Japanese Island as Unlikely Arts Installation
By INGRID K. WILLIAMS
Published: August 26, 2011
ON a chilly night last November on the tiny island of Naoshima in the Seto Inland Sea of southern Japan, I found myself alone in a dark concrete gallery, a sweater pulled over my pajamas. I was staying at the Benesse House Museum, a 10-room hotel set inside a contemporary art museum, on the island’s craggy southern coast, and still battling jet lag. So instead of tossing in bed, I visited the deserted galleries of the museum — guests of the hotel are permitted to wander beyond closing time. Before long, I was transfixed by Bruce Nauman’s art installation, “100 Live and Die,” a neon billboard of flashing phrases.
“CRY AND LIVE,” it read in large, glowing letters. “THINK AND DIE.” “SMILE AND LIVE.”
On my way to bed, I detoured past a whitewashed alphabet by Jasper Johns and the blue hues of a David Hockney swimming pool, the only sound in the galleries the scratching of my hotel slippers on the concrete floor. No guard hovered over Cy Twombly’s scribbles; no tour group blocked Jackson Pollock’s splatters. This was the essential appeal to the Benesse’s unusual hotel-within-a-museum setup: an exhilarating intimacy with art. The museum had been closed for more than an hour when I finally shuffled out of the gallery and crawled into bed.
That accessibility to art is not uncommon on Naoshima, where, thanks in large part to a corporate benefactor, a cultural convergence has been percolating over the past two decades, as museums, art installations, cutting-edge architecture and nature blend in astoundingly novel ways. The result is a sleepy island that has become an unlikely destination for globetrotting art pilgrims.
On that autumn night, I of course could not have known the terror that the following spring held for Japan or how frighteningly prescient some of Mr. Nauman’s glowing commands were. According to Yoshino Kawaura of the Naoshima Fukutake Art Museum Foundation, the area, which is about as far from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant as North Carolina is from New York, was not directly affected by the earthquake, tsunami and resulting rolling blackouts, or increased radiation levels. (Since April, the State Department’s travel alerts for Japan have advised visitors against traveling to destinations only within a 50-mile radius of the stricken nuclear plant on the northeastern coast; Naoshima is over 500 miles south of the plant.)
Still, Naoshima, like all of Japan, suffered a significant drop in foreign tourism after the disaster. At the Benesse House, Naoshima’s only hotel, most reservations in March and April held by foreign guests were canceled.
The island’s intriguing harmony of culture and nature, though, continues to attract Japanese tourists to the island even as foreign visitors are scarce. Overseas travelers, actually, are coming back as well: In May, Rei Namikawa, a representative for the Benesse hotel, wrote in an e-mail that foreign guests have slowly been returning as the crisis wanes, adding that the hotel was fully booked during the Golden Week holidays that straddle April and May.
The emergence of modern art and architecture in this relatively isolated place can be credited to corporate donations from Benesse Corporation, a Japanese company that specializes in test prep and language schools. The company’s chairman, a native of nearby Okayama, is the billionaire art-lover Soichiro Fukutake, whose longstanding support has fueled the transformation of Naoshima and a growing number of surrounding Seto Inland islands, particularly Teshima and Inujima — remote fishing islands with aging populations.
Over about 20 years, Benesse Corporation has financed one project after another. Last year, this accrual of art got a boost from the Setouchi International Art Festival, a 100-day celebration with works from 75 artists distributed among seven islands, including Naoshima. The festival ended on Oct. 31, but many of the featured works remain permanently. Teshima is now home to “Les Archives du Coeur,” an installation of recorded heartbeats by the French artist Christian Boltanski, and the Teshima Art Museum, which houses one work in a water-droplet-shaped structure created by the artist Rei Naito and the architect Ryue Nishizawa, a winner of last year’s Pritzker Architecture Prize.
The construction of the Benesse House Museum in 1992 marked the beginning of a fruitful partnership between Benesse Corporation and another Pritzker winner, the Japanese architect Tadao Ando. To date, he has designed seven structures on the small island, including three museums and the Benesse House Park building, which is studded with museum-worthy pieces.
On Naoshima, another recent addition financed by the corporation is the Lee Ufan Museum, a space wholly dedicated to the work of Mr. Lee, a Korean artist whose meditative works are on display as part of a retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York, running through Sept. 28. The new museum, which opened in June 2010, is the result of collaboration between Mr. Lee and Mr. Ando, whose modern concrete creations have been integral to the evolution of Naoshima’s art scene.
