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Japan's island of art: a sublime museum experience worthy of pilgrimageLatest News ->

Wed 12 Jan, 2011.

by Paul Cochrane

Viewing art is more often than not an urban activity. Galleries and museums don’t tend to be tucked away in forests or on small islands only accessible by ferry. Indeed, a remote island in Japan’s Inland Sea is not where you would expect to find a gallery devoted to Claude Monet’s Water Lilies series. Nor to be the location of what can only be described as a sublime museum experience.

But a remote location showcasing artistic masterpieces has the air of a pilgrimage about it as well as providing a more relaxed setting to ponder and appreciate the art you have traveled so far to see.

There was certainly a feeling of anticipation in the air as visitors boarded the ferry for the fifteen-minute ride from the mainland, around five hours by train from Tokyo, to the island of Naoshima. This is not a place that is on most visitors’ to-do list when visiting Japan, like including an afternoon to tour the Louvre when in Paris. Naoshima attracts the artistically inclined, whether architecture students staying at youth hostels near the port or well-heeled art aficionados checked in at one of the four hotels run by the Benesse Corporation.

Naoshima Art Island Naoshima Art Island Naoshima Art Island

Naoshima is an island that had a dwindling population as the youth left for the high-tech cities before new life was breathed into it twenty years ago by Benesse – a Japanese correspondence-education and publishing company – which had a growing collection of modern art in need of showcasing.

Established in the early 1990s, the Benesse Art Site Naoshima has evolved from one art museum, the Benesse House Museum, to house a second museum, Chichu, and the Art House Project, where artists transform spaces into artworks while restoring old buildings.

In fitting with its “art island” moniker, works of outdoor art are dotted around the coast, including the giant pumpkin sculptures by Kusama Yayoi that have become symbols of Naoshima. Yayoi’s bright red pumpkin at the fishing port signals the island’s artistic bent, while the yellow pumpkin near the Benesse museum stands in colourful contrast to the rugged coastline and maritime backdrop.

Even the island’s sento – public bath – is a fully functional, if somewhat surreal, art installation designed by Shinro Ohtake called “I love Yu” – a word-play on you and the Japanese word for hot water, yu. On top of the wall separating the men’s and women’s bathing sections is a stuffed Indian elephant, and inside the hot bath are mosaics of film starlets and pearl fishers. Fitted into a coffee table in the changing area is a television screen showing archive footage of topless Japanese women diving for pearls off Naoshima island.

The Benesse House Museum, designed by award-winning architect Tadao Ando, merges two different functions – museum and hotel – in one building, with the art collection open to the public during the day and accessible at any time to hotel guests.

As much a piece of art as the works on display, the museum is set over three floors that utilises natural lighting, minimalism and curves to highlight thirty-eight paintings and other works of art. Set into the side of a hill with a panoramic view of the sea, art work is visible from inside and outside the museum while Tadao’s design fuses nature and architecture to encourage what it means to benesse, Latin for “live well”.

Displaying some of Japan’s best contemporary art, the museums also house work by Jasper Johns, David Hockney, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol and Yukinori Yanagi.

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In an almost cavalier attitude for a museum, the painting on the wall of its restaurant is by Jean Michel Basquiat. Yet when on an art island, if you can visit a museum in the middle of the night and bathe among art, why not eat among art?

To make the journey to Naoshima that more enticing, the Benesse Corporation embarked on a second project in 2004, the Chichu Art Museum. Created to “consider the relationship between nature and human beings”, Chichu holds significant work by the French Impressionist master, Claude Monet (1840–1926), and American artists Walter De Maria (b. 1935) and James Turrell (b. 1943).

In displaying just three artists, Benesse found the right balance that evades so many museums: not enough to experience, or too much art to process – often a problem at large metropolitan museums.

Making this experience possible was architect Tadao’s stubborn refusal to have an exterior design rising out of the ground like some kind of monument. Instead, the architecture is limited to an underground structure of concrete, steel, glass and wood that uses natural light to illuminate passageways and galleries.

Tadao’s minimalist style lets the viewer interact with the sky as the light changes and the clouds move, a theme running throughout the galleries. In the Monet gallery, the overhead natural light and the room’s white colour scheme combine and work together not only to illuminate the five paintings of water lilies, but to almost push the lilies off the canvas and into three-dimensional life.

Turrell’s work fuses with Ando’s design. Open Sky uses LED and Xenon lamps to steer the gaze skywards to consider light as art itself, while Open Field takes the eye to the limits of light and spatial awareness.

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Using fluorescent and neon tube lighting, Turrell lit up a room that is accessed by several broad marble steps within an underground gallery. After visitors have been advised by an attendant to walk slowly forward once inside the low-ceilinged room, the shoe-less visitor inches along in a white light that makes the mind lose the sensory perception of where the room’s walls begin and end. It is an unforgettable example of interactive installation art.

In the subterranean setting, light increases and decreases in proximity to windows, slits and doorways in the spaces between galleries. Time and the cycle of the day are apparent.

De Maria’s Time/Timeless/No Time is a space defined by specific measurements so that an oblong-shaped window in the ceiling causes the work to constantly change from sunrise to sunset. Dominated by a 2.2-metre-diameter sphere and twenty-seven wooden sculptures gilded with gold leaf, the sky is reflected on the dark sphere and moves as the viewer walks around the cavernous room.

Outside the museum, as the visitor enters and leaves, a garden planted with flowers, plants and trees cherished by Monet at his garden in Giverny both introduces – and then confirms – the impression of a museum that is at one with its natural surroundings.

This is a revised and expanded version of two articles that appeared in the Oct/Nov 2010 and Dec/Jan 2010–11 issues of A Magazine (Beirut); it appears in SomethingDark courtesy of the author, Paul Cochrane. For more of Paul’s writing, see his blog at Back in Beirut. For further information on Naoshima art island, visit the Benesse Art Site Naoshima website.

Text copyright © Paul Cochrane 2011. All images copyright © Naoshima Fukutake Art Museum Foundation. All rights reserved.