The Setouchi Triennale, first launched in 2010, is one of Japan’s largest art festivals, featuring more than 100 artworks dotted across 12 islands in the Seto Inland Sea—the body of water that separates Honshu from Shikoku.
Art director Fram Kitagawa is renowned as a pioneer of an anti-urban approach to contemporary art festivals, choosing languishing, post-industrial and rural regions for his roving exhibits. Setouchi’s unique set up provokes cultural discussions about preserving each island in the face of their ageing populations.
With this year’s theme ‘Restoration of the Sea’, Kitagawa tackles a tricky and topical issue: historical amnesia. He pays tribute to the lost ideal of international maritime exchange, harking back to an era in which Asian people from different regions crossed the oceans freely to trade with each other.
‘Since ancient times, Asian people from neighboring countries have crossed the ocean to get to Japan, bringing with them their own culture and set of skills,’ Kitagawa points out. ‘In this way, Japanese culture has been profoundly influenced by the region that surrounds it.’
This Asian art focus is an attempt to rectify this amnesia by reclaiming space for cultural exchange between maritime neighbors, against the backdrop of these symbolic islands. ‘Setouchi has always been keenly conscious of its position within the larger Asian region, and not merely as a domestic Japanese art festival,’ Kitagawa notes. ‘The ongoing Fukutake House project on Shodoshima, for example, invites Asian artists to help to shape and revitalize the local island community through art.’
One new feature this year is the Setouchi Asia Village, which brings together a diverse lineup of traditional Asian art forms, crafts, theater performances and concerts that are being presented alongside the contemporary art installations.
Setouchi is well known for introducing cultural conversations into the pursuit of island hopping. Less known about the festival however is its recent evolution to become a magnet for aspiring young art professionals—who see the Triennale as a valuable experience that’s markedly different from your standard museum or commercial gallery internship.
In addition to Japanese volunteers, Setouchi also attracts a steady stream of foreign volunteers who call themselves the koebi-tai (literally ‘band of little shrimp’) and who hail from destinations such as Taiwan, France, Australia, and the US.
The most significant contingent, however, has been coming from Hong Kong. Initially propelled by institutional sponsors including the University of Hong Kong, the Hong Kong volunteer program is now a credit-bearing joint university initiative based at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts.
For Hongkonger Kahlen Kam, who volunteered this year, walking around the art-filled islands is an adventure unlike any other. ‘[You see] countless houses covered by a carpet of moss; empty buildings and factories—the kind of experience that is hard to acquire elsewhere.’
For Merry Chow, organizer of the Hong Kong student volunteer program this year, the strong bonds with the local community are key. ‘Volunteering at the festival provides keen insight into the relationship between art and communities, and how art might revitalize the aging communities on the islands,’ she says.
Setouchi is also a chance to highlight the region’s other cultural attributes. Architect enthusiasts should add on an extra day or two to explore Shikoku, suggests Kitagawa. ‘Kagawa Prefecture has a long historical connection with several first-rate Japanese architects,’ he explains.
‘Architecture and design fans shouldn’t miss the Kagawa Prefectural Government Hall in Takamatsu, which is one of Kenzo Tange’s early masterpieces; the Marugame Genichiro-Inokuma Museum of Contemporary Art (MIMOCA) designed by Yoshio Taniguchi, and the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum Japan.’
View our gallery to check out some of Setouchi’s featured artwork.