Art Interventions on Japanese Islands

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The Setouchi International Art Festival (SIAF), also known as the Setouchi Triennale, attempts to revitalize twelve remote islands with depopulating and aging communities by hosting an international art festival to promote tourism. Citing the presence of more than a million visitors during each festival iteration, SIAF officials and the media have claimed that the festival is a successful model for government policies aimed at community revitalization and tourism, leveraging new cultural assets to draw tourism-related revenue to the islands. At the core of the festival is a network of site-specific installations by renowned artists and architects; the supposedly inextricable link between these attractions and their host communities and environments is a focus of festival marketing efforts. However, the true understanding of the outcomes of artistic interventions within local communities lies in large part on the other side of the art intervention: the destination community’s perspective. After conducting participant observation and mixed-methods fieldwork between SIAF 2016 and SIAF 2019, the author found evidence of cultural conflicts, especially when it comes to the understanding of art. Locals have their own interpretation of the SIAF art—compared by some to a “theme park”—and their own understanding of what constitutes “art”—mainly the natural and cultural landscapes of their communities. This paper argues that SIAF is in danger of becoming merely an exercise in tourism-focused place branding with shallow roots that do not intersect with community foundations. A particular area of concern is the tension between native cultural identities and the authorship of individual artists. Island residents believe that artists should achieve a deeper understanding of the local communities to create artworks that are genuine reflections of those locations.