Inujima, the Art Island
By A. D. McCormick
Of the thousands of islands in the Seto Inland Sea, a few are vast landscapes of green, punctuated by cities, rivers, and farmland. However, the great majority are little more than forested rocks sticking up from the waves. Inujima is one of those. But the story of this little island is epic, Inujima having gone from a two-household fishing village in the 1700s to a bustling industrial zone with up to 4,000 inhabitants in the early 20th century, before a steep, swift crash emptied it out almost completely. Today only a handful of people are left and they are all very old.
On the other hand, Inujima is a heavily visited island, featuring arguably the most remarkable artwork in the region—and that is saying something. This second life as an art tourism destination has complicated the story of Inujima’s decline, though whether this is for the better is a matter of considerable debate.
Once famed for its white granite, which featured prominently in the construction of castles across feudal Japan, Inujima is most notable now for the result of an ingenious partnership between artist Yukinori Yanagi and architect Hiroshi Sambuichi. Yanagi, a Japanese artist born in 1959, was at the threshold of global art stardom in the 1990s while working in New York, when he abandoned the glare of the mainstream and returned to Japan. The hyper-commercial, gallery-driven contemporary art industry was not for him. He literally drifted for a while, traveling by sailboat along the Seto Inland Sea, before settling on Inujima in 1995. The island was about to blink out of existence, with a few dozen old people, a skeletal factory campus, and hundreds of empty houses. He slowly got to know the people on the island and set up in an abandoned house, where he went to war with the local insects.
The story of Inujima’s art transformation is a complex web of outsize personalities, dueling claims of authorship, and lingering questions about the intent and impact of the project. When Yanagi first considered intervening artistically on the island, it was as a radical response to the art world he had fled a few years prior. He began planning a massive project using the island as both collaborator and canvas. The island would be transformed, but in a way that resonated with the local history. It would be his masterpiece.
Realizing his grand vision required a benefactor, and this benefactor was Soichiro Fukutake, whose Naoshima art interventions were already well underway, and who had collected and promoted Yanagi’s work since the early 1990s. The artist was paired with Sambuichi, an architect nine years his junior with a history of environmentally harmonious projects along the Seto region. Together they converted a large factory building into the spectacular Seirensho Art Museum, which opened in 2008. Visitors flee the sun’s inferno through deceptive passages before confronting a long-dead writer’s home and work disassembled door from wall and word from word; heaven, hell, a massive stone and water, heat and sky, a stark dreamscape trapped in a factory furnace.
Seirensho is a particularly dramatic example of an approach employed across Inujima and the other art islands — pairing artist and architect, the project organizers seek to instigate a profound resonance between two masters, a chord played in the aspirational key of local.
Expensive signature projects like Seirensho are the blockbusters of the Setouchi art experience, but the great majority of the buildings dedicated to art installations are the so-called “art houses,” artist-architect collaborations at residential-building scale. On Inujima, there are several art houses, all designed by Kazuyo Sejima, a noted female architect in a notoriously male-dominated club — particularly in Japan . Along with sculpted glass pavilions, the Inujima art houses feature renovated homes, once lived in but abandoned in the island’s inexorable hollowing-out.
On the official museum website, artistic interventions on Inujima are described as being “based on the concept of ‘[u]sing what exists to create what is to be.’” Readers skeptical of the ambiguity in that phrase are offered reassurances via words like “preserv[ation],” “restoration,” and “heritage.” Calling the scattered art houses “a new form of artistic exhibition,” the museum concludes that “[t]his design allows visitors and artworks, as well as the island's beautiful landscapes, to become completely integrated as one.” Whatever place the dwindling local population has in this vision is not mentioned.
Outside observers have not minced words. While praising Yanagi’s artwork highly, sociologist Adrian Favell, paraphrasing his colleague Julian Worrell, described a situation where “the living population can be ‘replaced’ by a floating population of Japanese art aficionados, who will now see the island preserved as a monument rather than a living community.”
My colleague at Hiroshima University, Meng Qu, recently conducted field research on Inujima, interviewing residents as well as a sampling of the island’s daytime, non-tourist population. (Qu presented his data in an academic article that I edited, and which is currently in press. I summarize it here with permission.) The responses from the island’s elderly residents indicate that, while the museum organizers made efforts to communicate their plans to the locals and explain the artwork, many residents were left with the distinct impression that they had ceded control—or even outright ownership—of their island to the corporation overseeing the artwork. In this sense, the appellation “Art Island” has an almost sinister edge.
Walking around Inujima, one is struck by the close proximity of vastly different environments. Tumbled-down brick factory structures are slowly overtaken by encroaching forest (except where the latter is beaten back by museum groundskeepers). The forest is perforated by small, deep lakes, several of which are still highly toxic from industrial contamination. Stepping out of the forest you are suddenly in the village, most of which is empty, though here again the hand of the groundskeepers can be seen. Small boats bob in the harbor next to a rocky beach. A short walk away, a jarring, massive, tile-mosaic dog’s head protrudes from the side of a house, part of an oddball art project conspicuously absent from the official tourist material. (Inujima means “Dog Island.”) Near this, a lovely garden surrounds a greenhouse, a sort of post-apocalyptic vision of paradise, designed by architect Sejima and maintained by the museum. A granite-block pizza oven is dusted with flour from recent use. Out of sight behind a line of trees, the granite quarry sits mostly idle, a giant white scar on the island’s western end.
Like Naoshima, Inujima cannot be easily summed up in a breath. Yet the diversity of experiences there are not representative of the vitality that Naoshima enjoys. Inujima’s continued decline after more than a decade of intensive arts investment signals that “revitalization,” at least as measured by the people living there, is almost certainly not in the cards. The story of Inujima’s resident community is concluding its final chapter. Whether this matters to those of us who visit is another story.
I am grateful to Adrian Favell, whose research I leaned on heavily in describing the origins of the artwork on Inujima. Thanks also to Meng Qu for permission to summarize part of his still-unpublished fieldwork.