Visit to the islands and closing symposium to celebrate 150 years of Japan-Denmark diplomatic relations

Building on the friendship ties nurtured with Denmark during the 150th anniversary of Japan-Denmark diplomatic relations celebrated throughout 2017, a delegation of esteemed architects, artists, scholars and officials from the Nordic country visited the islands of Naoshima, Inujima and Teshima for three days from October 9th to 11th, with the aim of exchanging perspectives on the potential of nature, art and architecture as agents for regional revitalization. This visit was the opportunity to continue the dialogue initiated through the symposia on the same theme organized in early summer in Copenhagen and Aarhus by the Danish Arts Foundation's Committee for Architecture Grants and Project Funding in cooperation with Benesse Art Site Naoshima, the Danish Architecture Centre, Aarhus School of Architecture, The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts Schools of Architecture, Design and Conservation, and the Agency for Culture and Palaces. The visiting program at Benesse Art Site Naoshima was concluded by a symposium held in Naoshima on October 11th, with keynote lectures by artist Hiroshi Sugimoto and the Mayor of Naoshima Town, Michiru Hamanaka.

Participants to the site-visits in Naoshima, Inujima and Teshima thus had the opportunity to experience first-hand the material reality of the theoretical framework that had been the subject of much stimulating debates in Denmark, not only by encountering the artworks and architectural structures unfolding on the archipelago in their physical context, but also by meeting with the local communities and experiencing the natural environment, landscapes and townscapes forming the matrix of the art site.

Participants from the visiting delegation from Denmark enjoying pizzas freshly baked for them by local residents at Inujima Life Garden

Commenting on their impressions from the visits, many participating lauded the high quality of the art and architecture encountered on the islands, stressing the physically and spiritually uplifting experience of individual works. Johnny Svendborg, architect and former president of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, for example commented that "the Teshima Art Museum by Ryue Nishizawa and Rei Naito is a masterpiece and a unique example of art and architecture united in a congenial manner, an almost religious celebration of nature."

Teshima Art Museum, Rei Naito, Matrix(2010)  Photo:Ken'ichi Suzuki

The proximity with nature, and its programmatic importance and subliming potential was felt very strongly by many of the Danish guests. Arne Høi, Head of the Architecture and Culture Institute at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture, Design and Conservation noted that: "The way nature is an integrated part of architecture and art was an important learning from this visit. This connection to nature is different and more integrated in architecture and culture than what we know in Denmark".

The blending of art and architecture within the specific context of the islands and its potential as a catalyst for regional revitalization was also widely commented. Søren Taaning, artist and chairman of the Danish Arts Foundation's Committee for Visual Arts noted: "I was fascinated by Inujima and the way in which an institution was built that grew together with the life of the small population, and how old and new became bound together. An institution can spread beyond its walls and contribute directly to the surrounding community."

Simon Ostenfeld Pedersen, Associate Professor at Aarhus School of Architecture commented that the combination or art, architecture and nature at Benesse Art Site Naoshima crucially also "preserves, revitalizes and disseminates the cultural heritage [of the islands], strengthening the cultural exchange and the Well-Being for both locals and visitors. "

Group photo with residents of Teshima after sharing a meal and exchanging insights on the island

Commenting on the insular context of the art site, Boris Brorman Jensen, architect and co-commissioner of the Danish Pavilion at the 15th Venice Biennale of Architecture in 2016 furthermore observed that "it is a profoundly inspirational example of the potential of establishing a system of cultural networks outside the established 'cultural-centers'."

Among the highlights of the visits was an introduction to the Naoshima Hall by its architect Hiroshi Sambuichi, who serves as a Goodwill Ambassador for the 150thanniversary celebrations due to his close ties with Denmark. Taking in the complex but seamless structure and architectural concept of this public building, Arne Høi commented that it is a "very fine and inspiring example of interpretations of traditional built heritage and crafts".

Hiroshi Sambuichi presenting the Naoshima Hall to the Danish delegation

After three intense days of walking, breathing and feeling the art, architecture and natural environment of Benesse Art Site Naoshima, the program was concluded by a symposium, aiming to build on the debates held in Denmark, gather impressions from the visiting delegation, and offer new insights from both local and global perspectives.

