Japan City Guides: Naoshima
Naoshima - A Slowly Made Haven 直島
Monet is the heart of it. That is according to Yuji Akimoto, former director of the Chichu Art Museum on the island of Naoshima. I could feel it.
I was standing on the wide, white floor, made up of 700,000 little 2cm marble cubes, their corners rounded off. They run from in front of to beyond an entryway that perfectly frames a two by six meter impressionist landscape: a pond scattered with lily pads, reflecting trees and sky. It is alive.
The space allowed me to comprehend the size of the work, the depth of it, without being overwhelmed. When I was ready, the space drew me in. The space was made for this Monet - literally. That is how things are done on Naoshima.
How it all began
Naoshima is a very small island in Japan's Seto Inland Sea. (Read about another island in the Seto Inland Sea, Shodoshima.) Once it was home to seafarers and fishermen. Now the northern side is given over to a copper refinery and the southern third is part of the Seto Inland Sea National Park. Until the last decade of the twentieth century, nothing more remarkable than that could be said about it.
But Chikatsugu Miyake, the mayor of Naoshima, had demonstrated his interest in education and the quality of life on the island by spending his time in office trying to improve them for the residents. And when Tetsuhiko Fukutake, founder of a very successful publisher of educational materials, came to Naoshima, he envisioned a place where children from around the world could learn and grow in an unspoiled environment. The international camp that these two opened in 1989 was the beginning of a project that has grown far beyond either of their first imaginings.
Fukutake's son, Soichiro, took over the company after his father's death. Since then the company has changed its name to Benesse (which means "living well") Corporation, and expanded into the areas of health care and child rearing as well as education. On Naoshima the corporation has created and continues to expand the Benesse Art Site Naoshima.
The Chichu Art Museum, built in 2004, is one of the latest additions to the project (managed by the Naoshima Fukutake Art Museum Foundation). As you approach it, through the garden, you may feel an awakening deja vu. Long pools of water lilies stretch out at your feet, surrounded by irises and tulips, backed by stands of bamboo. It is as if you had wondered into the mind of Monet in his late years.
The museum is a collaboration of three artists who have been significant contributors to the art site in Naoshima, and exemplifies its guiding policy: the creation of site specific art. Each space within the museum was created specifically for the experience of a single, permanent work.
The building was designed by the internationally renowned architect, Tadao Ando. Once inside, you will pass by a small plot of long stemmed grass reaching up toward the sunlight spilling in from above. It is there to remind you that, while the entire museum is underground, natural lighting for the exhibits is provided through openings in the roof. A little further on, there is a plot filled with stones, the natural precursors of concrete, Ando's signature building material.
Next you will find the Walter De Maria Space. It is built around a 2.2 meter sphere of highly polished granite. Twenty-seven mahogany sculptures covered with gold leaf reflect in its surface from around the wide hall. Above it, a skylight runs from east to west providing ever changing light. Broad staircases above and below the sphere allow infinite angles of viewing.
James Turrell experiments with optical illusions. In his space are combinations of architectural form, and a combination of projected and ambient light that creates effects of color and substance that truly exist only in the eye (or more accurately, the brain) of the beholder.
You then return to Monet. When you pass through the entrance to the inner chamber of the Claude Monet Space, you will find yourself surrounded by four of his grand scale works from the Water Lilies series, painted for the L'Orangerie Museum in Paris.
Tadao Ando was one of the first to be commissioned in the development of the Benesse Art Site. He designed what is the ultimate experience for visitors there. Now called Benesse House, it was opened in 1992 as the Naoshima Contemporary Art Museum.
From the beginning it was both a museum and a hotel, comprised of exhibit halls, a restaurant, and a structure called "the oval" where guest rooms with views of the sea circumscribe an oval, stone fountain. Benesse House now includes more guest rooms, and an additional museum shop and restaurant.
