Two Day Pass

The Inaugural Art Setouchi in Japan and new paintings by Australian Artist Angus Nivison

2-day-pass We spent days on the islands, and between them, crossing the sea in a haze of heat so extreme it turned everything closer to white, water and sky; snatching pockets of time, time in between, transit time; time to rest, recover, people watch, stare at the sea, process what we’d seen. Time to get cool with a Pocari Sweat or Kirin or Black Mountain coffee can or any of about 20 different kinds of drinks from the amazing vending machines. With our trusty marine passes tucked with our Setouchi Art Passports in a plastic sleeve slung across the tegaki tied around our necks. On the ferries, we took the time to relax, being part of something larger. Yes, we were gaijin, and yes, we were inarticulate and felt often (hilariously) clumsy but, like the thousands of Japanese on the festival trail with us, we were art tourists. In the days we were there, we rarely saw other foreigners.


I’d heard of Setouchi – a new triennial art festival on the international scene - a year before, on our first visit to the island of Naoshima. With the help of a Japanese-speaking friend, we’d booked into a local guesthouse near the Miyanoura Port. We slept on futons rolled out on tatami mats on the very top floor. It took us a night and a day to discover the shower (and the beer vending machine in an alcove on the way to the “shawa”) being timid to ask. Our first night, a table of middle-aged Japanese women, dressed in kimono, were laughing, drinking longnecks and tucking into plates of fish and rice in the dining room. They fell silent when we entered, then greeted us happily and soon started up again. I’m sure they were telling ribald jokes. In the morning, we caught the local bus to the Chichu art museum. In the Tadao Ando-designed subterranean building, devoted entirely to large works by Walter de Maria, James Turrell and Claude Monet, we entered an all-white chamber. Natural light flooded in through high skylit windows. We approached (shoeless, across a floor of tumbled Cararra marble) a suite of waterlily paintings; they seemed to float, rather than hang on the walls. Taking in deep lavenders and mauves and blues, emersed in the shifting planes of gorgeous colour, our footfall soundless as we moved about the room, for a time we were the only viewers. It was, and remains, one of the great art experiences of my life.

We returned for Setouchi, travelling with Australian artist Angus Nivison and his wife Caroline on a kind of pilgrimage, curious to experience a festival that spread even beyond the magic of Naoshima onto 6 other disparate islands dotted throughout the Seto Inland Sea. Arriving in late summer, we lobbed straight into the eye of a heatwave.

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In Nivison’s current exhibition at Utopia Art Sydney, a series of seven small drawings – charcoal and acrylic and gesso on paper – titled, collectively, “Two Day Pass” forms a start point for the larger drawings and canvases that follow. The colour palette is subtle, chalky, bleached. Each individual work seems like a bigger painting in miniature. They reference heat haze, whiteout, passage between islands, passage of time. They hook into the vestiges of time past, remnants of industry and community transmogrified into something else, of settlements disbanded, of cultural displacement and physical dislocation; the fertile sea of imagination and memory.


The Seto Inland Sea of Japan is truly exotic, filled with fish found nowhere else in the world. Situated between the main island of Honshu and south island of Shikoku, it is, in turn, littered with other, smaller islands. These were once home to a copper refinery (Inujima), a leprosarium (Oshima), thriving fishing villages (Megajima and Ogijima) and bountiful harvests (Teshima). Those days, for the most part, have gone. Spearheaded by Naoshima’s extraordinary Benesse Corporation, art has filled the gap.

As we travelled between islands, collecting stamps in our art passports, we entered village dwellings transformed into installations. On Naoshima, the home of a wealthy salt merchant now houses Hiroshu Senji’s 15 metre mural The Falls. Another spot where villagers used to gather to play “Go” is strewn with camellia blossoms carved from wood. A structure by Tadoa Ando has been built on the site of a temple to house James Turrell’s spiritual Backside of the Moon. On Megijima, a defunct elementary school and preschool (we saw no children on the islands, and few young people – most have left for the cities and jobs) has been converted into Fukutake House, with exhibitions from galleries in Tokyo, New York, Korea, China, Mexico …. On Teshima, Olafur Eliasson’s Beauty is concealed inside a humble shed. Further along, a small art museum has placed on the shore in a pine grove. It houses Christian Boltanski’s Les Archives du Coeur where you can listen to the amplified pounding of hearts, and record your own heartbeat to become part of the work. Many of the installations are interactive. We entered an abandoned seaweed factory, lay down on a big curved elastic moving net and, strobed with coloured lights and pulsing music, became part of “Swaying with Laver”. At a teahouse footprints mysteriously appeared and disappeared in a stone garden. A few days in, everything seemed like art – from sculptural piles of disused anchors, to a smiling lady tending her vegetable patch gifting us handfuls of figs.


On Inujima, the old copper refinery has been turned into a series of imaginative permanent installations. A poem made solid, with lines of bronze Japanese characters falling like water around an ancient wooden chest. A winding passage through the windowless heart of the building, down a hall of mirrors, the burning sun always at your back. A deconstructed traditional house where walls and doors and furniture fragment and break free from earthly moorings. In the Inujima Concept House, I wrote down a quote by architect Soichiro Futake in my notebook, “When making architecture that has an intellectual relation with the earth, I try to discover value in things wasted, thrown away or abandoned.” This seemed to go to the heart of where we were and what we had seen, to the core of the Benesse Corporation’s philanthropy and to the aim of Setouchi: to breathe new life into the islands, but also to pay homage to the spirit of a place; to be grounded and bear witness and (phoenix like?) to transform.

As Nivison was making those first drawings, he was thinking about time passing, fragments and remnants, schools with no children. By the time he was painting the final canvases in the series, he’d lost a friend to cancer and a massive tsunami had devastated the northeast coast of Japan. Melancholy and loss are poignant themes in Nivison’s work. His homeland (and muse) is the New England region of NSW, grazier country, subject to changing fortunes & capricious weather. In 2002 his large canvas “Remembering Rain” won the Wynne Prize, Australia’s most prestigious for landscape painting. Made during the most extreme drought our continent has seen for a half a century, it is a work suffused with longing. Now, almost a decade on, the Japan series connects indelibly with the artist’s oeuvre of abstracted landscapes - and occasional seascapes - where light burns through a grid of trees or mist shrouded mountains, or gleams as a delicate rose pink blush, or bleeds through sheets of hard rain.

- Susie Burge, all rights reserved

Angus Nivison’s solo exhibition was at
Utopia Art Sydney,


The next Art Setouchi is in 2013. But many of the artworks from the Inaugural Art Setouchi 2010 remain on view during Art Setouchi Summer and Art Setouchi Fall 2011