Entitled "From Naoshima to the World: Exchanging perspectives on Nature, Art, Architecture and Regional Revitalization", the symposium was the occasion of a momentous keynote lecture by Hiroshi Sugimoto, who spoke about the Odawara Art Foundation's Enoura Observatory, which he had unveiled to the public just two days earlier, and how his experimentations for nearly a quarter-century in Naoshima, and in particular his exploration of the medium of architecture, relate to the realization of his own foundation space.

Artist Hiroshi Sugimoto introducing his successive works on Naoshima and the newly opened Odawara Art Foundation's Enoura Observatory to an attentive crowd

From the epoch-making outdoor exhibition of his Seascapes photographs on the terrace of Benesse House Museum, and later directly on cliffs, to his reinterpretation of religious architecture through the prism of art at Go'o Shrine, and then to the creation of a space for the consideration of souls in the basement of Benesse House Park, Sugimoto continued to pursue new challenges beyond the strict frameworks of art, photography or architecture, as his relation to Naoshima grew more intense.

Art House Project "Go'o Shrine", Hiroshi Sugimoto, Appropriate Proportion (2002) Photo: Hiroshi Sugimoto

Shifting to a more regional and pragmatic viewpoint, Mayor Hamanaka then presented the political, geographical and socio-economical context of Naoshima Town, explaining about its strong industrial base, but also the demographic challenges facing the island. He presented how Naoshima Town has been striving to tackle such issues and ensure a bright future for its population through long-standing and visionary policies aiming to ensure the highest standards of education for the island's children and provide an adequate infrastructure in this view. He also described the encounter of the island with art and architecture since the early realizations of architect Kazuhiro Ishii from the 1970s and the inception of Benesse Art Site Naoshima some 30 years ago. The commissioning of such highly-regarded public facilities as the Marine Station "Naoshima" by SANAA demonstrates how the local authorities have embraced Naoshima becoming an island of art, ensuring also that sound infrastructures are in place to welcome the increasing number of visitors to the island. Mr. Hamanaka concluded his speech by insisting on the small-scale merits of a town of the size of Naoshima, and how proximity and close ties between all local actors are key to ensuring a bright future for the island.

The floor was then opened to comments and questions from delegates from Denmark. Johnny Svendborg noted that "while art and architecture can be theoretical, academic or intellectual, to experience how their manifestations can be integrated in nature and have a physical impact on people's lives proved to be a very moving experience". Mogens A. Morgen, Professor at the Aarhus School of Architecture further remarked that "while the boundary between art, architecture and nature can be very thin at Benesse Art Site Naoshima, ongoing exploration into new territories allows to see both the past and the future, but also to sense the future in the past". Participating in the discussion panel, Soichiro Fukutake, Benesse Art Site Naoshima's founder and president, stressed that the true aim of the activities developed in the area for the past 30 years is to "employ art as a medium to revitalize and transform the islands and region for the better".

Kim Herforth Nielsen presenting his conclusive remarks at the symposium

Concluding the symposium, architect Kim Herforth Nielsen, Chairman of the Danish Arts Foundation's Committee for Architecture and Founding Principal of 3XN, emphasized how powerful it can be to use existing structures to tell stories, to bring back the memories of a place and ensure that its history settles there: "Architecture and art can work together and become one. They then become catalysts for the development of entire towns or islands". Akiko Miki, International Artistic Director of Benesse Art Site Naoshima echoed this view by stressing that providing time and space for people to work, interact, experiment and intensify their relations over the long term creates a synergy effect enabling catalytic transformations, a much-needed environment in our troubled age. The directions explored on the islands of the Seto Inland Sea thus also serve as an important stimulus for thinkers and practitioners from Denmark - and around the world - sharing similar concerns and focused on fostering better living environments for the future.

Here is hoping that the ideas and thoughts exchanged between participants from both countries throughout this momentous year will continue to reverberate on the islands of the Seto Inland Sea and the Danish archipelago, and be of inspiration further afield.

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