Naoshima Art Island

This survey of contemporary art museums on Japan’s Naoshima Island was published in Art Monthly issue 393, February, 2016.

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On Sunday 24 June 2014, a man on a pedestrian bridge close to Tokyo’s busy Shinjuku station set himself on fire. This first of two separate self immolation attempts in the city that year was an act of public protest against a proposed constitution change. Prime minister Shinzo Abe sought to switch Japan from a pacifist country, legally barred from entering into military combat unless attacked, to a nation able to launch first strikes and provide military support. The proposed legislation, which has since been passed, would fundamentally alter Japan’s peaceful national identity and for large swathes of the population this was an intolerable act of betrayal. During my time in the country’s capital, thousands were taking to the streets to protest through marches, free concerts, public speeches and standing demonstrations outside parliament. Tokyo was a city abuzz with the energy of dissent. Hundreds of miles away, travelling to my destination across the Seto Inland Sea, things couldn’t have been more different. Naoshima is a small, picturesque, sparsely populated island town, home to site-specific installations, public sculpture, three contemporary art museums designed by Japanese minimalist architect Tadao Ando and a fourth, the ‘Ando museum’, dedicated to him. This fusion of island and art was the brainchild of Soichiro Fukutake, a billionaire businessman who consolidated his inherited personal fortune through Benesse Holdings. According to US business magazine Forbes, the company owns language schools and ‘275 nursing homes throughout Japan’, profits from which, along with a reported $240m of the Fukutake family fortune, are funnelled into the Fukutake Foundation, which supports art projects on the island. Fukutake purportedly composed the name Benesse from the Latin words for ‘well-being’. It corresponds with his vision of Naoshima as an idyllic island getaway that personifies the national identification with peace and harmony, features that many see prime minister Abe as bent on destroying.

With its mountainous topography, all difficult to scale inclines, sharp declines and roads baked by the intense August heat, summer makes Naoshima tricky to cover on foot. But for less than 1,000 Yen (around £5), island visitors can rent electric bikes. Pedalling up into the terrain, you first come to the Chichu Art Museum, a remarkable structure built deep into the island as opposed to rising totemically out of it. Visitors walk down into this gallery, which has no exterior, through a dark angular stairwell – crafted with Ando’s signature untreated concrete slabs – into corridors manned by deferential visitor assistants in white suits (part dental nurse, part lab technician) who seem to hover or else glide across gallery floors. Chichu displays work by only three artists – Walter De Maria, James Turrell and Claude Monet – and Ando has produced purpose-built spaces for each. Not a world-beating triumvirate on paper, but in situ quite astonishing. De Maria’s installation Time/Timeless/No Time, 2014, features a huge, granite orb that rests halfway up a ten-metre wide bank of concrete stairs, surrounded by neat arrangements of three angular mahogany planks covered in gold leaf and positioned close to the walls. In lesser hands this could easily become pure camp spectacle but, at Chichu, art and architecture – the dizzying ceiling height, texturally rich materials and mathematically precise installation – create a deeply reverential and meditative space quite capable of inspiring a sense of awe. Turrell is an artist whose light works reach for noumenal depth but can skirt dangerously close to producing kitsch, quasi-spiritual effects. Again, Chichu’s environment helps to push the work into the desired territory of a plausible ambient mysticism, specifically with Open Field, 2000, a glowing room that, once shoeless visitors step inside, feels an endless blue void.

Because Chichu mostly depends on natural light, the museum corridors are cool and dark, while the galleries are large and bright. This simple differentiation heightens the experience of entering rooms that wash viewers in visual stimulus and the clarity of diffuse radiance. At the entrance to Monet’s space, a brilliant white interior with rounded walls that create an edgeless impression of infinity, there were audible gasps from visitors. The vivid greens and blues in works like Water-Lily Pond, 1915-26, and Water-Lilies, Reflections of Weeping Willows, 191619, burst from canvases that seemed less like flat surfaces than portals to fecund preternatural scenes. What became clear after exiting the gallery is that the dark exterior corridors and bright gallery interiors at Chichu exist in a state of interdependence. That is to say, darkness was as much a contributing factor to the display and reception of Monet’s work as the standard white of the cube, and each space was dependent on the other.

Darkness continued to be a parameter artfully utilised in the Art House Project, a multi-site series featuring six historic houses in which invited artists have created six permanent installations. In the classic essay In Praise of Shadows, an occasionally inspired but also shortsightedly nationalistic, racist and weirdly sexist 1933 text (English translation 1977), Junichio Tanizaki writes of the historic importance and cultivation of darkness, shadow and the colour black in older Japanese domestic interiors. Rather than installing florescent bulbs (now prevalent everywhere else in the country), the artists have worked with this structural feature of the spaces they inhabit. Some fare better than others. At Kodoya house, Tatsuo Miyajima’s trademark LED number counters are submerged in inky water in Sea of Time ’98, 1998, but still feel as banal as watching a digital clock at night. At Minamidera, Turrell’s Backside of the Moon, 1999, a completely dark room in which a single form gradually takes shape as eyes adjust, is an absorbing exploration of black’s lustre, affects (its ability to submerge spectators in a disembodied and unending nothingness) and possible gradations. Shinro Ohtake’s transformation of Haisha (the former home and office of a local dentist) into a single work of art is a Schwittersesque chaos of scrap, steel and the artist’s own paintings, while Hiroshi Senju’s stunning paintings inspired by the Seto Inland Sea cover interior panels of Ishibashi with powerful, abstract vistas that give the impression of waterfalls or waves breaking.

After the singular architectural and aesthetic highs of Chichu and parts of the Art House Project, the star begins to wane on the Naoshima art island venture. The Benesse house museum features work by Dan Flavin, Bruce Nauman and Richard Long, and is, despite Ando’s packaging, essentially a star studded yet depressingly staid private collection of top-tier contemporary art. The Lee Ufan museum is a space dedicated to the eponymous artist whose quiet works carry painterly gestures too scant to take control of their surroundings or hold a spectatorial gaze previously treated to such unforgettable sights. Outside Ando’s museums, riding across the island to site-specific sculptures, I stopped at Yayoi Kusama’s giant spotted pumpkin, watched tourists of all nationalities pose for pictures in front of it and thought, ‘what is this island really for?’

There is always an air of hubristic narcissism about the multimillionaire’s passion for fantasy island building. Richard Branson has one, as does Anita Zabludowicz. In such cases one suspects the real spur for idyllic getaways is distaste for the metropolitan rabble. Still, when Fukutake’s art island project works, it can be an extraordinary and profoundly moving experience, transcendental even. In such moments, the exquisite sensorial trio of art, architecture and island tranquillity threw the fraught atmosphere of Tokyo into sharp relief. In those moments, I understood why citizens might sacrifice their lives to preserve that sense of peace and harmony that is heightened in Naoshima, but diffuse across Japan.

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