Mention the name Naoshima in Japan and you'll probably be met with a blank look. It isn't exactly a tourist hot spot for the majority, but that was exactly why I was off to this secluded artists refuge in the Seto inland sea, far away from the concrete jungle and neon landscape of Tokyo. I went to Naoshima in search of solitude, inspiration and surprise. Coming away from the secluded little community nestled away in the Seto inland sea, I wasn't disappointed.
I’m not even off the boat from Takamatsu yet and my attention is already held by the larger of the island’s two colourful Yayoi Kusama pumpkin sculptures. It sits out in front of the comparatively cold, SANAA designed port terminal, a humble, yet precise structure that appears grand in scale compared to the rest of the villages buildings. It makes for a perfect contrast that is reflected throughout the rest of the island.
For my trip to Naoshima, I was expecting a relaxing getaway at least but mostly I was here on an architecture tour and to enjoy the many works of art on display, the number of which were more than enough to keep me captivated for three days.
Day one sees me spending most of my time around the village of Honmura, home to the Naoshima Art House Project and my base for the next three days. On the peak of the hill, right before my descent into town, I stop off at the first of these projects, Haisha, a confused amalgamation of every kind of material you can imagine. It is immersive, claustrophobic and somehow serene at once, but despite its visually striking exterior, it pales in comparison to the rest of the island’s featured installations.
Particularly impressive is the Ando Tadao designed Minamidera, which is home to a naturally impressive James Turrell installation entitled Backside of the Moon, an immersive experience, gradually revealing a painting of light after participants remain in darkness for almost twenty minutes. Less than five minutes on foot from Minamidera, is Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Go’o shrine, a remarkably serene piece that can be appreciated in a purely aesthetic way, but it is a truly immersive work that requires visitors to venture underground to see the full effect of the piece. Light shoots down the glass steps and partially illuminates the under level which is reminiscent of a tomb, a dramatic contrast to the meticulously maintained landscape of the upper level.
Much of my first day is spent fully exploring the Art House project, so on my second day, I jump on my bike, equipped with my camera and sketchbook, and head south, although most of that seems to be spent climbing uphill at a snail’s pace. At least time is on my side, as is the weather. As I finally head downhill, I see Yayoi Kusama’s landmark Naoshima sculpture, the yellow pumpkin that comically looks out over the Seto inland sea and is just a few minutes walk from the Benesse House museum and hotel. The pumpkin is obnoxious, playful and unapologetic and has gone on to become a sort of mascot for the island, instantly recognizable to many familiar with Kusama’s work.
About thirty minutes along the coast by bicycle on the southernmost part of the island lies the Chichu Art Museum, Ando Tadao's construction that is home to the works of just three artists, Walter De Maria, James Turrell and Claude Monet. An aerial view of the museum would reveal a relatively unimposing structure on the island’s landscape, but at ground level, it is anything but. Stark concrete walls contrasted with roofless sections entirely exposed to the elements stir up memories of classic 007 movies. Exploring the museum’s grounds proves to be nothing short of surreal as the staff, all clad in long white with what seems to be a uniform haircut, bow at an almost comically slow pace and I can’t help but chuckle to myself. Every detail is paid attention to and the museum seems to be meticulously controlled, but offers many surprises for first time visitors.
The Minamidera in Honmura is not the only James Turrell piece on the island. The Chichu Art Museum features three works spanning the artist’s career and these perfectly compliment the importance of natural light that Ando Tadao has incorporated. The Turrell Room, which I have had the pleasure of viewing in New York, were the sky is presented as a painting, is world’s away from Walter De Maria’s monumental installation Time / Timeless / No Time, 2004, but both are spaces that offer a meditative experience where architecture and art work as one, inseparable.
An installation of Claude Monet’s water lilies may not be what one would expect from the Chichu Art Museum purely based on its exterior, but when I enter the exhibit, complete with white slippers that are provided by the staff, it all comes together. Illuminated purely by natural light, the paintings evolve on a daily basis and are taken out of what could potentially be a cold and emotionless white cube space. The meticulously laid out white mosaic floor tiles would normally clash against brutal concrete, but normal is not a word that comes to mind when describing this unique museum.
On paper, Naoshima is an extreme clash of two worlds, but one that seems to have found an odd harmony, although the adjustment may have been a reluctant one for many of its inhabitants. I wish I had asked more of the locals how they felt about this architectural storm sweeping through their once unnoticed community, but for me, the art took centre stage and continues to keep me captivated, even if it’s just through my collection of snapshots. Naoshima is the best example I have seen of nature, art and architecture cohabiting together in unison.
Additional information to the images above:
photo 4 © Raneko
photo 11 © Salisasak
photo 16 © Travis Hornung