Rustic stone walls tracing their way up hillsides. Wind-battered buildings, and the wind-battered faces of their inhabitants. Tiny two-man boats, fresh fish caught each day. Boatloads of tourists taking photos, locals hawking overpriced trinkets. A cradle of culture and identity. And more and more, abandoned homes.
I could be describing the condition of many Irish islands, such as the Aran Islands near my home in Galway, but in fact such features are some of the many things I’ve found in common between home and here, on the other side of the world, during a recent trip to the Naoshima Islands in the Seto Inland Sea of south central Japan.
Of course, in many ways the contrast couldn’t be more different; the climate is warmer and less changeable, the vegetation is lush, the steep hillside topography more extreme. These islands are closer to, and surrounded on each side by, the mainland. They historically formed part of an ancient trade route and sustained relatively high populations. Now however, they exhibit traits common to small island populations everywhere – a lack of diversity and choices, limited resources, and dwindling populations.
For the Naoshima archipelago, in addition to the universal condition of declining income from traditional industries like mining and fishing, and young populations being drawn to big cities, there is the additional weight of an overall decline in japanese population as the average age creeps up year after year.
In the early nineties, a plan was set in motion to address this decline using art, architecture and events, based around the Setouchi Art Triennale. The project was initially focussed on the isle of Naoshima, although it now has a presence on all the inhabited islands in the chain.
On Naoshima, large sums were invested in building elaborate Tadao Ando museum complexes, in acquiring important works by artists like Monet, Turrell and De Maria, in commissioning site-specific works by local and international contemporary artists, and in massive upgrades to port and vehicle infrastructure. The impact on the island was immense; economic conditions have improved dramatically with busload after busload of japanese and international tourists arriving everyday. There have been clear cultural benefits too, with many art installations being sited within historically significant buildings that could otherwise have been left to rot.
But the conditions of the Faustian pact to develop Naoshima are also clear. Large chunks of the island are now taken up by museums with incredibly well-manicured lawns, immaculate board-marked concrete, and vast air-conditioned exhibition spaces filled with snaking lines of visitors, paying entry fees for each artwork. Some of the most beautiful parts of the island are now privately owned by restaurants and hotels serving the wealthier art tourists, and one gets the sense that the lifestyle of inhabitants has been altered significantly by this influx of outside capital – in a way that reminded me of my visits to Inis Mór, where local men would find they could make far more money waiting by the pier to drive a yank around the bóithríní, instead of fishing or farming the way they once did.
The next island in the chain, Teshima, is in an earlier stage of what one senses is a less manic development. It so far consists of improvements to infrastructure, site-specific installations, and a couple of sensitive architectural interventions. The Teshima Art Museum is really a single art piece, combining Ryue Nishizawa’s curved concrete gesture with a poetic intervention by Rei Naito into a beautiful commentary on landscape and environment. The Shima Kitchen by Ryo Abe configures local building techniques and materials into a new public space, performance space, and revenue source. Through these interventions and smaller art installations, the influence of the Setouchi festival is still felt, but the sleepy nature of the island and the pace of life has not been greatly affected. In parts of the island less frequented by tourists, the number of vacant houses outnumbers those still inhabited. It remains to be seen if a balance can be struck – there are plans for some very large-scale experimental interventions, but the availability of credit for large projects is not the same as it was twenty years ago.
A final trip took me to Okijima, one of the smaller islands in the chain. While the arts festival has some presence on the island, tourists are a less frequent sight here. Houses on the periphery of the village are mostly abandoned, there has not been a supermarket on the island for several years, only 5 students remain in the primary school, and a land-based internet connection has not yet made it this far. Here, with the smaller population and lack of natural resources, one can really sense the inevitable decline that awaits islands that are unable to retain young people. Out of the three islands I visited, I couldn’t help making the connection with Inis Meáin – piggy-in-the-middle of the Aran Islands – the one least influenced by globalisation and tourism, but also with the least resources and opportunities for growth.
Jane Jacobs, referring to a different context, wrote that cultural buildings are like chess pieces in the urban fabric; their effect is diminished if they are concentrated in one place. They need to be spread around the board in a coordinated fashion to get the maximum benefit. Architecture is permanent, and incorrectly locating museums can have serious opportunity costs. However, the strategy of preceding cultural infrastructure with different scales of events is a smart way to prepare for future investment and, ultimately, quality architecture. Events are something Galway does well, and the Arts Festival and Film Fleadh have led indirectly to two of the best pieces of architecture in the west of Ireland (the Druid Theatre and the Picture Palace, both by Tom de Paor). For the last few years, the “cultural biennial” Drop Everything has been taking place on Inis Oírr, the smallest of the Aran Islands. It is still light on permanent interventions, but it’s current strength is in developing connections between local and international people in the creative industries. It may well be that the seeds of the islands’ future are sown in modest creative gestures like this.