Naoshima, about three square miles in size, supports a population of about 3,300. Local residents have opened a few traditional guesthouses, which provide alternative lodging options to the Benesse hotel, and restaurants, but it is the art that brings visitors, my husband and me included, to the island.
Before my nighttime visit to the Benesse galleries, we had explored the other impressive buildings affiliated with the hotel. We clambered aboard a six-seat monorail that trundles up the wooded hill behind the museum, and discovered another of Mr. Ando’s sleek structures, a six-room hilltop annex called the Oval, which opened in 1995, one of four of the museum’s lodging options. The spare space is anchored by a dramatic black oval pool, and blends seamlessly into the natural surroundings, with tumbling waterfalls and a grassy rooftop lawn with panoramic views.
The next day, a rainy one, we hopped on a mini-bus to Honmura, on the eastern side of the island, where in an innovative effort called the Art House Project, artists have transformed abandoned houses into stand-alone projects that are woven into the fabric of this traditional neighborhood.
One contribution did involve the creation of a new structure. Titled “Minamidera,” the building was designed by Mr. Ando in 1999 to house a work by the American artist James Turrell. The work, “Backside of the Moon,” is an interactive, mind-bending experience for the viewer. (A full explanation would spoil the exhibit’s surprise.)
The artists’ messages are not always easy to decipher. At “Haisha,” the artist Shinro Ohtake has installed a hodgepodge of neon-light pieces and a two-story simulacrum of the Statue of Liberty. At the secluded “Go’o Shrine,” Hiroshi Sugimoto’s work is more straightforward: a glass staircase that descends from an above-ground shrine to a subterranean cave.
The island’s big-ticket draw, though, is Mr. Ando’s Chichu Art Museum. Chichu means “in the ground,” and indeed, the museum, built into a hilltop, is entirely underground, though it doesn’t feel that way to the visitor, thanks to a series of open courtyards and strategic skylights.
On the lowest level of the museum is an installation by the American sculptor Walter De Maria. On the floor above, a set of three progressive works by Mr. Turrell culminates with “Open Sky,” where viewers recline on stone benches to watch the evolving sky framed by the open ceiling; during our visit, raindrops pattered onto the floor.
But the central piece at Chichu will be familiar to most art lovers: one of Claude Monet’s famous large-scale water lily paintings, from the same series that is housed at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris (in 2009, the museum acquired four more, smaller Monet water lily pieces). To enhance the piece, a hazy sunset scene of clouds and willow trees reflected in a pond, the room that houses it features an inlaid floor of die-sized cubes of white Carrara marble and rounded walls that shimmer with natural light from above. And in a loop of life imitating art, a garden modeled on Monet’s own in Giverny has been installed outside the museum.
When the rain finally let up, we set out to find the many other works that are strewn about the island in outdoor installations, creating a sort of scavenger hunt for the visitor. On a densely wooded hill, spindly silver tines twirl above the treetops. At the end of a pier, a jumbo-size, polka-dotted yellow pumpkin squats above the sea. Beside a road, a band of 88 Buddha statues made from industrial slag blur the line between waste and art.
After completing our exploration, my husband and I spent our last evening on the island immersed — literally, as it turned out — in an art facility that is also a Japanese-style public bathhouse, or sento, called Naoshima Bath “I Love Yu.” (A bilingual word play, the name uses the character for “hot water,” which is pronounced “you.”) Opened in 2009, the sento was designed by Mr. Ohtake, the visionary behind the manic “Haisha” house in Honmura. Although many visitors simply snap photos of the bathhouse’s fantastically eclectic facade, fully experiencing this artwork demands active participation.
Once stripped of my notebook, camera and every last stitch of clothing, I soaked in the warm water, absorbed in the piece of art that surrounded me. As with so much of the work on Naoshima, the divisions between art and life simply dissolved.
IF YOU GO
WHAT TO SEE AND DO
The Benesse Foundation’s Web site (benesse-artsite.jp) has detailed information in English about each art site, including admission prices, hours and directions.
WHERE TO STAY
Benesse House (Gotanji; 81-87-892-3223; benesse-artsite.jp) has Western-style rooms in the Museum, Oval, Park and Beach buildings. Rates for two start at 31,185 yen, or about $415, at 75 yen to the dollar, for a double room in the Park building, or 34,650 yen for the Museum.
Staying at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, costs considerably less; the Naoshima Tourism Association lists lodging options at naoshima.net/en.