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Friday, Aug. 20, 2010

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Dreamy landscapes: The droplet-shaped Teshima Art Museum, a collaboration between architect Ryue Nishizawa and artist Rei Naito, takes shape amid rice fields high above the Inland Sea. JULIAN WORRALL PHOTO

In search of society's true affluence


Special to The Japan Times

"When I was 40, my father died. When he died, he was working on a project for a children's campground on the island of Naoshima. When I returned from Tokyo to Okayama to lead the family company, I inherited the project. As I lived and worked with the locals, my thinking went through a 180-degree reversal. I realized that my life in Tokyo, which seemed so full, had in fact been impoverished, and everything that was meaningful was right here in the Inland Sea."

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Island philanthopist: Soichiro Fukutake speaks at the opening of the Setouchi International Symposium 2010, on Aug. 6 at Benesse House, Naoshima.

These words were spoken on Hiroshima Day by Soichiro Fukutake, billionaire president of the Benesse Corporation and the general producer of the Setouchi International Art Festival 2010, as he opened the Setouchi International Symposium 2010, a companion event to the festival. This three-day gathering of 40 local and international speakers explored the question "What is true affluence in our society?" and considered ways to revitalize the island's communities in a sustainable and authentic way.

One could be forgiven for regarding the event as an exercise in self- congratulation. It was held on the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Fukutake Science and Culture Foundation, whose patronage of art and architecture has become Fukutake's life work, on the island that bears out the success of his vision. Naoshima, a small island community with a resident population of less than 3,500, now attracts over 400,000 visitors a year, a fifth of whom are foreigners, to commune with contemporary art and the dreamy landscapes of the Seto Inland Sea. The island's economy, once reliant on heavily polluting industry, has diversified to include cultural tourism. In addition to the museums, facilities, and artworks funded directly by Fukutake's philanthropy, tangible evidence of this success can be felt in the pride and spirited enthusiasm with which locals welcome visitors.

But there is no doubting the significance of this achievement, and of the themes that the conference tackled. At a time when China has become the world's factory and Japan is struggling to define a new role for itself, and when the basis of economic growth around the globe is being rethought toward more sustainable formations, the conference set itself the task of thinking through the big questions of what prosperity means, and how culture can take on a core role in sustaining communities. Meanwhile, the festival and its setting provided ample demonstration of possible approaches.

At the heart of the various themes and presentations was an effort to grasp what constitutes the basis of a genuine affluence, and how the connection to local places and communities can contribute to this. Most speakers during the first agenda-setting day agreed that wealth needed to be redefined beyond a narrow obsession with economic growth in conventional terms. Princeton economic historian Harold James noted that the ongoing global crisis precipitated by the Lehman Shock is "not just a crisis of finance, but a crisis of values." This chimed with Fukutake's stated belief that "the objective of economic activity is not money; it is rather the creation of culture, the creation of shared communities. This is the polar opposite of the way that financial capitalism works."

If community and culture depend on developing connections between people, and to the places that sustain them, what could be the basis of these connections in a globalized world of high mobility and fragmented attention?

Approaches to this question formed the basis for four working sessions, held on separate islands on the second day. The basic themes were Art, Sea, Food and Agriculture and Tourism. Of these, it is art, particularly contemporary art and its framing in the form of architecture, that has provided the key element distinguishing Fukutake's vision.

Yasuo Kobayashi, Professor at the University of Tokyo and the coordinator of the Art session, suggested that the critical capacity of art gives it revitalizing energy, noting that "art is a form that is allowed to question. It questions history, the landscape and people."

Fram Kitagawa, the general director of the Setouchi Festival and a close ally of Fukutake, spoke of the power of contemporary art to bring people together and link things that are divided. "Art is a catalyst," he said. It reveals and creates relations between people and landscape, the environment, the past and the future."

Not all contributions followed the hymn sheet so harmoniously. Vito Acconci, a major figure in the New York artworld in the 1960s and '70s and a pioneer of performance art, provided much of the grit that gave the session traction. With impish gravitas, Acconci asked, "How necessary is art anyway? Art relies on a separation between the art and its viewers. It is surrounded by 'Do Not Touch' signs. These say that art is more valuable than people.

"I'm much more interested in participation. Why try to make art do what maybe it cannot do so well, when there are fields that already deal with people as users and sites of everyday life? — namely design and architecture."

Acconci's provocation shed light on the importance of architecture in both sustaining and creating significant places — an awareness evident not only in Fukutake's patronage of distinguished architects such as Tadao Ando, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, and Hiroshi Sambuichi; but also in the attentiveness to the qualities of the traditional buildings and townscapes of the island communities, as seen in the numerous Art House projects set in abandoned houses.

This leads also to the significance of the idea of landscape, as the basis of a community's "world in common," a fertile idea that appeared repeatedly throughout the discussions.

The keywords "connection" and "discovery" were singled out in the summing-up "Setouchi message" as capturing the essential features of both affluence and revitalization. This suggests an attitude of openness and curiosity, characteristics less of an island than of an archipelago.

Perhaps Japan can look to its own archipelago for hints on how to rethink its possibilities as an island nation in the wider world.

Setouchi International Art Festival 2010 runs till Oct. 31. For more information, visit setouchi-artfest.jp/en Julian Worrall is assistant professor of architecture and urban studies at Waseda University's Institute for Advanced Study.

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