A shadowy figure stands with their back to the camera taking a shot of a light installation shaped like the Japanese imperial flag
Art Base Momoshima
An abandoned elementary school on an isolated island in the Seto Inland Sea, a strange setting one might think, for an art gallery. Particularly on this island, where citrus trees and silence seem to dominate the landscape, far outnumbering the 400 or so residents who still call Momoshima home.

It would have been easy to leave Momoshima to its fate, a similar one faced by many rural locales in Japan, whose young have opted for bright lights, big city living and whose old have been left behind to become older. No bridges connect it to the mainland, it is only accessible by boat; a time capsule of rural Japan, one who’s decline leading Japanese contemporary artist Yukinori Yanagi yearned to halt.

Only a 20 minute ferry from the mainland port town of Onomichi, Yanagi-san renovated a former elementary school and 1950s movie theatre to create ART BASE MOMOSHIMA, a collection of two permanent contemporary art museums and installations featuring his own award-winning works (including The World flag Ant Farm and Wandering Mickey) and exclusive pieces from internationally renowned artists whose works have adorned The Tate Gallery in London and MOMA in New York. Not content with showcasing established works, ART BASE nurtures new talent in up-and-coming artists, supporting them to move into a number of disused houses on the island for their Artist in Residence programmes, ultimately producing special seasonal exhibition pieces for the gallery.

Part of Yukinori Yanagi's World Ant Farm on display at ART BASE Momoshima
ART BASE Momoshima
Part of Yukinori Yanagi's World Ant Farm on display at ART BASE Momoshima
Yukinori Yanagi's words on display at ART BASE Momoshima
Yukinori Yanagi's work on display at ART BASE Momoshima
A repurposed urinal at ART BASE Momoshima

Yanagi-san was born in Fukuoka in 1959 and went on to study in the US, where he was greatly interested in world politics, particularly the turbulent nature of war, the effects of migration, and the profound changes that postwar Japan was subjected to. He is perhaps best known for his work World Flag Ant Farm. The piece, which was recognised in the 1993 Venice Biennale, includes 49 Perspex boxes each containing national flags created from sand. Representing global migration, Yanagi introduced a colony of ants into the boxes, connected by clear tubes, that travel between the flags, the movement of these groups of insects gradually breaking them down. Alongside World Flag Ant Farm there is a similar installation of a series of sand banknotes: two 100 yuan bills, a US$1 bill and a 10,000 Japanese yen bill, also tunnelled through by ants, showing the scars of such movement across the faces of Mao Zedong and George Washington, leaving behind a web of patterns. For Yanagi, currencies and flags are icons of power that separate societies and the ants, the critique of such borders and symbols.

Yukinori Yanagi's work on display at ART BASE Momoshima
An original fuse box in old cinema that now houses a selection of Yukinori Yanagi's light installation pieces
An original Coca-Cola fridge in old cinema that now houses a selection of Yukinori Yanagi's light installation pieces

Setting the tone for the future, ART BASE has forged ahead with a sublime wave of projects that are truly transforming the area into a harmonious celebration of local artisans, ancient traditions, and dynamic modernism. Here they are helping to rejuvenate communities, whilst respecting and restoring dilapidated modern ruins, to create a Japan that is more in touch with its own traditions. Encouraging art tourism to Momoshima activates a circular economy that so far, has staved off any further decline and stimulated an influx of young creatives to this almost-abandoned isle.

Momoshima joins a number of islands in the Seto Inland Sea (the most famous being Naoshima, Teshima and Inujima), which have become home to a thriving contemporary art scene, adapting their secluded shores to house galleries and museums showcasing works by famed architects and artists, the likes of Yayoi Kusama, Tadao Ando, James Turrell, and Walter De Maria to name but a few.

Rachel E T Davies
Rachel E T Davies