Guests have the run of the museum until 9:00 pm, but it is best to make at least one visit during regular public hours because some of the exhibits become less striking after the museum is closed to the general public. The Three Chattering Men, for example (who make an appearance in the recent James Bond novel, The Man With the Red Tattoo), become taciturn at night.
Both restaurants at Benesse House are good. In the museum you will experience the combination of exquisite Japanese cuisine and impeccable service. The Terrace Restaurant serves excellent meals in a more relaxed setting with a view not only of the beach, but one of the most senior pieces of artwork on Naoshima: the Pumpkin, by Yayoi Kusama, which has become a definitive feature of the Benesse Art Site experience.
Yayoi Kusama's iconic Pumpkin on Naoshima Island
At the end of the pier between the camp and Benesse House, the bright yellow pumpkin, covered with an intricate pattern of black dots, stands about two meters high. Created by Kusama Yayoi in 1994, it has since that time served as a symbol of the entire project and an inspiration. Over time it has been joined by other pieces integrated with Naoshima's landscape.
Between 1992 and 1995 the museum hosted a number of exhibitions, including one entitled "Out Of Bounds", which spilled out beyond the confines of the building. Showing pieces in the natural surroundings of the island became an impetus toward the formation of the site's policy of gradual development of site specific art.
Today you can find many examples of works unique to Naoshima. One of the more stimulating is the Cultural Melting Bath (see photo at top of article). The Chinese artist, Cai Guo-Qiang placed 36 fluidly shaped stones in an area near the beach in accordance with feng shui, the ancient Chinese study of the flow of energy through the earth. The stones, Cai says, focus the earth's energy on the six-seater hot tub they surround. Parties staying at Benesse House can reserve this particular artwork for one hour periods and adjust the lights and bubbles to suit themselves.
Niki de Sant Phalle Le Banc on Naoshima Island
The principle of site specific art has taken another direction in Naoshima's residential area. Rather than let some of the old and abandoned, traditional houses there be torn down, Benesse Corporation started the Art House Project in 1997.
Artists were commissioned to remodel the insides of houses into site specific art works. The concept of a house for this project has been stretched to include a temple remodeled with an underground chamber and a glass staircase that draws sunlight down into the earth, and a structure built specifically for the project. Designed by Tadao Ando, the latter, called Minamidera, houses another work by James Turrell that explores characteristics of human vision. Near Minamidera you can find, perhaps, the most practical of Ando's works on the island - a public restroom.
In addition to those at the two museums, Benesse Corporation has hosted various exhibitions of contemporary art on Naoshima, and makes an effort to encourage the work of young artists. They award the Benesse Prize every other year, giving a promising artist one million yen and an invitation to visit Naoshima and create a site specific work there. The Standard, held in 2001 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Art Site Project, and Naoshima Standard 2, held in 2006 and 2007, have been the most extensive exhibitions so far. In these, various artists are invited to create works within and around available spaces throughout the populated areas of the island.
It is part of human nature that some of us seek out places of natural harmony to sooth our souls, while others create stimulating environments where none before existed. On Naoshima, the Benesse Corporation continues to bring together both these human tendencies to provide a place that uniquely refreshes and inspires.
The website allows you to create a personal itinerary that you can log into and revise anytime until your arrival date. It also suggests itineraries for one, two, and three day visits. These are invaluable for a first time visitor. The island is small, but the sites are spread out and you should allow enough time to fully appreciate the ones you visit.
Accommodation on the island, outside Benesse House, is limited. There are a few Japanese-style inns or boarding houses. The number of restaurants has increased, but there are still very few relative to the number of visitors to the island, and virtually none are open every day. Credit cards are not accepted outside the Benesse Corporation facilities.
The Art House Project and Chichu Art Museum are usually closed on Mondays and some Tuesdays, and all of the Benesse Corporation facilities are closed for part of the winter. Check the web site for exact dates.
Text and Photos by Alan Wiren
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