This article tells about my trip to the Setouchi Triennale in July 2019.
The morning atmosphere at Takamatsu port is effervescent. Visitors from all over the world buy tickets for their ferries and run here and there in search of the right pier for boarding. The smell of the sea in the early morning is energising, but sometimes the wafts of diesel exhaust coming from the ferries override the fresh sea breeze and recall the imminent short cruise.
The ferry from Takamatsu to Ogijima is a slow one: despite the very short distance, it takes 40 minutes, with a stopover in Megijima on the way; but it is also very affordable, at only JPY 510 for the one-way trip.
As the ferry approaches the port, Ogi, the only village on the island, slowly starts to reveal itself. It is a dense cluster of traditional Japanese houses perched on the hill overlooking the harbour. It almost looks like an octopus clinging onto a rock and extending its tentacles down towards the sea. The roofs are so close to each other, almost overlapping; seen from afar the village shows no signs of roads of any sort, except near the disembarking area.
The ferry terminal immediately catches my attention with its flexuous, unusual shape. It is, in fact, one of the works of art created for a previous Triennale that have become a permanent part of the local landscape. It was designed by the Catalan architect Jaume Plensa. At a closer look, the wavy white canopy covering the building is an intricate tangle of randomly intertwined letters and characters from different alphabets.
Not far from the terminal, another art installation has become an integral part of the village and now doubles as a playground for the children of the island. The work reproduces a giant-size takotsubo, an octopus trap. Ogijima is quite famous for octopus fishing, such a fundamental part of their economy, and the art piece wants to honour the close relationship of the islanders with this dweller of the seas.
But there is more. Like most of the smallest Setouchi islands, Ogijima was no exception to the post-war depopulation, with families moving to the mainland in search of better jobs and opportunities for their children. Having a playground attached to this installation is a merry witness to the fact that - thanks to the Setouchi Triennale project - families with children have returned to reside on the island. The pre-school and school were reopened. Recently the first childbirth in decades was celebrated on Ogijima, and this happy event rekindled the fading flame of an ageing community with new purpose and joy of life.
Leaving the harbour area, I made my way to the fishing port, where the most iconic sculpture is located. The Walking Ark, by Keisuke Yamaguchi, is an imaginary creature whose upper part resembles jellyfish but has 4 sets of legs walking towards the sea. The sculpture is oriented toward Iwaki, a city in the Tohoku region that was hit by the 2011 tsunami. As if the creature were trying to establish a connection with the afflicted city.
Leaving the fishing port behind, I made my way to the central part of the village. There, I finally realised why, from the sea, there seemed to be no roads winding up the hill: because there aren’t! At least not in the strict sense of the word!
The houses in Ogi are connected by a tightly-knit network of very narrow alleys and stairways, where the only allowed transportation is your own feet. In some, it may be possible to cycle, perhaps; but locals refrain from doing it, in fear of hurting any passers-by. The alleys are only wide enough to let one or two people walk comfortably; therefore moving around on a bicycle would pose a hazard.
The only other vehicle allowed on these alleys is the so-called onba. Onba are custom-made carts on rubber wheels that the local people use to transport goods up and down the steep and narrow maze of lanes. The local onba factory, where the buggies are manufactured, also doubles as a café and restaurant, where visitors can take a rest from their art wanderings.
I must admit that walking around the alleys of Ogijima was a pleasure in itself, because of the peculiarity of the village. And even more so because a large part of the art installations were hosted inside some of the old, uninhabited or dilapidated houses.
“The Sea Within - The See Within”, by Belgian artist Sarah Westphal takes possession of the former post office. In the dimly lit house, she creates a seascape with video footage of an octopus (here it goes again!) and lights reflecting on a flooded floor.
In “The Space Flower - Dance - Ring”, artist Takeshi Kawashima entirely covered the walls, doors, floor and ceiling of an old house with white paper, and then painstakingly hand-decorated all of the surfaces. A 360-degree immersive installation that transports us into a surreal and dreamlike dimension.
“Akinorium” by Akinori Matsumoto is a shadow theatre and living sculpture where the viewer has to immerse himself in the visual and sound routine created by the artist. At the entrance level of the house, shadows of not yet visible sculptures start to appear. Then, once on the second floor, you find yourself surrounded by all sorts of fantastic machines made of wood and bamboo, creating a symphony of natural sounds and movements around you. It really felt like being in a magical forest where invisible elves and fairies were playing their instruments.
The narrow alleys kept on winding up the hill, and more and more art projects continued to appear. I must admit that of all islands, probably Ogijima was the one with the highest density of memorable installations, making it hard to choose which ones to mention and which to omit. Every work revealed a different perspective on the identity of the island, a different interpretation of space, and a different weltanschauung.
“Sea Vine: On The Shoreline” was probably one of the most ambitious and visionary projects of the 2019 Triennale. The artist created an extensive net of handmade porcelain vines and flowers. These were suspended throughout an empty house through thousands of nearly invisible nylon threads. The ethereal flowers and vines seem to be floating inside the traditional tatami rooms, delivering a sense of frailty and delicate precariousness. As if a sudden gust of wind, or a stomp of a foot, could destroy everything in the blink of an eye. A perfect rendition in contemporary terms of one of the pillars of Japanese philosophy: mono no aware, the empathy for impermanence.
Finally, at the top of the village, after much walking and climbing up steps in the summer heat, I was greeted by the most emotional installation on Ogijima. In the dark of an abandoned storehouse, artist Mayumi Kuri has created “Memory Bottle”. Hundreds of small jars lit up by tiny lights are hanging from the ceiling; every one of them contains a memory of a resident of the island, past or present. Some contain a picture, some others an object, a message, or something casually found on the shore. The result is a very intimate collection of fragments of identities and personal histories of the islanders that I found empathetic and moving.
Ogijima did not let me down. The day trip was so packed with emotions that it will hardly be forgotten. I just wish I had more time to talk to the local people, hear their stories and do with words what the “Memory Bottle” installation did with objects.
Sometimes, the smaller the village, the bigger the stories.
Please make sure you come back to read more stories about my Setouchi Triennale trip, and do not forget to read the previous articles too!