Lefty politicians have their own vision of Utopia, and it excludes capitalists like Mr. Soichiro Fukutake. Capitalism is good, Fukutake believes, except for the fact that too many people serve it, and it benefits too few. Capitalism has served him exceedingly well as the owner of Berlitz Language schools and 275 nursing homes. He has left his home land because “Japanese capitalism is excessively materialistic, consumerist”. While he resides in New Zealand today, he has a vision for Japan as well as the resources to construct it.
He envisions communities of happy old people living rich fulfilling lives. He says the elderly should demonstrate by example that life is worth living and ends happily. Mass production and mass consumption are not his solution. He advocates for industrious communities that produce no waste. If this sounds like some plutocrat’s pipe dream, then come to Naoshima .
It is a five square mile island in the Japanese Inland Sea south west of Osaka. It began as a fishin village centuries ago, became industrial waste dump during the county’s boom years, and now, with Fukutake’s help it’s an Art Mecca to the world. Naoshima took a giant step towards art and architectural tourism twenty years ago when this capitalist decided his fellow countrymen were hopelessly and deplorably consumerist. He would fix that problem by introducing a new culture.
He renovated the industrial waste heap of an island into a Shanrgri la of art. First step he engaged Pritzker Prize winning architect Takeo Ando to design three spectacular art museums, an expensive hotel and transform the village. The most dramatic of the three museum became home for five of Fukutake’s own Monet canvases, plus stunning James Turell’s, and Walter De Maria’s displays. His museum is entirely underground, but the galleries are dramatically open to the sky and weather from above.
Following the museums opening, the island went nuts. The public bathhouse got new art work and ceiling painting by world class artist Shinro Ohtake. The village Art House Project converted half a dozen homes into avant-garde exhibits. How avant can you get? Try Minamidera “Back Side of the Moon” house. We entered the house and sat in pitch black silence for 5 minutes. Then we were instructed to feel our way along to a huge wall with only a hint of light images. Frankly, I was lost, disoriented and in danger of falling. I bump into the tourist in front of me and had no idea what was going on. Then I came out. Stimulated? Inspired? More thoughtful? I was more perplexed than peeved but gleefully laughing at the incomprehensible new experience. I’m just a retired fast food restaurant guy passing through and no art critic. What are you supposed to see/feel?
According to guide books, “The Dark Side of the Moon house” was one of six homes in the Art House Project, begun in 1998. Artists bought up empty houses of the village and turn the structures themselves into works of art, weaving in history and memories of the historical period when the buildings were lived in. Going from one of the houses to another, visitors pass through town where everyday life takes place. In the process you not only engaging with the art works but also sense the layers of time and history interwoven in the community. You feel the emotional support these buildings provided to the local people’s lives. Art viewing this way, the tourist brochure continues, acts as a catalyst for interaction between visitors and local residents. The Project has evolved into a new model of community, characterized by positive interaction between urban and rural, young and old, resident and visitor.
You may judge it harshly and ridicule the concept as a pretentious, inaccessible waste of resources. However, on a bright summer day in high season, thousands flock to this Art Shangri la and bring a prosperous renaissance to the old town. Do these visitors see the dawning of a innovative post industrial culture? A futuristic Kyoto?
Visitors are responsive to the fact that this community was once a victim of industrial waste, a town losing population and belief in itself. Today it’s not only restored, prosperous but increasingly a focus of the world’s art scene. They will see a village inhabited with happy elderly people enjoying their days, surrounded with thought provoking art. That was Fukutake’s original dream.
Although a small speck in a big world, not everyone flocks to or even wants this Shangri la. But in less than twenty years the art/architecture concept has spread to neighboring islands. More recently Finland, Brazil and Texas have built similar art tourism sites inspired by Naoshima.
What will Bernie Sanders make of billionaires like this.