caves at the top of Washigamine Summit, as the home of the ogres from that story, are a popular tourist spot. There is an observation platform at the peak of Washigamine Summit where one can get a 360 degree view of the Seto Inland Sea. It was so humid in Megijima, there weren’t any trees at the beach. There are a few restaurants offering food but the selection wasn’t so great. The most interesting installation for me in this island is Equipoise and The Presence of Absence by Leandro Erlich. Because of the humidity that day, we thought it’s better to go back to Takamatsu to check out Takamatsu Art gallery, Kenji Yanobe‘s work is on exhibit.

P1030148.jpg We  had to head back to Tokyo on Saturday to meet a few of our friends in Japan. Had an amazing time viewing the art installations featured in the Setouchi Triennale, It was tiring and it took a lot of energy from me viewing one artwork to another. Despite the hurdles and emotional highs and lows, it was definitely worth it. Before leaving Japan, we were able to see two galleries: 2121 Design Sight designed by Tadao Ando and Watari Museum of Contemporary Art.  Both have interesting exhibits which could spark creativity if you’re looking for inspiration.

The contemporary art scene in Japan is definitely one of the best around the world. Seeing the countryside and interacting with locals is another bonus. I hope to see more biennales and triennales in the future, the recent visit to Japan has absolutely exceeded my expectations.

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