It is difficult to know which is more surprising. The presence of a shimmering installation of mirrored glass coiled across the interior of a ramshackle old farm shed. Or the fact that at its entrance sits an unusually fresh-faced young girl with a straw hat and a pair of dungarees – a distinct anomaly in Japan’s ageing rural community where most people are pushing 80.
Azusa Takahashi, 23, is one of nearly 2,000 young volunteers who have been transplanted into the Seto Inland Sea area of Japan for the next 100 days to work on this year’s most adventurous new art event: the Setouchi International Art Festival.
Located where the main islands of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu meet, the region has long suffered the same problems that are replicated across rural Japan: rapidly ageing and depopulated communities struggling to survive in the modern world.
It was with this in mind that Fram Kitagawa, Tokyo gallerist and the festival’s general director, set about launching an event that would combine world-class art with revitalising the neglected island communities.
Forget the minimalist white walls of an inner-city gallery. The event takes rural Japan as its backdrop, with artworks scattered across the rice fields, shrines, beaches, abandoned schools and old farm houses of seven remote fishing islands and Takamatsu port.
A high-profile roll call of 75 artists from 18 countries are involved in the project, ranging from Christian Boltanski and Olafur Eliasson to Tadao Ando and Hiroshi Sugimoto.
Kitagawa pulls out his portable ashtray, lights a cigarette and sits on the ground following a long day of events marking the opening of the festival at Takamatsu port, complete with a sunset taiko drum performance and the release of thousands of bubbles into the night sky.
“I’ve been working on this for two and a half years,” says Kitagawa, who also runs Echigo-Tsumari art festival in Japan’s Niigata mountains. “The Setouchi area used to be the centre of Japan and a very wealthy area. But today, these are rural, depopulated areas and it’s tough for local communities to survive.
“This festival is unique because it takes place on very small islands where the population averages 80 years old and where people would never normally visit.
“It enables artists to tap into the potential of the history, culture and heritage of the islands while local people can finally regain their pride over living on these islands.”
This was in evidence earlier in the day, as I started a whistlestop tour of the islands: from Takahito Kimura’s rows of spinning seagulls and Sanja Saso’s floating metal mesh figures on Megijima to the shrine-side sculptures of Noe Aoki on Teshima island (where the artist cuts me a slice of watermelon washed in fresh shrine water).
But it seems the presence of droves of art-loving young volunteers will perhaps be one of the biggest driving forces in revitalising the fishing islands.
As volunteer Azusa says: “The artworks will hopefully make these rural areas less isolated. More young people are starting to come here already. It’s an exciting time.”